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Politics And Faith Collide In Contraceptive Debate


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. Last Friday, President Obama came up a compromise: Catholic and other religious institutions would not have to provide contraception coverage for their employees directly, but the wider goal of women's health would be met because their insurance companies would have to do it.

Any hope that days of escalating rhetoric might end there evaporated Friday night when the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops rejected the compromise. On Sunday morning, priests across the country read out the latest letter of protest.

The dispute involves any number of religious groups, but Catholics - with their universities, hospitals and social services - are a major employer of people of all faiths and none at all. The Catholic hierarchy opposes contraception as a matter of faith, though a vast majority of Catholic women say they've used birth control.

We want to hear from Catholics in our audience today: How has this played out in your parish? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Later in the program, doctors face pressure to prescribe a drug that's been effective against Alzheimer's, but only in mice.

We begin, though, with Michael Gerson, now a columnist for the Washington Post, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush. He joins us from his office at the Washington Post. Nice to have you back.

MICHAEL GERSON: Great to be with you.

CONAN: And why is an attack on - why is it an attack on religious liberty to require Catholic hospitals or universities to follow the same rules as other employers?

GERSON: Well, because it's an attack on religious liberty to require Catholic hospitals and charities to pay for insurance products that violate their conscience. It's, I think, a pretty clear violation. I think the administration, in the end, recognized that, pursuing a much less direct infringement on these rights, trying to, you know, lessen the impact on these institutions.

I think it's lessened the controversy. I think it's gone down a few degrees, but still left a lot of questions.

CONAN: What are those questions, in your mind?

GERSON: Well, the Catholic Church poses a couple of specific questions. One of them is really the role of self-insured institutions. A lot of religious nonprofits provide their own - cover their own health insurance. How does the mandate apply to them? The administration has promised to review that issue, but people don't know what the resolution is.

And I think also the role of abortion-inducing drugs - you know, this is controversial, but some of the FDA-approved contraceptive techniques can end a pregnancy after conception and - or shortly after conception. And I think that a lot of religious institutions have a serious problem with that, along with others.

So those issues still remain, but this was a little bit of a fig leaf, but fig leafs can be useful. The president diffused the situation somewhat. It's still going to be a major debate in the context of health care reform, whether these types of mandates are repealed or not. But I think that he's gone some way to placate - some ways to placate concerns.

CONAN: Joining us here in Studio 3A is Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of NETWORK, a lobby group for progressive Catholics. Nice to have you with us.

SISTER SIMONE CAMPBELL: Thank you. Great to be here.

CONAN: And I'm not sure that your position varies greatly from Michael's, that I know you thought the initial decision went too far.

CAMPBELL: That's correct. We thought the initial decision was an error, was a mistake, and we applaud the president for seeing that. While they were fixated on the provision of services to women, that there was the broader, overarching concern about conscience, and that the conscience concerns - which is really rooted in our Constitution, First Amendment, providing separation of church and state - that was a key element that needed to be addressed. And for us, it was addressed on Friday.

CONAN: And as long as that other goal, women's health, was covered, too?

CAMPBELL: Exactly. I actually wouldn't call this a compromise. In fact, the president didn't call it a compromise, because compromise indicates that the disputing parties went halfway someplace, or met in the middle. This, actually, from our perspective, was an accommodation in a pluralistic society of the conscience of religious, faith-based employers, as well as the consciences of women who are employed in some settings where it's the only large employer in an area. And therefore diverse people are employed, diverse people have different - have their consciences shaped in different ways. This accommodated both.

CONAN: And Michael Gerson, I think it's fair to point out that some - some Catholics would say it's not a compromise, because it doesn't solve the problem, either. Indirect payments are just the same. You have religious institutions paying for contraception.

GERSON: Well, I think that a lot of the bishops, for example, still make that case very strongly. You know, the previous policy was that religious institutions are forced to buy insurance products that violate their conscience. Now they're going to be forced to support the viability and profits of insurance companies that are mandated to violate their conscience in direct contact with their employees.

That is, you know, that's a shift. And sometimes these accounting issues - which is really what this is - make a big difference. You know, I think that this is a much less aggressive, much less humiliating type of federal regulation when it comes to health care. I still think it's going to be controversial. I still think people are going to debate it.

