American Catholics Don’t Blindly Obey the Bishops

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Commentary Contraception

American Catholics Don’t Blindly Obey the Bishops

Amanda Marcotte

Sure, a bunch of Catholic leaders are making a lot of noise about Obama requiring Catholic hospitals and universities to refrain from discriminating against their female employees. But that doesn't mean American Catholics agree.

The full court lobby press from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops against new HHS regulations requiring non-church employers to cover contraception as the preventive care that it is in their insurance plans failed miserably. The bishops didn’t want the regulation in the first place, because they believe they’re entitled to push their ridiculous anti-contraception religious dogma on all women, regardless of whether they share their beliefs. When they lost that battle, they fought for an exception that allowed them to force their religious dogma against contraception on the employees of universities and hospitals who also don’t agree with their religious beliefs. Sensibly, the Obama administration did not grant the exception, following federal tradition of protecting the religious freedom of individual employees over claims from employers that their rights trump those of employees. You can’t cut someone’s salary because they don’t share your religious belief, after all, so why should you be able to cut their benefits?

Having lost the argument on its merits, the new strategy from the bishops and their media enablers is straight up concern trolling. The claim is that by not allowing Catholic-run organizations to impose their views about contraception on their employees who disagree by refusing to cover contraceptives services, Obama has somehow lost the Catholic vote. And gosh, if he wants to get it back, he needs to immediately start allowing anti-choice organizations to discriminate against their own employees and soon.

A whole bunch of white dudes in the press have decided that Obama just doesn’t understand that in a battle between a woman’s individual right to conscience and her employer’s desire to impose its will on her, women’s rights have got to go. (Someone should point out  that contraception is a man’s right, too, since men can get vasectomies.) Mark Shields on PBS Newshour got himself worked up with his great concern that Obama just kissed the Catholic vote away. E.J. Dionne got the vapors, scolding Obama that he must sell women’s rights away to get that precious Catholic vote. To hear these supposed experts talk about it, American Catholics are hardcore fundamentalists, raising broods of a dozen children while bemoaning the end of the Latin mass, and wishing the government would follow the Pope’s orders and ban contraception and abortion.

What is the reality here? Are Catholics, as a group, going to be so upset about getting contraception without a co-pay that they’re going to switch their votes?

Roe has collapsed and Texas is in chaos.

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Don’t count on it. The Catholic vote that is hardcore fundamentalist wasn’t going to back Barack Obama anyway, since at this point they practically believe that he dines on fetuses during state dinners. As for the more liberal Catholics that were looking to vote for Obama, I suspect they’re going to be too grateful for having their contraception covered without a co-pay to spend any time being so mad about it that they switch their vote. Yes, Catholics use contraception, though you wouldn’t know it to hear the hyperventilating. Their contraception use rates are as high as everyone else’s, in fact, with 98 percent of Catholic American women reporting the use of a contraceptive method forbidden by the church at some point in their lives.

No matter how hard you wring your hands, the fact of the matter is that American Catholics aren’t fundamentalist by and large, and they don’t blindly follow Catholic dogma. Catholics for Choice has compiled data from broad-ranging sources including the Centers for Diseae Control and Prevention (CDC), the Guttmacher Institute, and the Pew Forum, among others, and the results are clear: Catholics are nearly indistinguishable from the mainstream of American politics on their views about reproductive rights. In fact, 63 percent of Catholics believe employers should cover contraception as part of their insurance plan. Statistically, mandatory contraception coverage should win the Catholic vote, then, not lose it. Even though many of the people presenting this hand-wringing claim that Obama is sacrificing the Catholic vote are themselves Catholic, they act like they’ve never spent any time around actual Catholics.

There’s also a logic failure here. The kind of Catholics who slavishly believe whatever the conservative bishops tell them were not going to vote for a pro-choice President anyway. How on earth would someone who is okay with abortion rights suddenly pull their vote back because of contraception coverage? It doesn’t fit any model of our political landscape whatsoever.

I don’t know for certain why it’s attractive for so many liberal male pundits to create a false choice between winning the Catholic vote and passing common sense regulation to help the millions of American women—including Catholic women—who could benefit from having no co-pay for their contraception. (It’s obvious why conservative pundits do it; they’re always cruising around looking for a way to screw over women.) It’s possible the liberal pundits live in their own head so much that they didn’t notice that their fellow Catholics are using and supporting contraception use. Maybe they never asked their wives how it is they manage to go years without getting pregnant. It’s a shame to see so many men who don’t seem to have a working understanding of what ordinary Catholics think opining on the Catholic vote.

If I were to venture a guess about what’s going on, it’s a combination of two factors: the desire for drama and the unfortunate tendency in American politics to dumb down complex issues into black and white ones.  The drama of the election seems higher if this mysterious “Catholic vote” is in question, giving pundits more to chew over. Just as importantly, it’s fun for pundits to claim there is such a thing as a “Catholic vote,” as if there’s a single group that follow church dogma without question. Boring statistics that show that there’s no meaningful difference between Catholics and other voters when it comes to reproductive rights leave nothing to talk about, except maybe rehashing the fact that most voters believe that contraception should be available and affordable.

Of course, maybe our punditocracy should say that. It’s gone so long since it’s been pointed out, that the obvious may seem fresh again.