Busted Halo

Vanessa Gonzalez Kraft tries to balance her traditional Mexican-American cultural heritage and Catholic identity, personified by her grandmother La Lupe, with her roles as a young wife and mother.

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February 7th, 2012

The Government’s Attack on Consciences


Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, and President Barack Obama at the White House in 2010. (CNS photo/Reuters)

I voted for President Obama in the 2008 election. Leading up to that election and after it, I’ve fought an uphill battle trying to explain how I could be Catholic and vote for a president that so obviously has pro-choice goals. In my argument, I kept coming back to the USCCB’s statement, “As Catholics we are not single-issue voters. A candidate’s position on a single issue is not sufficient to guarantee a voter’s support.” There are 7 principles of Catholic Social Teaching. When I weighed how many of the principles McCain stood for and how many Obama stood for, my tally was overwhelmingly in favor of Obama. Just to name a few, Obama is in favor of the DREAM Act and more comprehensive immigration reform. Obama wanted to reform healthcare (an issue I have written about at length). Obama’s economic policies were intended to directly help those at the bottom as opposed to using the trickle-down effect. And on and on. Even though Obama is pro-choice, I couldn’t ignore all those other extremely important issues that I agreed with. And even when it came to FOCAor other pro-choice issues, I guess I just didn’t believe that he would rock the boat too much.

Then a couple weeks ago, I read an article in The Wall Street Journal: “Obama Offends the Catholic Left.” I’ll ignore for a second how I hate the terms liberal Catholic and conservative Catholic. The amount of discord and division between Republican Catholics and Democrat Catholics is disgusting, and the disdain that both groups have for one other is just plain depressing since we’re all on the same team. As Catholics we do not fall perfectly in line with either party. But that’s for another post.

The new Department of Health and Human Services ruling has people reeling over how the President could make a move that would obviously anger lots of people, including the Catholic Church. The rule “will require most health insurance plans to cover preventive services for women including recommended contraceptive services without charging a co-pay, co-insurance, or a deductible.” All employers that hire people of different faiths will be required to buy, as part of healthcare coverage for their employees, contraceptive and sterilization services. This means parishes that buy healthcare for their employees wouldn’t have to provide contraceptive services in their insurance plans because most of these employees are all the same faith. However, other Catholic employers like Catholic schools, charities, or hospitals, because they hire people of all religious backgrounds, will be forced to provide these services in their healthcare plans even though it violates one of the church’s basic moral teachings.

I, for one, am not just offended by the recent HHS ruling, but incensed about it. This whole time I’ve constantly had to defend why I support Obama and then he turns around and does this? And it’s not just Catholics that are angry but also non-Catholics who see this ruling as a defiance of conscience protections and an infringement on our Constitutional freedom of religion.

Plenty of people have written about why this ruling is bad and why they disagree (like here and here and here and here and here). That’s not really what I want to talk about. What has upgraded my anger to the level of fuming is how some Catholics have been writing about the decision and the Church.

1. “I am Catholic and I don’t agree with the Church on contraception but I do believe in the principle of conscience protections and I believe in the freedom of religion.”
I get it. Not everyone agrees with everything the Church teaches. But don’t treat the Church like your old Aunt Tilly who you smile at when she is talking to you, but roll your eyes at when you think she’s not looking. The Church is an institution that has wisely guided its flock for thousands of years. It doesn’t just make up its beliefs because a Bishop made a specific decision a long time ago. It uses hundreds of years of thinking, reasoning, and guidance from the Holy Spirit to come to its beliefs. Please don’t dismiss such a central teaching of the Church so easily. And it doesn’t make anyone more apt to agree with the Church about the HHS ruling by being so flippant about it. We don’t need the disclaimer to help get people on our side.

2. “This will not affect the Catholic vote.”
Don’t underestimate Catholics and their ability to get mad. People would have you believe that no one really cares what the Church teaches. If no one cared what the Church taught, then churches would be empty. Catholic schools would all be closed. And there would definitely not be new vocations. My church on Sunday was packed. The school I work at has plenty of students. And in May a new group of seminarians is being ordained to the priesthood. Please don’t be so condescending to presume that Catholics will not mobilize and try to fight this ruling.

3. “Obviously the Bishops don’t trust Catholics to not use the new options that would be added to their healthcare plans.”
This comment is so annoying to me. It is not that the Bishops want to trick people into not using birth control. Some say these Catholic institutions should pay for contraceptive services in their healthcare plan and then just tell their employees not to use it (except in cases of medical necessity). The Bishops getting mad about this is not a sign that they don’t trust people. They don’t want the Church’s money to go toward something that they see as morally wrong. What else could the government require the Church to pay for in their employees’ benefits? Euthanasia? Abortion? The Church knows that people use contraception.  They are not trying to outlaw it; they just don’t want to be a party to it.

