I love protests and have taken part in many of them. My first was picketing in front of Safeway in San Francisco, urging shoppers to support California farm workers and boycott grapes.
But there are real protests and there are phony protests. And one of the phoniest we've ever seen is today's protest by Catholic bishops against the Obama administration's new rules on insurance coverage of contraception.
Judging from the cries of outrage coming from the Catholic hierarchy, you'd think President Obama had shut down Catholic churches, defrocked all priests, sent nuns back to Ireland and dropped an atomic bomb on the Vatican. On every cable news or talk radio show, Obama's accused of trampling on the First Amendment, declaring war on religion, destroying religious freedom and, of course, Catholic-bashing.
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Nonsense. Here's the truth. On Jan. 20, the Department of Health and Human Services, under Secretary Kathleen Sibelius, issued a new rule that insurance policies, as part of their basic package, must offer contraceptive services with no deductible or co-pay. An exception was made for 335,000 churches, missions, or other places of worship where all employees were Catholic or members of any religion which opposed contraception as a matter of faith.
Note: The new ruling does not require Catholic hospitals or clinics to provide birth-control pills or devices. It does not force Catholics to practice contraception. It does not interfere with anyone's religion. It does not prevent priests and bishops from continuing their appalling medieval and widely ignored attempts to convince Catholics that contraception is sinful. It simply says that there can no longer be two kinds of health insurance policies: those that cover contraception and those that don't. All women deserve access to the same health protection. It's up to the individual woman to decide whether to practice contraception or not.
What makes this whole debate so appalling is that, in raising holy hell against Obama, Catholic bishops are being dishonest. They accuse the president of infringing on religious liberty. Yet they fail to acknowledge, for example, that not everybody who works in a Catholic hospital or university is a Catholic – and should not, therefore, be bound by narrow Catholic attitudes toward sex.
Listening to the bishops squeal, you'd also never know that, long before the Obama administration acted, 28 states – including Mitt Romney's home state of Massachusetts and Newt Gingrich's home state of Georgia – had already adopted regulations requiring contraception coverage without co-pay. Eight of those states, by the way, don't even provide an opt-out provision for churches. And you'd certainly never know that many leading Catholic universities – including DePaul University, America's biggest Catholic university – include free contraception coverage as part of their basic health insurance for all employees.
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Let's face it. Here's what's really going on. Ever since Pope Paul VI condemned contraception in his 1968 encyclical letter entitled "Humanae Vitae: On the Regulation of Birth," the Catholic Church has been fighting a losing battle. Today, even though the Church is officially against it, 98 percent of Catholic women who are sexually active say they practice some form of birth control, this according to a new report from the Guttmacher Institute. So now, by demanding government permission to deny contraception coverage in their own health plans, what Catholic bishops are really trying to do is get President Obama to deliver where they have failed. And that's not his job. His priority is to protect women's health, not to enforce some outdated, anachronistic and unrealistic policy of an out-of-touch, celibate Catholic hierarchy.
And that's the real issue. Not Catholic teaching. Not religious freedom. But women's health. Guttmacher found that 58 percent of women who use birth control do so, not just to prevent pregnancy, but for other important health reasons, like reducing the risk of ovarian cancer or treating uterine fibroid tumors and anemia.
As a former Catholic seminarian, what I don't understand is the bishops' obsession with sex. Yes, the Church is (wrongly) against contraception. But the Church is also against the death penalty. Why don't the bishops raise a stink about that? And the Church was opposed to the Iraq war. Why didn't they condemn George W. Bush for bombing a country that did not attack us first? Why do they only get their episcopal panties in a twist when it comes to sex?
No, this is not a case of President Obama trying to interfere with religious freedom. This is a case of Catholic bishops trying to force their narrow views about sex on everybody else.