But the previous policy, you had people like Rick Warren - who is not a Catholic - urging civil disobedience against the law. Now I think you're going to have a debate on the merits of the various plans and whether this mandate should be repealed, but I think the intensity has been significantly diminished.

CONAN: And Sister Simone Campbell, there are also those who say why - given the fact that a great majority of Catholic women use birth control in roughly the same numbers as everybody else, why is the Catholic Church asking the government to do its job for them? The Catholic Church can proselytize all it wants about don't use contraception, but it seems to be losing the argument with its own flock.

CAMPBELL: Well, I think you do raise an interesting point, that for us the issue was conscience and that each woman's conscience also is formed in our society with deep values as to what is best for her, for her family and in the broader solidarity of the community.

And these are all very deeply held Christian Catholic values. And so leaving - acknowledging the bishops' very right concern for conscience for employers, we also need to make sure that the conscience for women is also honored. And that's what this does.

CONAN: We want to hear from the Catholics in our audience today: How is this playing out in your parish? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And why don't we begin with Carly(ph), and Carly's on the line with us from Birmingham in Alabama.

CARLY: Hi, there. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

CARLY: This issue is very near and dear to my heart the last week or so. My husband is employed at EWTN, which is the largest global Catholic media television in the world, and they have filed a lawsuit against the Obama administration because they believe - and my husband and I believe, and many others around us believe - that this is adamantly going against our constitutional rights and just our moral obligation to our faith.

I heard a segment on NPR the other day, and it was saying 98 percent of all Catholic women are using contraception. While those numbers may be true, I'm not sure where those numbers are coming from. They're false as far as that's not what the Catholic Church teaches.

So just because, you know, everyone's jumping off the bridge doesn't mean it's the right thing to do. Just because Catholic women are using contraception doesn't mean that that's what the Catholic Church is teaching. So, as Catholics, I know we need to stand up and support our bishops. They're doing the right thing.

And your guest was talking about consciences, women must do what's best for her and her family and consciences, and that's just really relativism, moral relativism. Our consciences must be properly formed. And when they're not properly formed, they can go astray and they can get led by what the world is doing. So I really feel that we must be strong as Catholics to stand up against this, and the Catholic Church has always taught that contraception is a moral evil.

CONAN: Cindy, just a couple of points, I think that there's been a lot of back and forth on the percentage of Catholic women who use or once have used or may have used contraception. The best numbers we've come up with are that it's about the same as women in the general population. So just leave it at that, and let's not argue about the numbers.

Are there non-Catholics who work at EWTN?

CARLY: There are, and they know when they are employed at EWTN that EWTN is Catholic from its core and always has been. And they know that by working at Catholic institution - just like if they're working for a Muslim institution or company - they would have to abide by the basic tenets of that institution's faith.

CONAN: And so it is different than other broadcasters, so it shouldn't have to play by the same rules?

CARLY: It is different than other broadcasters because we are taking a stand for religion, and we are trying to spread the faith. And we can't - I mean, I'm not speaking for EWTN, but just...

CONAN: No, I understand.

CARLY: But, yeah, just kind of basic common sense says, well, if this is going against our faith, then they receive donations. That's how they run. It's 100 percent donations. So people around the world aren't going to be giving money to a broadcaster when they're going against the faith, and then when they're not getting the funds, we will be off the air and not able to spread the faith.

So - and it's basically just supporting the bishops, and...

CONAN: I hear that. Sister Simone Campbell, I know you probably want to respond to some of that.

CAMPBELL: Well, I think she raises an interesting point, where it's the real point of tension is: Who are we in a pluralistic society, and how do we respect diversity? And that in some Catholic organizations, there - which were identified in the original part of the rule - that said that there would be an exemption for closely church-related - houses of worship, parishes, diocesan offices - there was a blanket exemption.

And the real question - from covering contraception. But the real question then becomes is in these broader service organizations, which hire, employ a diverse group of people to serve diverse needs, and we see that as part of faith, then how do we accommodate both that faith service element, which is essential to who we are as Catholic, and yet accommodate a diverse pool of employees?

And therein lies the tension: How are we both reverencing my faith and the work of my faith, as well as the tenets of others?

CONAN: Cindy, thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it.

CARLY: Thank you.