This issue is a deal-breaker for me. I can’t continue to follow Obama down this path. I still support the same immigration reform policies and economic policies and such. I don’t regret voting for him in the first place. But I can’t in good conscience vote for someone who would force the Catholic Church to violate its moral teachings so blatantly. Even with the clarification the government issued about the new HHS rule, it still is clear that they don’t understand why the Church and so many others are mad.

In the end, this is an issue that people need to rally around. Giving the Church the option to violate its own conscience or stop providing healthcare for its employees is unconscionable. And there are a lot of people that agree with the Church, whether by being faithful to Church teachings or just agreeing ideologically with the freedom of religion. If all these people came together, it could make a difference. What upsets me is that people on the Church’s side keep saying things that hurt the Church’s credibility. People have the right to disagree with the Church and to voice it, but when we’re all trying to come together and form a united front against a bad ruling, all these asides only cause further division. They are going to weaken the effect that people can have in getting this ruling changed. There are about 80 million Catholics in the United States. All of us united could make a difference.

The Author : Vanessa Gonzalez Kraft
Vanessa, a Notre Dame grad, loves the Catholic Worker Movement, Catholic education, and overbearing Mexican mothers, which she may or may not be. She lives in Austin with her husband and five daughters and is a freelance writer. You can find Vanessa at v.kraft.im or follow Vanessa on Twitter @laluped.
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Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • Malinda

    I think their is a difference in a Church and a Church-affiliated institution. Gage, I imagine the volunteer work your parish does is done as members of the Church, not as a Church-affiliated institution. However, it is still unclear which is why it is good there is a year to do so.
    Of course, all this would be unnecessary if the Church went back in time and took the recommendation of its own committee & acknowledged that contraceptives have a place in a marriage.

  • Eliana

    Thanks for this article and the lively debate! One question I haven’t seen addressed anywhere: what about non-contraceptive uses for oral contraceptives? For example, does the Church also want to be exempt from providing access to the pill which has been used for decades to treat or prevent ovarian cysts, endometriosis, and uterine fibroid tumors, along with many other conditions? I am a little disturbed that this debate has focused SO exclusively on the moral rather than legitimate medical issues.

  • Elizabeth Frederick

    “have a right to” = allowed Deanna.
    Unless you have had an abortion, I don’t think you’re in any position to talk about what a women in that position would do. The decision to have an abortion or not is not something that is taken lightly, and it is intensely personal and the choice of the woman alone. I know.

  • Deanna

    If you refer back to my original post I actually never used the word “allowed” so I don’t know where you got that from.
    It is precisely because I care about women who have been raped or had abortions that I would never, ever condone abortions. Women who have suffered so much do not need more suffering heaped on them. Abortion hurts women. Besides physical side-effects, the emotional, mental and spiritual trauma are devastating.

  • Charlie

    Gage- I’m more worried about what allowing the church to dictate public policy (that affects EVERYONE, not just a religious sect) could snowball into. And, I would consider priesthood a qualification: something that can change. Discrimination applies to what one cannot change about themselves.

    Vanessa- your article here is well-written, but I am baffled as to why a woman would want to allow a bunch of old, white men to dictate what she is/isn’t allowed to do with her body.

    The freedom of religion is not under attack. No one is trying to close any churches. If a church chooses to expand beyond its walls in whatever form: school, charity, business, then those entities are going to be subject to applicable rules and regulations. I already disagree with churches being wholly tax-exempt, now they want to be law-exempt, too?

    If health care allowed for people to opt-out of what they didn’t want to pay for, then what would we end up with? All of our premiums go into the same pool. I don’t approve of the lifestyles of many of my fellow-insured, such as smokers or those who are overweight and obese who eat fast and junk food all the time, but I am forced to cover their ailments which most certainly cost payers more than contraception and other family planning services.

  • Gage Blackwood

    My parish, as an example, serves more people via homeless ministry, food pantry, etc than we have coming to Mass on a Sunday.

    My understanding is since one of three qualifications for exemption (that those that we serve are a majority the same faith tradition as our own) may not hold true, we may not be exempt.

    Same goes for an inner city Catholic elementary school that serves 51% non-Catholics.

    (Granted, my understanding that all the conditions must be true for exemption may be wrong).

    In many of those states, there are other types of exemptions (e.g. the church providing a self-funded insurance operation for example).

