Stop Hiding Behind Politics and Talk Theology: Roman Catholicism and Contraception
In the initial wake of coverage related to the healthcare mandate to cover contraception, media outlets concentrated on “religious communities” opposition to the requirement. From a theological and doctrinal perspective, the only major Christian denomination to oppose use of contraception is the Roman Catholic Church. Other conservative religious leaders chimed in to support what they saw as a crack in the dividing wall between “church and state” (and for some, apocalyptic connections between anything related to women’s health options and abortion). The Church hierarchy, buoyed by media coverage, continues to shape this debate as one of religious freedom and conscience between church and state while ignoring the conscience of the majority of Catholic women (and other non-catholic employees) who use contraception.
As religious scholars, it’s time we bring the focus back to the real issue: Catholic theology and sexual ethics. For over 40 years, the church hierarchy operates as though their teachings on the use of contraception are infallible. They are not! The hierarchy continues its tradition of silencing a majority of the laity and many Roman Catholic theologians and ethicists who have continued to speak out against the teaching since their voices were silenced in 1968.
A bit of history for those not intimately following the Roman Catholic Church, in 1963 as part of the Second Vatican Council, a papal commission appointed by Pope John XXIII was tasked with writing a new statement on marriage. The commission included women and men, laity, theologians, and bishops. After hearing from married couples, women in particular, and deep study of scripture and theology, the commission recommended the church endorse use of contraception. Concerned about this outcome, a new commission comprised of only bishops was appointed. They came to the same conclusion. In a reversal of the entire process, and a silencing of theologically sound wisdom, Pope Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae (1968) reinforcing the church’s teaching ban on contraception and gender complimentarily (women are different, but equal . . . maybe we should argue that based on constitutional insights).
Why do most Catholics cede the conversation to the hierarchy’s focus of religious freedom as opposed to bad theology? My hunch is, most of us have given up! Theologically, we turn to our own conscience. We discern the issue of use of contraception with our partners, in our personal relationship with God through prayer; we weigh the healthcare advice of professionals and the needs of our families. Out of this, most of us choose use of contraception as a moral good in our lives. Most Catholics in the U.S. also support this choice for everyone through healthcare coverage mandates.
In other words, the church hierarchy has lost its credibility on this issue. Many, like me, who have health insurance and are in a gender equitable relationship do not have to worry about the lobbying power (hmmm, wasn’t this about separation of church and state) of the Roman Catholic Church. Not providing contraception coverage via the vast arm of Catholic social service organizations (including health facilities and colleges) harms women, predominantly affecting poor women in the U.S. and globally. It’s time the laity and Catholic theologians move beyond complacency. Let’s bring the conversation back to the theological and ethical issues of contraception, not religious freedom between faith-based organizations and federal law. If nothing else, perhaps we can start with the common ground that protecting women from HIV transmission and maternal mortality is a higher moral good! ( . . . not to mention a less expensive healthcare option.)