Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Not over yet...

...not even close.

The heated debate over the January 20th HHS Contraceptive coverage mandate goes on.  The "compromise" offered by the Obama administration last Friday (which invokes some of the cloudiest thinking I've encountered in a long, long time) doesn't seem to be satisfying anyone.  Our Catholic Bishops have renewed their opposition to what they still see as a violation of constitutionally protected religious liberty.  And in an interesting piece on NPR this morning, it seems that even the insurance industry is feeling a bit put out by this most recent policy adjustment.

If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, you can call it a swan all you want...but no one will believe you.

As I tried to highlight on Sunday, what's at stake here is much, much more than who's going to pay for a few pills and prophylactics used in the privacy of one's bedroom.  (Of course, I can't help but question just what sickness contraceptives--as essential "health care"--are prescribed to cure.  When did fertility become a disease?)  The working definition of "religion" behind these policies wants to limit it's sphere of influence to what happens within the cozy confines of four church walls.  That, however, is not at all how I read the Gospels.

A petition has been posted on the White House website, asking that the mandate be rescinded.  (An earlier one drew nearly 30,000 signatures--more than another which supported the opposing view.)  Send a message to President Obama and sign it.  (I'm #1,338.)  And if you haven't already, be sure to contact your representatives in Congress, too.  Make your voice heard!

The Caesars of old believed themselves divine, and thus deserving of unquestioning allegiance.  The first Christians gave their lives because they saw things differently.  Might history be repeating itself?


Kim said...

I've been talking with the in laws about this issue. We were wondering if the Catholic Church provides coverage for vasectomy or if the insurance companies they use provides them?
A seperate issue would be coverage for Viagra type drugs- do they cover that?

Fr. Joe said...

There's no single "Catholic insurance policy" issued by every diocese, parish, or Catholic institution in the country, so the specifics of what's covered (e.g. certain drugs) will vary. So I can only speak from principles. Vasectomies would be counter to Catholic moral teaching, but Viagra wold not.

The basic line of demarcation is whether or not something interferes with the natural, God-given purposes of sex (loving, stable union of husband/wife AND procreation) or not. The same criteria is used for various forms of sexual activity (e.g. homosexual activity cannot make a baby) or methods of infertility treatment (e.g. IVF doesn't unite spouses).

This is not to say that every single instance of sexual intercourse must have the express purpose of getting pregnant (e.g. a couple past its childbearing years)...but it must be open to the possibility (let's not forget Abraham and Sarah). That's why the Church is OK with Natural Family Planning, allowing couples to have a "family plan"--but one that requires self control rather than drugs and surgeries, that works with the way God made us rather than against it.

The principles are actually pretty simple. It's our modern relationship with sex that's gotten oh-so-complex.

muffin24 said...

but what about those women ( I am including myself in this) who would have and already have a hard time getting pregnant. Would it be okay to use drugs to help them. I wonder if insurance companies would help those who do want to start a family, but have to use methods other than sex to get pregnant.

Fr. Joe said...

It's the same basic principle here, too: the Church is OK with those treatments which assist the process of getting pregnant the "natural" way (that is, by means of marital sexual intercourse), but not with those things that replace it. So, for example, medications which help to boost a woman's fertility would be acceptable, while IVF (in vitro fertilization) would not be. Children are a gift from God, to be received with gratitude...not a right granted by law or insurance policy, to be obtained by any means, at any cost.

One of the clearest signs of our modern sexual schizophrenia is that both infertility and fertility are now considered things which need to be medically treated!

Again, the basic operating principle is that there is a natural order to this world and how it works--one given it by God at its creation. When we try to understand and work with that natural order, we're good; when we try to work around it (or think we can somehow do better), then we get into trouble.

muffin24 said...

Yes I agree, its just sad to see those who can get pregnant have abortions and those women who do want children cant have them for what ever reason and then for the government to pass a bill that says that insurance companies have to provide for these types of things just disgusts me.

Kim said...

It's hard for me to side with the church on this at this time. After reading some, I discovered some Catholic organizations currently cover some of these contraceptive methods. One example:

If this issue was as important as the Church is currently making it, wouldn't there be a standard set of items allowed to be covered (or not) already in place, everywhere, as a matter of principal? For the argument that the current compromise allowing insurance companies to foot the bill is unacceptable to be credible, shouldn’t the church have already consistently been using companies that don’t provide these methods at all? As they say, voting with Church dollars to uphold their stance. Given the primary climate, to my cynical political point of view, it seems as if the church is another Super PAC in this case. The current compromise allows the church to stay true to its convictions from it's past action.

As to your point that procreation and sex are a matter of self control- if that is the specific sin targeted, shouldn’t Type II diabetes meds be denied for those who cannot control their gluttony and get the disease as a result? I realize babies are not diseases; however to follow your argument, it is a consequence of the sin of indulgence.
In addition, some contraception is used for health benefit in order to get pregnant. Sounds counter intuitive, but the pill can be helpful to regulate the gal and when she comes off it, there is increased chance of conception. There are other women's health issues besides contraception that the pill can address as well. And let’s not leave out the condom and the prevention of STD’s that could result in sterility.

Approving of Viagra to ‘help us work with the way God made us’ disregards the idea that he made some men unable to procreate. This too is his natural order that we then mess with. And we do mess with it every day. Modern science has allowed us to prolong life and recover from simple infections that 100 years ago would have killed. God can do and does great things all the time. Women conceive despite taking birth control and men conceive despite being told they are sterile. God’s hand will work when he deems fit despite man’s feeble attempt to thwart it.