    Either way, if the church has to exist under these rules, we will, but we still have the right to protest it.

    My point on women ordination was to point out how far this could go. If a Catholic university (Notre Dame, for example), per their by-laws, required the president to be a priest, could that be challenged as discriminatory?

    The issue happens to be on contraception, but I’m more concerned with what this could snowball into further into the future.

  • Malinda

    The law is not requiring the Church to provide insurance that covers contraceptives when it is acting as a Church. However, when it is a hospital/university/etc. it needs to follow the law. The Church may not like it, however, in 28 States they’ve figured out how to deal with it. And that’s where the Church’s tradition of practacility comes into play.
    And, this is not the same as women ordination. A priest is acting as a minister/leader to Catholics. He may have other roles, i.e. University President, etc. However, his ordination as a priest is to fulfill a very specific role that the Church has decided women are ineligible to fill. However, there is nothing against a women being president of a Catholic school.

  • Elizabeth Frederick

    Where was this “Conscience” of the Church during the decades it protected pedophiles? Oh right, that was about the rights of the men it was protecting.

  • Gage Blackwood

    Malinda – your last line is key. The church’s teachings are against contraception, whether or not you’ve discerned your situation to be serious enough to merit something different.

    This ruling *forces* the church to subsidize birth control through insurance premiums, paid by the church and not only individuals. It removes the freedom of exercise to not subsidize something against the tenets of the church (whether or not those tenets are followed is not the point).

    A rule that required work to be done on the Sabbath wouldn’t matter to many Jewish people who don’t follow that tenet to the letter, but it would impact many who, in light of their conscious, follow it.

    Where is the line to be drawn? The freedom of religion only applies to tenets that a certain percentage of members of that faith practice? No matter your opinion on an exclusively male priesthood, is the next step for the government to require women ordination as a matter of equal opportunity? (ignoring the SCOTUS ruling for the sake of argument).

  • Elizabeth Frederick

    Deanna, you make absolutely no sense at all. Telling a woman they are “allowed” to kill their child? Are you for real? Do you have any idea what it is like to have an abortion? Have you ever been raped? Have you ever been in a situation that was hopeless? Just the fact that you used the term “allowed” shows that you have no clue about this issue at all.

  • Elizabeth Frederick

    An assault on Catholic “religious freedom”??? Give me a break. Shouldn’t that “Catholic religious freedom” be the same for the millions of Catholic women who USE birth control? I thought one of the main teachings of Jesus Christ was to NOT judge! So why does the Catholic Church do NOTHING but judge? If a woman has an abortion or uses birth control, that is between her and God, not her and the Church. And Jesus died for all of our sins. This is a ridiculous, man made rule just trying to keep women barefoot and pregnant and second class citizens, as usual.

  • Malinda

    Vanessa, first I usually enjoy your articles. However, your dismissiveness of my conscience objection to the Church’s ruling on birth control bothers me. The decision I made, primarily for health reasons, is not a result of me thinking of the Church like “my Aunt Tilly”. Rather, it was a conscious decision to do what is right for my family. Plus, the Church did not always so explicitly condemn birth control until last century. And, the Pope did it by going against the majority of theologians on his own committee. While, there is a tradition in the Church of emphasizing the hierachy & obedience, there is also a strong tradition of conscious & freedom.

  • Gage Blackwood

    Adam – This isn’t about businesses run by Catholics. It is about church institutions. If I worked for an institution that was operated by a religious congregation, I would expect that some aspects of their religion would impact me. If I worked at a Jewish school, I wouldn’t expect them to serve pork in the cafeteria just because I’m not Jewish.

    You’re right that a Jewish employer shouldn’t be able to stop an employee from buying pork with their paychecks. The church isn’t asking for that either. In Hawaii, there’s a compromise that allows religious institutions the exemption, but insurance companies can offer supplement plans that provide medical treatments that are not included in the “Catholic” plan.

    If you want to work for a Catholic institution AND want insurance coverage for birth control, you can use your paycheck for that.

    What I don’t understand from the pro-fully-covered-contraception side… so if I need blood control medication to live, I have to pay a copay and a drug detectable. Under the new law/rules, if I want birth control, I should be able to get that with zero cost?