CONAN: We're going to continue with this conversation after a short break. We're talking with Michael Gerson, an op-ed columnist for the Washington Post, and Sister Simone Campbell of NETWORK, a national Catholic social justice lobby. 800-989-8255. How is this playing out in your parish? Email us: talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops seems to be of a single mind on President Obama's plan to provide contraceptive coverage to employees of religiously affiliated institutions. Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan told the AP the president's Friday concession - which moved responsibility for coverage to insurance companies - amounts to just a hill of beans.

Parishioners, though, are more divided on what the church's role should be in politics and in private lives. So to Catholics listening today: How is this playing out in your parish? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guests are Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of NETWORK, and Michael Gerson, an op-ed columnist for the Washington Post. Let's get another caller in on the line. Linda joins us from Lansing.

LINDA: Hi, Neal. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

LINDA: I am a Catholic woman. I have four children. I have parents that both went to Catholic school. My sister and I were raised in the Catholic Church, although we did not attend Catholic school. I will say I am one of those Catholics that does not agree with the contraception rule. I honestly feel that every couple has a right to make the decision that is best for them. And I don't feel like every couple that is Catholic that opts to have two children or three children or four children should be viewed any different.

CONAN: Oh, I hear your position. How is this playing out, though, in your parish?

LINDA: Well, my parish is, I'll say, a somewhat liberal parish because I am close to a major university, and so the majority of the people that I've talked to tend to share my thinking. And I think knowing, even though how the hierarchy in the church feels, most people feel it is more of a personal decision, and it does not make us any less Catholic or any less moral than those that may choose to follow that.

CONAN: I don't know if you were in church on Sunday morning, but did the priest in your parish read the letter from the Conference of Bishops?

LINDA: Actually, that would be one Sunday that I missed because I was out of town with my children.


CONAN: I see, OK.

LINDA: I do know that some of the services or support groups that my church offers are not necessarily in line with the Conference of Bishops and their thinking on many things. One of the reasons I chose the church that I did is because I can continue my Catholic faith in a place that I feel is open and welcoming to Catholics that have different viewpoints.

Fundamentally, we all believe, I think, the same thing. But I think it's true of just about every religion that you cannot hold true every single person to every single mandate or every single interpretation of what may be written. If that's the case, you know, we would be living very, very different lives all across the country.

CONAN: Linda, thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it.

LINDA: Thank you.

CONAN: Michael Gerson, it's been pointed out, yes, Catholics hold many different opinions on many different issues. In terms of the bishops, though, and the Vatican, the Catholic Church is not a democracy.

GERSON: No. You know, this is something - because everyone is talking appropriately about their own faith - I'm not a Catholic. I come from a Protestant background. I don't have any moral problems with contraception. I've seen in international settings, in particular, the way that birth spacing and avoiding late and dangerous pregnancies can be an important moral goal, public health goal.

So I don't have any particular objection on this issue. But I do think that if religious liberty is defined as the right to reflect the majority, then religious liberty doesn't mean anything. And I think one of the most disturbing things about the government action in this case, about the HHS' action, is they adopted a definition of religious liberty so narrow that it puts almost no limits on federal power.

It essentially applied full religious liberty protections just to houses of worship, but that's not - you know, that's not the way that Catholic institutions and religious institutions view themselves. Catholics serve non-Catholics because they're Catholics. And religious people serve non-religious people because they're religious.

And so I think that, you know, one of the things that hasn't been solved in this compromise is this, I think, patently unconstitutional division that the administration insists on making between deciding what institutions in their view are religious and what are not, and which deserve protections and which don't.

CONAN: So that those services - hospitals, universities, any number of religious services, Sister Simone Campbell - they are essentially Catholic, though in their character, in terms of who they employ, they are not - certainly not 100 percent Catholic.

CAMPBELL: Well, if by 100 percent Catholic you mean are they - do they only employ Catholics in good standing in their parishes? That's certainly true. They don't. So that it's that intersection of a diverse population. But I do think that this piece of conscience is so important in the core of who we are constitutionally, that we need to find a way to articulate it and then to make provision for the rest of society, because if I hold an element of conscience for myself and for my church and I impose it on you, who don't, then I'm being as intolerant as we're accusing the government of being. And therein lies the challenge in our diverse society.

CONAN: And let me ask you another question: Do you feel that the process by which this was worked out - a rule was proposed, people objected to it, the government changed its mind and adapted to it - that this was adequate, that this was responsive?

