Local Lifestyle

Friday, Feb 24 2012 09:36 AM

VALERIE SCHULTZ: Why is contraception suddenly a big Catholic concern?

By The Bakersfield Californian

We Catholic women are often cast as "less than" by the policies of the religious hierarchy of our church. We are forbidden ordination, and yet we fill the pews, teach the children, run the offices, clean the parish facilities, care for the sick and minister to others in countless ways. We love our church. We trust that the Holy Spirit is moving among us in mysterious ways, and we attend to what is in front of us.

But enough already with the politics. Enough with the posturing about the Obama administration attacking the church, and the hyped-up outrage. This laywoman has a few things to say.

For me it is strange that contraception is suddenly a big Catholic concern. For over 10 years, while our own family was growing, my husband and I taught Natural Family Planning classes at our local parish. The Billings Ovulation Method is a scientifically proven way of charting the menstrual cycle in order to space the births of one's children without artificial contraception. It takes the guesswork out of the old Rhythm Method, and when taught and used correctly, is as effective as the pill in avoiding pregnancy. We used it ourselves, and it works. As Natural Family Planning methods are the only ones that are sanctioned by the Church, you might think that our classes were much in demand, standing- room only. The stark reality is that, in a parish of more than 800 families, we taught about 20 couples in 10 years. Twenty. And not all of them were even Catholic. Despite bulletin blurbs, newsletter articles and weekly announcements, our classes were usually individual tutorials. Judging by our experience, the reported statistic that 98 percent of Catholic couples at some point use artificial birth control rings true.

My point: In over 50 years as a Catholic, I don't think I have ever heard a homily on Natural Family Planning. I have only rarely heard a whisper from the pulpit regarding why the church opposes artificial birth control. Meanwhile, Catholic families have been shrinking, and Catholic spouses have been comfortable in following their consciences in the matter of family planning. And all has seemingly been well.

The ringing response by the Catholic bishops to the Affordable Care Act's stipulation that insured American women be covered for contraception at no cost, therefore, seems disingenuous. It reminds me of the scene in "Casablanca" where Captain Renault closes down the bar and protests to Rick, "I am shocked -- shocked -- to find that gambling is going on in here!" Just then, the captain is handed his winnings. The bishops simply cannot pretend to be shocked that contraception is going on in the lives of American Catholic women.

The face-off, it seems, is between religious freedom and civil rights. Sound familiar? We Catholics are continually thrust into the position that we must choose between our faith and our democracy. But it's a false premise. Decades ago, the first Catholic president eloquently answered the charge that a Catholic president would govern according to the dictates of Rome: "I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act ... I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party's candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me."

Exactly. Thank you, President Kennedy. But the bishops of today might have liked you about as much as they like President Obama. They forget that America is a pluralistic society. It seems to me that the Catholic Church in America is growing ever more concerned with the things of Caesar. First of all, churches are exempt from the obligation to provide contraception at no cost. Second, the president has now given church-affiliated organizations, such as hospitals and universities, a loophole not to pay for any contraception that will still be provided. Third, see the first: Churches are exempt . Why is this not the end of the discussion? Employers, no matter their religion, are legally obligated to offer their employees health insurance. Contraception is part of the deal. Employers need not approve of an employee's medical choices. If church officials are able to refuse coverage of the pill for female employees, a drug that is sometimes prescribed for non-contraceptive health reasons , can a natural-foods store owner who is a committed vegan then refuse to pay for prescriptions to help a carnivorous employee with clogged arteries? The slippery slope has two sides, as do all conflicts.

Thinking adults understand this. They also understand that in a democracy that forbids the establishment of a state religion, the freedom to practice one's religion dictates only to oneself, not to one's employees.

One simple solution would be for the church to support a single-payer health care system: Remove the employer from the equation. Or, if the loud male voices were to articulate the actual teachings of the church as well as they sound their displeasure with an administration they are obviously hell-bent on bringing down, perhaps a huge majority of us Catholic women would not avail ourselves of the contraceptive coverage that is legally ours. Whether we do or not is between us and God.

These are the opinions of Valerie Schultz, not necessarily those of The Californian. Email her at vschultz22@gmail.com.

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