The latest salvo in the “war on women” came from the nation’s largest organization of feminist activists, returning fire — they would say — in the direction of the Catholic Church.
The National Organization for Women released a list of those opposed to the federal contraception mandate called The Dirty 100. This list included Catholic charitable organizations and dioceses across the country. These groups have now filed suit in the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of family businesses that challenged the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate.
This so-called war is not about access to contraception. It is not about discrimination against women. It’s about the basic human right to religious liberty and freedom of conscience. And when it comes to the dignity and well-being of women, the Catholic Church has a long, proud history.
Although he didn’t make The Dirty 100, back when the Obama Administration was making the case for healthcare reform Vice President Biden insisted that, “No religious institution, Catholic or otherwise, including Catholic social services…, any hospital, none has to either refer contraception, none has to pay for contraception, none has to be a vehicle to get contraception in any insurance policy they provide. That’s a fact.”
At the time, his claim seemed plausible. After all, according to Cost Helper Health, the average co-pay for a contraceptive pill-pack is between ten and thirty dollars a month, a price that is not prohibitive for most women.
Beyond that, according to the federal Community Health Center statistics for 2009, there are well over 9,000 “income-based” clinics serving poorer patients in all 50 states, in addition to private and independent health service sites that provide inexpensive contraception across the country.
And, it should be noted, “the pill” is often used to treat other medical conditions, and not for contraception, in which cases the Church accepts such usage. No one’s trying to close off that avenue, either.
But even if contraception were terribly hard to come by, it could not be said that opposing the federal contraception mandate implies gender discrimination. In the Hobby Lobby case, the plaintiffs were two companies co-owned by women. And the first two groups to reach the high court on appeal under that new case law were the Little Sisters of the Poor and a global Catholic television network founded by a woman.
And although they may not see it, N.O.W.’s list is actually premised on paternalistic presuppositions. Supposedly, bosses, who are men, are refusing to pay for the contraception needed by their employees, who are women. In the real world, many bosses are women, and many employees, of either sex, handle such matters privately. They don’t ask their employers to compensate them for contraception.
What’s more, N.O.W. seems to think that fertility is a kind of disability. It shifts the burden for that “affliction” entirely to women. It ignores the simple fact that when there’s a woman who wants to buy contraception, there’s also a man who’s at least partly responsible for the cost incurred. The Dirty 100 casts women as victims beset by a natural defect, in need of government assistance to free them from their fertility.
Whether or not women need more access to contraception, and regardless of whether or not it should be free, the present question is whether forcing religious believers to pay for contraception against their will violates freedom of conscience and defies the universal human right enshrined in the first clause, of the first sentence, of the First Amendment.
Our government may be the most powerful in the world, but no government should have the power to decide which organizations are “religious enough” to qualify for an “accommodation.” No government should judge if a sincerely held religious belief is sufficiently important, reasonable, or worthy of respect. This is what our Founding Fathers believed, and this is what they guarded against in the Bill of Rights.
There are some who attack Christianity in the name of women. But the contributions made by Christianity to the position of women over many centuries are significant and undeniable.
In antiquity, Christians stood out from their pagan neighbors, in part, because they rejected polygamy and divorce in a culture that allowed men to put aside their wives.
In the Middle Ages, the Church stood firm against arranged marriages, insisting on the requirement of a woman’s free consent.
In its final document, released in 1965, the Second Vatican Council reminded the world that public policy should be drafted with the development and dignity of women in mind.
Catholic social teaching inspired much of Europe’s modern legal provisions for the protection of women and children.
It might surprise some to learn that Pope St. John Paul II addressed the following words to the U.N. World Conference on Women in 1995, calling for real equality in every area: “Equal pay for equal work, protection for working mothers, fairness in career advancements, equality of spouses with regard to family rights and the recognition of everything that is part of the rights and duties of citizens in a democratic State.”
Most recently, of course, Pope Francis responded to a question about women’s ordination by pointing out that, “A Church without women would be like the Apostolic College without Mary. The Madonna is more important than the Apostles; the Church herself is feminine, the spouse of Christ, and a mother.”
None of this should come as a surprise. The Church is in an institution that claims Jesus Christ as its founder. Jesus departed radically from the gender bias of His time. He befriended women on the margins of society, worked with women during His teaching and healing ministry, and first entrusted to women some of His most important teachings.
In short, the Church is not at war with anyone. The alleged war on women is a contrived skirmish.
Ideological warriors are taking aim at our nation’s first and most cherished freedom and taking cover behind meek-sounding groups like the National Organization for Women. They resent the role religion plays in our national narrative, dismiss the contributions made by the Church to the common good, and try to bully believers out of the public square.
But we who believe remember our story and celebrate it.
And those who seek to harm women by reducing them to sexual objects will have to get past the Little Sisters of the Poor, Mother Angelica’s television network, and ninety-eight other members of The Dirty 100 to do it.
Rev. Joseph J. Shimek, S.T.L., J.D. works in the office of Milwaukee’s Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki. He can be reached at ShimekJ@int.archmil.org.