CAMPBELL: Oh, it was definitely responsive. The White House certainly heard that they needed to make a change. They stood up and took notice. The key, I think, is that, yes, going forward, we continue the dialogue. This is a democracy. We raise these issues. We deal with them. We resolve them. We move on.

CONAN: And Michael Gerson, in your column today, you said, wait a minute. There were some people in this conversation from the get-go, they did not include the Catholic Conference.

GERSON: Well, it's one thing when you talk to people on staff with the bishops, the Catholic bishops, a point that they make. They were directly concerned in the outcome of these decisions, and they were not really part of the substantive conversation that went into making the decisions.

That indicates, to some extent, you know, where the administration's priorities are. They didn't fully and broadly consult. It was one reason they got the reaction that they got, which was much broader and much more intense than they expected it to be.

And so I think that's a problem for the administration in a feeling that they were insensitive to the concerns of the church and the bishops, and also really pretty incompetent in the way that they accomplished what they were trying to do.

CONAN: Sister Simone?

CAMPBELL: I would say, though, that there was a fair amount of consultation. I know I was involved in some - on the part of the White House.

CONAN: Before this rule came out?

CAMPBELL: Before the rule came out, yes, and that I also know that other Catholic institutions were involved. So I have a hunch that there was consultation. They just didn't agree with us in the initial rule. And then we weighed in after that, and we were again involved in consultation.

But I think the White House perspective was they had addressed the issue of the diocesan and the bishops' concern, and the issue was: How do we deal with the other Catholic entities? So they looked to the people affected.

GERSON: I would just say that Cardinal-designate Dolan was - the president did talk to him in November and said some rather reassuring things. And then the next time he talked to him was in January, where he said they weren't going to change a policy, even one comma. And that, I think, was taken as an affront, and I think it was.

CONAN: Let's go next to Judy, and Judy's on the line with us from Phoenix.

JUDY: Hello.

CONAN: Hi. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.

JUDY: I consider myself Catholic. I'm 60 years old and been in the church for 60 years. And I didn't go to church when I knew they were going to read that letter because it would make me angry, and not angry with the president, but angry with the bishops.

I think there's a slippery slope there on matters of conscience, when you're dealing with a broad spectrum of employees that are not all of your faith. What would happen if a Jehovah's Witness owned a company, and they don't believe in blood transfusions, and so they wouldn't cover blood transfusions in their policies for any of their employees?

I think it's one thing to say, as a Catholic, this is something that I choose not to do because of my faith, and to say nobody who works for me can do this, either. I worry about the conscience clauses.

CONAN: And that raises - that's on a couple of different points, and Sister Simone Campbell that, yes, because we're - we feel this way, you can't do it, either.

JUDY: Right, and I think that was wrong, and I objected to them reading those letters in church.

CONAN: Well, that was the other part of it, Michael Gerson, reading letters out in church, it sounds like, well, politicizing from the pulpit.

GERSON: Yeah, I don't think that's true in this case. I mean, the question that the caller raises, which is an interesting one, is whether religious liberty just applies to individuals or whether it applies to institutions in the exercise of their mission, and whether institutions such as charities and hospitals and universities are, in fact, religious institutions under those definitions? You know, this was decided in the context of the Supreme Court making the decision in January - the Hosanna-Tabor decision - where nine to zero, affirmed a very broad religious autonomy right for religious institutions.

The administration could have looked at that decision and said, well, we're going to respect that approach. They chose not to. So it's not as though there's no constitutional, you know, in Supreme Court decisions that relate to these issues. Institutions have rights, not just individuals.

CAMPBELL: But I think that the challenge is the intersection of government involvement and funding of much of the services provided within the Catholic service organizations. For instance, Catholic Relief Service, Catholic Charities, Catholic Medical Mission Board, they use significant government funds to do work that has been mandated at - in the civil side by government. And that when you're using government money to do work that the government wants done, then it seems to me that while we as employers can hold our conscience protection, you know, sacred, we also need to provide for the secular people participating in this government-mandated program, and that creates a whole different set of relationships.

GERSON: I think you've raised an interesting issue, but I'll interpret it differently.

CAMPBELL: Oh, interesting.

