My brilliant co-bloggers Ramona and Destor have been especially brilliant this week on the Catholic bishops' outrage at having to pay for full employee health insurance. Destor is so smart about the church and state principles involved, and Ramona so good on the women's-health issues, that I have nothing left to add but my own personal experience. I am a former employee of the Catholic Church. I used to have a health-insurance card with the Archdiocese of Boston's seal printed on it. That wasn't an experience of religious liberty. That was an employer exercising its muscle to impose on employees' religious consciences. And it involved the hypocritical pretense that the Archdiocese and its good works did not fundamentally depend on careful family planning by its employees, as every American diocese did and does.
I was in no personal need of the contraceptive pills that my health card wouldn't get me, because I was a dude and because I had a romantic life which rendered family planning moot. But one of my co-workers explained what our health-insurance card meant for her. Prescriptions for contraceptives weren't covered, and had to be paid for out-of-pocket at the exorbitant rate reserved for the uninsured. And any doctor's appointment where contraceptives were discussed or prescribed was also not covered, even if the appointment was primarily to treat something else. (And obviously, it didn't matter why contraceptives were being prescribed. If, like many women, my co-worker needed the pill for medical reasons unrelated to family planning, then she would simply have an uninsured medical problem.) That isn't just refusing to be "forced to buy contraceptives." That is an employer using its muscle to put obstacles in its employees' way, to press its own agenda upon employees no matter their own religious beliefs. In this case, my Jewish co-worker had her employer's religious convictions forced upon her. That is not freedom of conscience.
This is what "freedom of religion" has come to mean to today's religious right: the privilege to push your religion on others, and to play the victim when your bullying is interrupted. The official leadership of the Catholic Church has utterly failed to convince even its own followers of its position on contraception:
in recent polls, about 95 percent of Catholics have said they use contraceptives, and 89 percent say the decision to use them should be theirs, not the church’s,and another recent poll shows Catholics favoring the Obama administration's ruling by a 58-37 margin. So the "religious principle" being discussed here is a recent teaching embraced mainly by the Church's hierarchy, but not actually part of most believers' practice of the faith. But having failed to persuade rank-and-file Catholics of the Church's novel and ill-thought-out position, the leader of my Archdiocese, Bernard Cardinal Law, resorted to bullying employees with his economic power, interfering with their medical decisions because he was The Boss.
The claim that Cardinal Law's conscience would have been violated if the organization he led had been "forced to buy contraceptives" is nonsense. The Church does not buy contraceptives, penicillin, X-rays, or any other medical good. It buys a premium for a health plan for its employees, and that plan pays for medical goods and services. But isn't that just buying contraceptives with the Cardinal's money? No. Because the premium on my health plan was not the Cardinal's money, even if his little stamp was on the card. It was my money. It was part of my pay. I had earned it, through the work specified in my contract, and what I did with the benefits I was owed was no more the Cardinal's business than what I did with my paycheck. Employees' medical decisions and religious beliefs are their own. (If I bought a hamburger on Good Friday, I wasn't forcing the Cardinal to "buy meat" against his religious beliefs. Once someone pays you, the money is yours.) Even if the employer pays the insurer directly, that doesn't entitle it to dictate the way medical insurance was used. If it did, the Christian Science Monitor couldn't be required to provide health insurance at all.
And let me be very blunt here. Almost all of the employees covered by the new ruling are working in the non-profit sector at non-profit salaries. They are teachers, doctors, nurses, and social workers in the Catholic Church's schools, hospitals, charities, and colleges. They are not paid unfairly, but the Church does not pay them, and could not afford to pay them, well enough that they don't need to worry about when and how they start their families. The first year I worked for the Boston Church, I was paid the princely sum of fifteen thousand dollars plus health insurance. My co-workers who had more experience and credentials than I did were paid better than that, at least, but they were still paid much less than people in similar jobs outside the Church. I didn't think my salary was unfair, considering the original skill level I brought with me, and I was happy to have the opportunity to do the work I was doing and to get better at it. But that decision was only possible for me because I was not going to be starting a family. I could not have taken that job if I were responsible for a child. If I'd had a child on the way, I would have had to look for other work. And the idea that I would "let God decide" when children would come, and in what numbers, while I was working for a salary that wouldn't cover day care, is the height of irresponsibility. Catholic schools and Catholic charities and Catholic hospitals are only economically possible because of contraception. Without family planning, they would have to close.
The sisters and brothers who once staffed those institutions no longer exist in anything close to the numbers needed to keep them open. You cannot run a school or hospital with American nuns any more, because there aren't any. They have been replaced by lay employees who have not taken vows of poverty, and so need to be paid. The schools and hospitals stay open because those lay workers are willing to work for below-market wages. But since those educated below-market-wage professionals have also not taken vows of chastity, they have to make decisions about starting families, and about the size of their families. They cannot afford to let children come on their own schedule, in whatever numbers. They have to make the same decisions that most middle-class families make about when they can afford to have a baby, except they have to make them even more carefully. If everyone who worked for the Catholic Church in this country had the large, unplanned families the Church recommends, then the schools and hospitals and charities would not be able to pay the parents well enough to support their children. Those schools and hospitals would either go broke or lose most of their workers to more profitable jobs. This is the reality underlying the Church's good works.
It isn't wrong; those schools and charities and hospitals need to be low-cost to serve the Church's mission. I've never been sorry I worked for them, or served the people I served while I was on the Church's payroll. But to pay people a wage which will not allow them to start a family and then make them go into their underpaid pockets for the birth-control pills that allow them to keep working for you is wrong. It is unworthy of any of the values the Church stands for. And making a grand pious show of it only makes the bishops' behavior more sinful.