Contraceptives and the Complexities of American Catholicism

There’s word this morning that the Obama Administration plans to announce a compromise on the new HHS regs that require religiously-affiliated entities to cover contraceptives, sterilization, and abortifacients in employee health insurance plans. (When stories start to leak about how the Vice President opposed the regs, you know the White House is in political trouble). It’s not clear what the compromise is, exactly, or whether it will satisfy religious leaders.

For the moment, though, I’d like to focus on something this crisis reveals about American Catholicism. Some proponents of the HHS regs have been shocked at the negative reaction from many American Catholics, large numbers of whom use artificial birth control. Surely Catholics who use artificial birth control should have rallied to the Administration’s side. As Ross Douthat points out in an insightful column, however, religious belief and practice are rarely so clear-cut. One should not, he says,

gloss[] over the complexities of religious faith and practice, which ensure that many Catholics’ relationship to the teachings of their Church is more complicated than a simple “agree or disagree.” There are Catholics who accept the Church’s view on contraception but simply don’t live up to it. There are Catholics who respect the general point of the teaching while questioning its application to every individual case…. There are many American Catholics, as Daniel McCarthy noted in a perceptive interview recently, who are neither devout nor dissidents — Catholics who practice their faith intermittently, drifting away and then being tugged back, without having any particular desire to see its teachings changed to suit their lifestyles. And then there are Catholics (and this is a large category) who do explicitly dissent from Church teaching, but who also don’t want to see secular governments set the rules for what Catholic institutions can and cannot do…. If this issue a matter of conscience only for the “formal hierarchy of the Catholic Church,” then why is the White House taking so much criticism from Catholics with a reputation for disagreeing with the hierarchy — from Commonweal Catholics and National Catholic Reporter Catholics, from famous Catholic liberals like E.J. Dionne and Chris Matthews, Catholic Democrats like Tim Kaine and Bob Casey, Jr., and so on? The answer can’t be that they’re all afraid of the bishops, since we’ve just established that most Catholics don’t agree with the bishops on this issue. Something else is going on here.

“Neither devout nor dissident” — that phrase probably captures the way most people feel, most of the time, about their faith traditions. It surely describes many American Catholics today. When one takes into account the complex social reality of American Catholicism, and the still-profound sense Americans have that government should not interfere with religious conscience, the reaction to the new HHS regs is not too surprising, after all.

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