In the January 25, 2012 First Things A Time for Catholic Action and Catholic Voices, Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles argues against the recent HHS mandate that every U.S. employer must provide health insurance coverage for birth control, sterilization, and even abortion-causing drugs. As of this writing 145 Bishops have also made excellent similar statements. One recurring theme I find in these articles is expressed by Bishop Gomez when he states: “But the issues here go far beyond contraception and far beyond the liberties of the Catholic Church.” He goes on to argue for our national identity and a true notion of freedom of religion.
His arguments are good ones, and I, like many Catholics, am thrilled to see the bishops making such strong statements on the issues. Nonetheless, I do want to raise one simple question, not as a challenge, but as a way to bolster the cause: Why downplay the question of contraception? Why not seize this moment to engage the culture with boldness on the issue? Pope Benedict, quoted by Bishop Gomez, urged the US Bishops just days before the HHS ruling that the presentation of “a convincing articulation of the Christian vision of man and society” is “a primary task of the Church in your country.” Does not this very moment represent the proverbial “teaching moment”? The entire country has just now had the idea jostled about in their minds that the Catholic Church thinks something about contraception; and I might add, it may be the first time in a while that Catholics have thought of it as well. St. Peter urges, “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope.” (1 Pt 3:15). In contrast, Thomas Merton warned, in No Man is an Island, that “One of the moral diseases we communicate to one another in society comes from huddling together in the pale light of an insufficient answer to a question we are afraid to ask.” At this moment will we take the route urged by St. Peter and Pope Benedict or the route predicted by Thomas Merton?
Furthermore, a main argument against the Bishops goes that the Catholic view is a religious position, and since many employees at Catholic hospitals and universities are not Catholic, those employees’ insurance should cover their contraception. As used in that argument the term “religious” implies the meaning “irrational.” And so, if the Bishops grant the point that it is exclusively a religious reason and move directly to questions of national identity, this will be perceived as a tacit acceptance by the Bishops of the hidden premise that to oppose contraception is irrational.
The reasons for Church teaching on procreation are well-founded and full of common sense, and now is the moment to explain them to fellow Catholics who may be foggy on the issue, as well as to those non-Catholics whose ears are currently perked up. Will we as a Church (Bishops, priests and laity) use this moment not only to assert our view that contraception is immoral, but also to explain the reasons? Or will we remain silent, skirting the real issue at hand?
For those who want to take the former path, there are very many solid resources out there for making the case philosophically. My own modest contribution to this effort is here.