  • Jennifer Schlameuss-Perry

    Good post! I’m one of those Catholics who doesn’t fit in with any party…
    The thing about Parishes not having to buy the insurance that Obama prescribes is wrong, though. The requirements that he puts forth for the institutions that will be exempt from it include that we only minister to people in our own congregation and that the only work we do is teaching the faith. Our St. Vincent de Paul Society, food and goods collections, and other outreach programs (even the Seder we have every couple of years draws members of the Jewish community) serve anyone in our community regardless of faith background. My parish (at which I am employed) does not qualify. Plus, we do have non-Catholics working with us. If this sticks, our parishioners will be forced to bear the burden of paying whatever fines we’re assessed, while I get no insurance because the Church couldn’t supply it. I stand with the Church, even if it means I loose my insurance, but the whole thing is just very, very wrong. To say that a Church only qualifies as a Church if we don’t care for the community is messed up. This bill goes beyond contraception and abortion–it’s trying to re-define Church in a way that no Catholic community could ever live down to.

  • Deanna

    Actually I don’t think you can be pro-abortion and pro-birth control UNLESS you’re a misogynist.
    Telling women that they have a right to kill their children (that their children are not people but property) isn’t that far removed from how women and children were considered chattel by men.
    Telling women that they need to chemically (or physically) alter their healthy bodies in order to have sex, is not about being kind or loving toward women. On the contrary, it is so deeply disrespectful of the personhood of women. Instead of being the most welcoming, intimate, and complete acceptance of another person it becomes merely an opportunity to use someone. Instead of a women’s body being celebrated, her fertility a gift, it becomes something she needs to be ashamed of, something to hide, something unlovable.
    Do not be fooled. Birth control and abortion are not about helping or empowering women. They’re about controlling and dehumanizing them.

  • James

    Is President Obama wrong about this issue? Yes.
    Does that make me want to turn the presidency over to someone who will be wrong about many more issues? No.

  • Adam

    Vanessa, this was a well written article as always. I am just as incensed by this ruling, just on the opposite side. I find it ludicrous that people are against this ruling. Why should any one group (in this case Catholics) be allowed to make policy decisions that affect the lives of non-members?

    Should businesses run by Jehovah’s witnesses be allowed to not cover procedures that require blood transfusions because it goes against their beliefs? Should Muslim or Jewish store owners be allowed to forbid their non-believing employees from purchasing pork with their pay checks? The fact that this argument is being spun as an assault on Catholic religious freedom is insane. It is an attempt to keep Catholic institutions from taking away the freedoms of their non-Catholic employees. Catholics are bound to do what their conscience dictates, they are not bound to dictate the conscience of others.

    And last but not least yes, many people do treat the Church like their great aunt Tilly; because the Church provides no effective forum for Catholics to do otherwise. Without a say in the leadership of the Church lay people are left to pay lip service to the Church policy while quietly doing what they think is right. If lay people had more say in the Church leadership this would be a non-issue, because contraception would be allowed.

    While I hope that an amicable solution might still be found, it seems that this issue might be a breaking point for many people.

  • Elizabeth Frederick

    I meant to say the majority of CATHOLIC women of child bearing age have been using The Pill for decades.

  • Elizabeth Frederick

    You cannot be anti-abortion and anti-birth control, unless you are a misogynist. How can you defend this centuries old rule, when it has been a well known fact that for as long as the Pill has been available, the majority of women of child bearing age have used this type of contraception? The church still enjoys a tax exempt status, yet lends its voice to politics. As an employer, it should receive no exceptions from any other employer. Why does the Catholic Church refuse to join the 21st century when it comes to women’s health issues? And women in general? Why do you think the Catholic Church has had ascending attendance rates in the last few decades? Its all related. I attended 12 years of Catholic school, and I find the continued threat to women’s rights exacerbated by the Catholic Church astounding. If an employer was an arm of the Jehovah Witnesses and they refused to cover any type of blood transfusion or blood based therapy. If an employer can deny health care coverage based on “conscience” its opening up a door that won’t be a good one to have opened. Instead of putting my envelope in the church collection this week, I am sending a check to Planned Parenthood. Because taking care of the poor who can’t afford their own healthcare was one of Jesus’ messages.

  • joe

    this is a great piece, Vanessa. thank you for writing it.

    as a strong Obama supporter and a Catholic i haven’t been sure where i stand with all this but your argument here helps put a lot of things into perspective.

    Catholics should band together and deliver a signed petition to the administration saying if you want our votes in November, get rid of this mandate — and then honestly vote for him if they get rid of it.

    the problem is how many total Catholic votes can Obama really expect? so many in the Church have spoken downright terribly of he and his presidency even before all of this. i’m still of a mind to support him come election time if only to stop the Republicans who typically wear faith for more tactical reasons than anything else.

    it brings me back to that same old question: why can’t we have a political party that is pro-life (in all matters including abortion, war, death penalty, etc.) and supports the very poor.

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