Why I Skipped Mass Today: A Practicing Catholic Objects to the Bishops’ Arguments Over Birth Control

A practicing Catholic explains why he skipped a mass that would likely include a bishop’s letter about contraception and a defense of the Catholic Church's political battle over free birth control, and what his family did instead. 

Reproductive health politics are controversial enough, but they are even more so for a family of practicing Catholics. My spouse begged me not to put my name on this, concerned about our son, who is scheduled to receive First Holy Communion in a few months. Certainly, neither of us want him to be hassled, or to have his standing jeopardized because of his parents’ dissent toward an increasingly politicized Church. So please excuse the anonymity of this editorial.

There is a really cool website called Bible Gateway that serves as a Google-style search engine for the Christian Bible. Any visitor can search for key words in 46 languages, and the English options includes 31 different versions representing a wide variety of religious traditions, from the 21st Century King James Version to Young’s Literal Translation. What kind of words can you look up? Anything, really. As a Catholic, my Bible Gateway is set to the New American Standard Bible, the same that is listed on the Vatican’s website. It’s interesting to note that, excluding articles, conjunctions, prepositions and other small words, the most common word in the Bible is Lord (6,726 times) and God is second (4,188 times). I have to admit that I was surprised that Jesus comes up only 990 times, but I am sure it’s a contextual thing.

The word love will get you 484 hits, and the results will direct you to excerpts from Genesis to Revelation. Some are passages you might expect to find, such as Jesus’ repeated instruction to “LOVE your neighbor as yourself” and there are some surprises, such as the rather chilling, “Outside are the dogs and the sorcerers and the immoral persons and the murderers and the idolaters, and everyone who LOVES and practices lying.” (Revelations 22:15). Yikes!

The Bible also talks about the poor quite a bit (148 times). And blessed comes up 290 times. You can find both words together in four separate passages, in the Books of Ruth, Proverbs, Matthew, and Luke. Forgive comes up a lot, too, 114 times. And compassion is mentioned 105 times. If you are looking to draw connections to today’s political issues, you can find 231 mentions of war to inform foreign policy, the rich are mentioned 89 times (and not always in a flattering light, echoing the concerns of the Occupy Wall Street crowd), and environmentalists can find 52 references to gardens! Those embroiled in health care politics can find sick 61 times, often connected to Jesus’ ministry to the health of those in most need.

But you know what word you can’t find in the Bible? Contraception. There is no birth control either. Oh, there are plenty of mentions of birth (118 times), not to mention 15 begots. But there is definitely no contraception.

Nevertheless, reproductive health politics continue to be the centerpiece issue for the Catholic Church in America. And every four years, the Church trades in its megaphone for a set of Spinal Tap amplifiers cranked up to 11, just in time for the presidential election.The last two elections, U.S. bishops admonished Catholic Democratic contenders for their pro-choice positions, refusing Holy Communion to Joe Biden and John Kerry.

But interestingly, no bishop has expressed any public concerns about Holy Communion eligibility for thrice-married Republican candidate Newt Gingrich, nor for Rick Santorum, who has equated people of the same gender who love each other with people who have sex with animals. Santorum’s frequent baiting of Iran into a potential nuclear war is apparently Communion-eligible, too, despite Jesus’ every lesson on how to relate to one’s enemy.

The Catholic Church in America is tolerant of adulterers and warmongers, so long as they are Republican and anti-choice. And so when the issue of contraceptive coverage as part of the Health Care Reform Act came up last week, the Church definitely had something to say. To be fair, the Church has been consistently opposed to contraception for years, though there are notable exceptions. I remember having a conversation with a nun who was administering an HIV- prevention program at a Catholic hospital.  Her program distributed condoms, and I asked her how that was possible. Her reply? “We distribute condoms to prevent HIV. If they happen to prevent anything else, that’s not my responsibility.”

Last week, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops vehemently objected to the provision that required American employers to cover contraceptive services as part of their health care plans. The “conscience exemption” for houses of worship that object to contraception was not enough for the bishops. They also wanted Catholic charities, hospitals, and universities, exempted, too. The White House listened and offered a compromise: these Catholic employers would not be required to pay for contraceptive coverage. Nor would they be required to provide contraceptive referrals for their employees. The costs and responsibilities of arranging contraceptives would fall exclusively on the insurers.

It was a reasonable accommodation, but it wasn’t enough for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. They responded to this olive branch by demanding exemptions for secular employers as well! I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, since my Church often demands that American law follow its teachings, even for non-Catholics. (By the way, olives are mentioned in the Bible 41 times.) 

Knowing that a bishop’s letter about contraception was likely going to accompany mass today, my family and I decided to abstain. What would we do instead? Perhaps we could spend the day reading the Beatitudes, which illustrate and exemplify the core tenets of our faith, and celebrate the poor, the hungry, the thirsty, and the peacemakers. Or, we could reflect on lessons about morality from the Obama Administration’s determination to provide access to health care for everyone in need. Or, we could spend the rest of the day looking up biblical words relevant to those in need of health care coverage, such a needy (51 times), healed (69 times), and death (469 times).

Any of these options would provide lessons more valuable than the one being taught by a Catholic institution bent on winning the next election.