GERSON: Many - the social services in America and America - that provides abroad are a partnership between government and religious institutions. When the government overreaches and undermines that partnership, and makes institutions uncomfortable with relating to government - whether it's providing AIDS treatment or whether it's helping, you know, the ill and elderly - the government in that circumstance is actually undermining the partnership that serves millions of people. I think the human consequence of a government that's too aggressive in enforcing its own rules and standards would actually hurt a lot of people.

CONAN: Michael Gerson, a columnist for The Washington Post, formerly a speech writer for President George W. Bush, with us from his office at the newspaper. With us here in Studio 3A, Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of Network, a national Catholic social justice lobby. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And, Michael Gerson, you were talking about overreach by one side, as you describe it, from the administration. There are some now saying, wait a minute, we're seeing a little overreach from the other side, too, that were trying to apply this very broadly.

GERSON: Right. I agree with that. I think there are now some conservatives and some bishops who would want to not just argue for the autonomy of religious institutions, but they would want to allow any business owner - not just religious institutions, but any business owner - to be able to avoid offering contraceptive coverage. This is a very difficult debate, whatever your views on the legal issues. It's a - I think there's very little social consensus to, you know, to take this kind of measure.

And the reality is that the principle of religious liberty, I think, unites a lot of people in our society - Protestant, Catholic - or just people who believe in religious liberty and no faith at all. But I think the argument about contraception really does divide that coalition in ways that, I think, are not going to be very productive.

CONAN: An email from Joel in Minneapolis: More than 20 states require contraceptives in the manner required by the newly proposed federal law. Presumably, the Catholic Church complies with the law in those states. Would your guests comment on the disconnect between the state and federal mandates in this conversation? Sister Simone Campbell?

CAMPBELL: Well, I know that it is true that some states have this mandate. And in states like where I'm from originally, California, they have complied. Though Catholic Charities appealed it to the state Supreme Court and lost on appeal. But there also are - have been other provisions where states - or Catholic entities could go to self-insurance that was no longer regulated in the state market and was controlled by a federal statute, called ERISA, and they could get an exemption that way. That exemption, an ERISA, no longer applies in the Affordable Care Act because it's another federal law.

CONAN: Let's go next to Chris, and Chris with us from Auburn in Alabama.

CHRIS: Hi. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

CHRIS: I just - I wanted to speak to the role of tradition - and I know the Catholic Church teaches about, you know, tradition as sort of a major part of the faith. But I'm talking about family tradition and the sort of burden - I'm a cradle Catholic. I come from a long line of Catholics. And sort of the burden maybe that some young people who might be using birth control, they might fall away from the faith if it weren't for this long tradition of their - in their family of being Catholic.

And so they consider themselves Catholic. They grow up Catholic. And then when they're adults, they find out, you know, they have views that maybe don't agree, and, you know, some of my protestant friends might have fallen away from their church, or, you know, they might go to a different church that they agree with more. And I just feel like Catholics, a lot of times, they won't necessarily walk the walk because they want to continue thinking of themselves as Catholic, but really they don't fit the mold, so to speak.

CONAN: They don't fit every niche of the doctrine is what you're saying.

CHRIS: Right. I mean, you know, if the church preaches one thing and you don't agree with it, it kind of comes back to: Can you really call yourself Catholic? And I know there's a big push right now to, you know, try to be inclusive and encourage people to come back to the faith that maybe fell away. But part of that is believing in what the church teaches and going along with it.

CAMPBELL: And I think there are some good points of what you're saying, but really for me as a Catholic, it's family. It's where I belong. It's rooted in the Gospel. It is the core of what I believe is Jesus and the Gospel and that the way it has been interpreted over 2,000 years. And while we have these political scuffles - this is a political scuffle, not a faith scuffle, it's a political scuffle that - I mean, it happens in all families. So - but we stay at the table. We continue to celebrate Eucharist together, which is our meal together.

And we struggle through it, trying to discern the way forward in a complex society because the Catholic faith - while we don't adapt quickly that's for sure - it really is about embodying Jesus' message in the world today.

CONAN: Chris, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

CHRIS: Thank you.

CONAN: And, Mike Gerson, as always, thanks for your time.

GERSON: Great to be with you.

CONAN: Michael Gerson, Washington Post op-ed columnist, joined us from the newspaper there. Sister Simone Campbell, you just heard, joined us here in Studio 3A. Thanks for your time.

CAMPBELL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.