Even though Rush Limbaugh apologized to Sandra Fluke, the birth control controversy isn't over. While the Obama administration continues negotiations with Catholic bishops, the New Hampshire House of Representatives passed a law to exempt employers from providing contraception on religious grounds to their employees.
Supporters of this bill -- or of the Marco Rubio bill that went before the Senate recently -- argue this debate is about religious freedom. Chicago Archbishop Cardinal Francis George, for instance, wrote a letter to be read in every Chicago Catholic congregation in which he told his people that: "the Administration seemingly ignored the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, denying to Catholics our Nation's first and most fundamental freedom, that of religious liberty."
But is religious freedom really the issue?
Imagine the following parallel universe: In it, there is a country called the United States. In this country, there are Roman Catholics. These Catholics have hospitals, schools and other organizations, and there is also a thing called health insurance that provides coverage for medicine, hospital visits, and the like. But here's the difference: In this parallel universe, Catholic universities only educate Catholic students and only employ Catholic staff. Catholic hospitals only admit Catholic patients and only hire Catholic doctors and nurses, while Catholic health insurers only cover Catholics.
If that were the case, then yes, this issue would be about religious freedom; it would be about Catholics not getting to exercise their beliefs in their community of believers.
But that's not what's going on here.
Back in our non-parallel universe, we find that Georgetown University has a Jewish Hillel and a Muslim Prayer Room on campus and enrolls a plethora of non-Catholic students. In a crisis, ambulances deliver patients to the nearest hospital, not the one that most closely aligns with their spiritual worldview, and Catholic schools routinely hire non-Catholic teachers, as demonstrated by my Jewish aunt who worked for years at a Catholic school, with the awkward side effect that she now knows the Lord's Prayer by heart.
The issue, then, is really about how Catholics treat non-Catholics. After all, presumably Catholics would not want birth control -- it's all the other folks who do. Which makes this a debate not about religious freedom but about how people of one faith care for those who do not share their beliefs.
One option is that they should maintain that their worldview is more truthful than others and therefore should not be compromised (something academics call the exclusion model). Here, the idea is that since Religion X is true, ideas that conflict with Religion X are false. So to prevent Religion X from enacting its beliefs compromises not only its integrity but also the way God wants the world to be run.
This is the kind of logic that allowed New Hampshire's Republican House Speaker William O'Brien to argue that it is not the Catholic Church's obligation to provide birth control within its various organizations because Catholics do not believe in birth control. Rather, it is employees' obligation not to take jobs with a Catholic employer or to provide for their own birth control if they do not agree with the Church's stance.
It's not rocket science to see how the exclusion model is authoritarian or hierarchical in orientation (it is called exclusion, after all): There is a faith group. That faith group's beliefs are privileged. There is no consultation of others -- in this case, non-Catholic employees, patients, or students, because they, being outside the system, are excluded from it. But imagine, for a moment, that this was not an issue facing employers and employees or universities and students. Imagine, for a second, that this was an elementary school playground where one student was telling another what to believe, how to act.
We would call that bullying.
Imagine it was a marriage where a man told his wife how to behave and penalized her if she did not comply. We would call that abuse.
This model does not work. It doesn't work in schools. It doesn't work in relationships. And as we can see from the rancor between the government and Roman Catholics, it doesn't work there either.
So how to move forward? One thing the Catholic Church could do is to exist more like they do in the parallel universe I described. Catholic institutions could more stridently assert themselves as Catholic, hiring only Catholic employees, admitting only Catholics to hospitals and universities. But in our increasingly diverse country -- and with laws preventing discrimination -- this isn't likely, nor is it healthy. Whether Archbishop Cardinal George or House Speaker O'Brien like it, we live in a country where every religious group is given -- or should be given -- equal regard and equal religious freedom under the Constitution.
So what is the alternative? I can't help but wonder what would happen if Archbishop Cardinal George or House Speaker O'Brien tried to have a non-judgmental conversation with employees and students who use birth control, with women who took emergency contraception as part of rape kit. I think I know what would happen: It wouldn't work. There would be an argument. Rush Limbaugh would make another sensational remark. Late night talk show hosts would order Chinese food and scheme about the comedy that could come from this, periodically rubbing their hands together and issuing maniacal laughs.
Maybe that's because this is the age where internet trolls and caustic sound bytes trump all, and where talk of love and listening is seen as fruffy and too New Age. But sadly, it's love and listening -- not excluding -- that work.
I know this story's ending is unrealistic, and I will not draw it out further by defending the many avenues for finding common ground in our time (i.e. restorative justice or circle processes). Instead, I will simply say that there has to be a better way forward, and perhaps if we were able to really listen -- not to forward our own agenda but with willingness to change -- we might be able to find it.
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