The birth control mandate: will the Church swallow the pill?

Benjamin Church meets World, Society Today

The recent birth control mandate of the US government forces the Church to face a serious decision. Beginning in August of 2013, every private insurance plan will have to cover sterilizations, contraceptives, and drugs that cause abortions. The exemption is extremely narrow, about the size of the eye of a needle. It exempts churches but not a huge number of grade schools, high school, colleges, universities, hospitals, and charitable organizations. These can only refuse to comply with the policy by not offering health insurance to employees, making the institutions liable for millions of dollars in fines, every year, for non-compliance. These institutions already struggle to cover expenses: it is hard to see how they could survive with the burden of added fines.

When the American people protested this policy, President Obama offered a “compromise”, which was to hide the pill in a glass of water to make it easier to swallow. It seems that the president has now fortified this position: it is unlikely he will make any change.

One more fact will set this question in context: the United States of America is the largest Christian nation in the world, with 246 million people identifying themselves as Christian (the US is the third largest nation in the world with 313 million people). The Catholic Church, with slightly less than 75 million believers, is the largest and best organized Christian denomination in the United States. American Christians are watching with baited breath because they know that the Catholic Church is the only organization large enough and organized enough to take a stand: if she does not take a stand, no one else will.

One non-Catholic American hopes that the Church will take a stand, and choose to be crushed by hundreds of millions of dollars in fines. The author boils the question down to two choices, which in substance are these:

Option A: The Church complies with the law and violates its own teachings and principles of faith. Such a choice would strip the Church of its legitimacy and make it a de facto vassal of the state. In this case, the ability of the Church to challenge the government’s political power is vastly reduced, if not completely destroyed.

Option B: The Church as a matter of conscience refuses to obey the law, and stops offering health insurance to its employees. In this case, the Church gets crushed by hundreds of millions of dollars in fines. As a consequence, its ability to fulfill its religious mission by funding hospitals, schools and charities is sharply reduced if not destroyed. As the Church is forced to withdraw from its active role in civil society, those who believe in government will rush to fill the void.

On the surface Option B seems more horrible; who would want to watch the Church be stripped of her excellent hospital system, or watch one Catholic school after another close down and send the children away because they are in violation of the law? This would leave a huge vacuum which the government would fill, monopolizing the education of children, the care of the sick, the service of the poor, or delegating these services to the institutions which are compliant.

The President of the United States does not believe that Catholics have the stomach for that kind of a fight, and that even if they go kicking and screaming, they will go along and choose Option A for the sake of the poor, the students, the sick, and to avoid trouble.

The cost for Option A seems relatively small: accepting the mandate would mean that the Church is paying for insurance which is paying for sterilizations, contraceptives, and drugs that cause abortion. On the other hand, accepting this option means giving up any claim to moral authority, and giving those in power the permission to decide what is good for America. “Taking the pill” would sterilize the Catholic Church: on the surface she would still look the same, but she would lose her vital force for change.

This is very serious, but it does not fully describe what this mandate means. This mandate is a contradiction to some of the deepest Christian convictions: God alone decides who is born and who is not. It was the “unplanned pregnancy” of a young woman that brought Salvation to the whole human race. Pope Benedict, in his encyclical Spe Salvi, says, “Holy Mary, you belonged to the humble and great souls of Israel…When you hastened with holy joy across the mountains of Judea to see your cousin Elizabeth, you became the image of the Church to come, which carries the hope of the world in her womb across the mountains of history.”

The Church of Christ is a force for change because she is pregnant, she carries the Son of God through history. If the Church takes contraception, she kills her child, her only hope. Does the Church really practice what she preaches, is she willing to risk her own life to save her unborn Son?