HHS-Religious Freedom Battle Yields Unexpected Rewards

Obama administration might not have anticipated it, but fight over ‘contraception mandate’ has given Pope Paul VI’s teaching new life.

Archbishop-designate William Lori
Archbishop-designate William Lori (photo: Archdiocese of Baltimore)

WASHINGTON — Could there possibly be a silver lining in the federal contraception-mandate controversy?

For all the institutional disruption, political spin and vitriol generated by the mandate’s supporters, who have mischaracterized the bishops’ stance as a “war on women,” the crisis has yielded some unexpected fruits. Not only has it aroused the “sleeping giant” of Catholicism in the United States, prompting an energetic defense of the free exercise of cherished institutions, it has provoked a fresh assessment of Church teaching on contraception.

“The main issue remains that of religious liberty. But this whole episode has provided a catechetical opportunity to speak about the Church’s teaching on the sanctity of life in its origins,” observed Archbishop-designate William Lori of Baltimore, the chairman of the Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “Contraception has been touted as the best possible thing for women and society, while our experience over the past 40-plus years suggests the opposite.”

“There is a new opening,” noted the outgoing bishop of Bridgeport, Conn. And while an increasingly toxic sexual culture has helped provoke a broader reassessment, young Catholics also have been inspired by Blessed John Paul II’s theology of the body, which offers a deeply hopeful vision of human life and love amid a culture that has witnessed declining rates of marriage and a rise in non-marital births.

Not only are priests, in their Sunday homilies, offering a defense of Humanae Vitae (On the Regulation of Birth), but the controversy has forced the media to provide a forum for Church teaching that has been ridiculed throughout the globe.

This week, Politico posted commentary by Lila Rose, the founder of the pro-life group Live Action. Rose affirmed the First Amendment rights of religious institutions to resist a federal mandate that forces them to cover health services that violate their moral teachings.

Then she countered partisan efforts to frame Catholic teaching as an attack on women’s fundamental rights, rejecting the suggestion that American women uniformly sought increased access to contraception.

Speaking for a new generation that has adopted a more skeptical view of feminist ideology, she stated, “We are women for whom the idea of artificial birth control as ‘preventive care’ is deeply insulting.”

“We don’t wish to take the country back in time; rather, we aspire to move it forward, beyond a time when women are treated as objects and pitted against their children and their religious institutions — and toward a time when truly emancipated women embrace their intrinsic dignity and, with it, their authentic womanhood,” said Rose.

Unexpectedly, the headlines have even prompted some self-identified Catholic institutions to reassess the inclusion of contraception in their health plans. This week, Ohio’s Xavier University announced that it would discontinue its coverage of birth control for employees; Xavier’s Jesuit president cited the mandate debate as the catalyst for the policy shift.

Meanwhile, Catholic universities have begun sponsoring forums on the issue, drawing academics and activists like Lila Rose, and stirring a rich discussion about the Catholic vision of human love and sexuality among students.

During one recent Catholic University of America panel discussion, Margaret McCarthy, a theology professor at the university’s John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, linked the religious-freedom debate with modern efforts to characterize Catholic sexual ethics as an unreasonable body of teaching that could result in the repression of human freedom.

McCarthy suggested that the debate about the mandate provided a window into two competing visions of human flourishing. One understanding was shaped by Catholic moral theology, enriched by Blessed John Paul II’s theology of the body.

The second was a more modern, materialist understanding that equated human happiness with autonomy from relationships that bound the individual to a spouse and children. The human body, with its generative capacity, challenged this ethos of autonomy, and contraception was thus endorsed as a necessity for human flourishing.

Today, the demand for expanded access to birth control and sterilization underscores the power of this flawed, yet entrenched understanding of human fulfillment. However, McCarthy also noted a number of sociological studies that charted rising levels of unhappiness, especially among women who expressed feelings of “deprivation.”

“The Church, in its teaching on contraception, is making a claim to standing with our humanity and its happiness,” said McCarthy.

During the discussion following the panel presentations, students and young professionals asked for more detailed explanations of Humanae Vitae and natural family planning. Their questions signaled a surprising openness to Catholic teaching, in light of the undisputed cultural problem of alienation and sexual irresponsibility.

Helen Alvare, a pro-life leader and family law professor at George Mason University, said she has witnessed a similar shift in Catholic attitudes toward Church teaching in recent months.

“Women are ready to have this conversation. Who would guess that it would take over four decades of experience to get there?” she said. “The question of what they choose to do becomes very interesting when there are virtually no limits; and yet they still would like to be married at some point, or have some time to devote to their children.”

Alvare and Kim Daniels, a lawyer and mother of six, crafted a petition for women who endorsed the U.S. bishops’ stance on the HHS mandate. So far, 25,000 women have signed the petition.

“These women are living every kind of life imaginable. They have achieved freedom and equality, but it wasn’t divorcing sex from babies that gave it to them,” said Alvare, who believes the debate has already exposed the limits of ’70s-style feminist ideology.

Richard Doerflinger, the U.S. bishops’ chief lobbyist on life issues, agreed that younger Catholics appear more willing to set aside the received wisdom of previous generations and take a fresh look at Pope Paul VI’s encyclical.

“In the ’60s and ’70s, there was relatively little discussion about the merits of the teaching. It ended up as an argument about whether the Church could teach on this issue authoritatively — in the face of an irresistible new cultural wave promoting contraception.”

“Now, we have a whole new generation that doesn’t have that baggage and might be willing to look at the teaching on its merits,” said Doerflinger, who has served at the bishops’ conference for 31 years.

Has the HHS contraception mandate actually provided a new opportunity to promote a widely ridiculed but misunderstood Church teaching?

Archbishop-designate Lori appeared to have reached this conclusion.  And Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York recently signaled that the crisis has already resulted in a measure of soul searching at the highest levels of the Church leadership.

In a March 30 interview, Cardinal Dolan admitted that the “tsunami of dissent” greeting Humanae Vitae led many Church leaders to soft-pedal its teaching.  He confessed that he was among those who “forfeited the chance to be a coherent moral voice when it comes to one of the more burning issues of the day.”

Now, the HHS mandate has given Paul VI’s prescient teaching new life. The Obama administration didn’t anticipate this particular outcome, but the state of affairs calls to mind Blessed John Paul II’s oft-repeated observation: “There are no coincidences.”

Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.