It seems to me that individuals who know they would not be good parents or could not provide for more children are making the right decision to use birth control to prevent more severe sin against the child in the long term.

I do applaud you for taking this message of integrity, purity and holiness to your congregation regularly. Not every Priest is as bold or consistent as you. And, as you know well, not every Catholic is in the pew to hear it.

I suspect I, like the rest of the nation, will continue to wrestle with this issue. Seems we can make even the most innocent of life’s joys- babies- complicated!

Fr. Joe said...

[This reply will be in segments because of its length. This is both a complex and immensely important subject for which sound bites simply won’t do.]

Sorry about the delayed response…weekends (as you might guess) are a little busy in my world, and I wanted to have enough time to give this some thought.

I have to say first that this feels like the old days, Kim, when we’d have great discussions about religion back in high school. It’s nice to be able to engage in an adult, respectful debate!

(1) You make reference to some Catholic organizations already providing contraceptive coverage. I can’t be sure what’s happening in all the many corners of the U.S. Catholic world. One must remember that the Church is not monolithic. As in any large organization of human beings, not everybody is going to think and/or act in lockstep with the “party line.”

(2) That said…there are already state health insurance mandates which may be behind some of this contraceptive coverage. Many Catholic entities have been able to work around these by going “self-insured.” The state regulations seem to (generally) include more conscience protections. What’s different about the current federal plan is the religious exemptions are far narrower, while the required coverage is far broader, specifically including (I understand) abortifacient (“morning after”) drugs. (I’ve only got so much time for research…but you can read more about it here: Hence, this is why the Church is making such a fuss now. This federal issue goes farther than earlier state mandates (about which--I personally remember--a big Catholic fuss was made here in NYS several years ago). The timing of it all (during primary season) was not by the Church’s choice.

Fr. Joe said...

(3) You use gluttony as a parallel example to regulating sexual appetites with self-control. An important point to remember is that not all overeating is gluttony. Gluttony is a sin, and sin requires intention. People overeat for lots and lots of reasons (stress, addictions, to be polite toward their hosts, etc.), but it’s not always sinful. Type II Diabetes (whatever its cause in a particular case) is a pathology—something’s gone wrong with the normal workings of the human body. Contraception’s purpose is always to foil something that’s working just as it should.

(4) Now, to different uses of The Pill. As a female hormonal treatment, this drug has multiple applications: (a) sometimes, prescribed as a contraceptive; (b) sometimes, prescribed as a fertility treatment; (c) sometimes, prescribed to regulate painfully irregular menstrual cycles. The purpose for which it’s prescribed for each individual woman matters immensely. The Church isn’t publishing a list of banned drugs; it has problems with how some drugs are used.

Let me use a different, non-gender-specific example. Dental X-rays can adversely effect a person’s fertility (among other things)--hence the lovely lead vest they throw over the top of you. I don’t know of anyone, however, who would call a dental X-ray “contraceptive.” The impact on healthy sperm/egg production is a foreseen but unintended (and proportionally acceptable) side effect. (The ethical principle at work here is known as “double effect.”) The very same can be said of The Pill when prescribed for non-contraceptive reasons. It’s the end purpose which matters.

Condoms are a little trickier. Yes, they prevent STDs, but if we’re dealing with a monogamous, marital situation…where’d that sterility-causing STD come from?
The ends (e.g. protecting one’s spouse from the diseases of one’s illicit lover(s)) don’t justify the means…when one oughtn’t have the lover(s) to begin with. As we learned early in life, “Two wrongs don’t make a right.” Concern for one’s spouse is a step in the right direction (a pre-moral act), but just a very small step. (Pope Benedict XVI said something to this effect in his most recent book, “Light of the World.”)

Fr. Joe said...

(5) “Messing with the way God made us” was my way of saying “natural,” which itself can be confusing. (In my effort to be clear, I guess I muddied the waters!) We use “nature” in two ways which are related…but not at all the same. When my breakfast cereal says it’s “all natural,” it means it’s organic or something like that. It flows from the idea of “nature” as the physical world. But philosophy/theology uses the word “nature” to speak of the inner logic of a thing--the way it’s put together (and not just physically). Thus we talk of “human nature,” which takes into account not only our bodies, but also our minds and souls.

Modern science/medicine rightly works to correct “messes” in the natural world, curing illness and prolonging life. But it must always do so in ways which do not tamper with our human nature. Thus, germs are “natural” in the sense that they’re not (generally) manmade…but the illnesses which they cause are “unnatural,” in the sense that they disturb our proper working order (physically, emotionally, etc.). Similarly, impotence may be natural/biological, but it is a pathology that can be legitimately treated (e.g. with Viagra). On the other hand, infertility is also natural/biological, yet treatment (e.g. IVF) must not “mess with” our human nature (i.e. that sexual union is the way humans procreate).

(6) And then there’s regulating births. The Church is not at all opposed to responsible family planning…it’s all in how you do it. If the ends justify the means (in this case, keeping the number of kids at a reasonable/safe/healthy level), then any manner of doing so (contraception, abortion, infanticide) would be A-OK. Once again, regulating your family’s size must be done in a manner that’s in line with our human nature. The “natural” in Church-approved Natural Family Planning isn’t just that it’s “green” (no artificial chemicals or barriers involved), but that it’s in line with the way God put us together—body, mind, and soul.

Thanks for your parting compliment! I don’t generally think of myself as “bold and consistent”…but I’m doing the best I can.