Exploring Human Potential

Is It Time To Close The Bedroom Door On Catholic Bishops?

Posted on | March 26, 2014 | 3 Comments

Mike Magee

If you are interested in the intersection of religion and medical science, March 26, 2014, is a fascinating day indeed.

Today, the Supreme Court Justices (including six Catholics, three Jews and no Protestants or Muslims) are considering a case brought by two business corporations. They state that they are running their businesses based on “religious principles”, and challenge an element of the Accountable Care Act that requires many employers provide coverage for a range of contraceptives.(1)

Today is also the day President Obama visits Pope Francis in Rome. Discussion points to be determined.(2)

For the vast majority of Catholics in America, contraception is a controversy they long ago put to bed. Surveys dating back to the 1960’s have repeatedly demonstrated that U.S. Catholics of child bearing age in large majorities support and utilize contraceptives to manage family planning.(3) In so doing, they have consistently rejected the opinions and directives of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops who historically direct rather than dialogue.(4)

In large numbers, the Catholic lay public’s response has been to turn a deaf ear to their religious leaders. The disconnect has been reinforced and in many cases made permanent by widespread sexual abuse of minors with institutional cover-up and obstruction of justice well documented.(5)

In both the case of opposition to birth control and sexual abuse of minors, issues of power and sexuality are critical levers. Church hierarchy by design is decidedly male dominated, non-representative and non-transparent with power derived from infallible leaders and divine sources. The people in their flocks, challenged with the up’s and down’s of everyday life – including the possible financial and psychological challenges of unintended children or the protection of their children from possible sex abuse by Church leaders – have been forced to fend for themselves.(6) Keep in mind as well that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops ultimately controls the restrictive policies that govern distribution of contraceptives and prohibition on procedures like tubal ligation and vasectomy in the 600+ Catholic hospitals that control 15% of the nation’s hospital beds and the health care of 1 of every 6 American patients, many of whom are not Catholic.

This disconnect with an elderly male, largely white, ruling elite is long standing in America Catholicism. It gained steam in the years following World War II. Between 1940 and 1960, the ranks in the American Catholic Church doubled, with new records in weekly church attendance. But at the same time, on the back end of the war, with soldiers aggressively exposed to contraception overseas, and many of their wives experienced independence and empowered decision making for the first time as part of the war mobilization effort at home, Church leaders witnessed a growing revolt in the ranks. The issue: family planning.(6)

As a first baby step in the late 1940’s, some Catholic health care workers designed the “rhythm method”, an imperfect system of predicting the fertile moments during the menstrual cycle. Declining intercourse during those periods would “naturally” avoid (sometimes) pregnancy. But for many in the Church leadership, even this was a step too far.

Consider the words of Rev. Hugh Calkins, O.S.M., who broadcast the “Faith In Our Times” program in 1948:  ““Catholic couples have gone hog-wild in the abusive employment of rhythm…A method meant to be a temporary solution of a critical problem has become a way of life, a very selfish, luxury-loving, materialistic way of life.   But heaven, not security, is the goal set for the babies God sends…Every couple  should have the children God wants them to have.”(6)

As for how God would view those using contraception, consider the company they would be joining as described by the popular preacher of the time, Father Flannon Gannon, who listed those on God’s wrong side on Judgement Day as “…birth controllers, adulterers, fornicators, prostitutes, drunkards, Mass Skippers…”(6)

As these words suggest, religious leaders opposed to contraception defined the debate not in the context of public health or medical science or gender equality, but rather in absolutist terms within the highly orthodox context of spiritual versus material dominance. The fact that it leaves women especially powerless, increases the number of abortions, and complicates our nations attempts to address poverty and income inequality have been irrelevant over the ensuing years.

The reality that vocations in the priesthood are in steep decline (7) and that the ranks of practicing Catholics in America have significantly shrunk (8) has done nothing to shake the certitude of the Catholic Bishops on this issue. Neither has the historic bipartisan support for coverage of contraception dating back to 1998.(9)

At that time, on the tail winds of widespread insurance coverage for Viagra, some states and employers for the first time began to mandate that insurers provide coverage for contraception. The insurance companies were agnostic. All they knew was that it cut into their profits. They justified unequal coverage by labeling contraception as not a “medical necessity”.

At the time, in August, 1998, Republican Rep. Nancy Johnson (CT) and Democrat Rep. Nita Lowey (NY) led a move to provide Federal workers with coverage for contraception, and described their progress as ”very good news. It demonstrates that across the ideological spectrum, we recognize that women — and men — have to have the right to plan their families.”(9)  Rep. Johnson’s support was especially relevant, not only because she was considered the resident expert on the Republican side in all things “health care”, but also because her state was the site of the Supreme Court landmark case, “Griswold v. Connecticut”, which in 1965 declared unconstitutional an 1879 Connecticut law which prohibited the use of contraceptives in the state.(10)

Despite an all out campaign by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, prior to the passage of the Accountable Care Act 26 states had already mandated that insurers who cover prescription drugs under their plans must pay for contraceptives as well. (11)

So will today be the day we embrace the 19th century or the 21st century? If the Catholic bishops have their way, and our Supreme Court Justices wilt under the pressure, bet on the former.

For Health Commentary, I’m Mike Magee.


1. Barnes R. High Court With Vocally Devout Justices Hear Religous Objectoions To Health Care Law. Washington Post. March 23, 2014.

2. Faris S. President Obama Prepares To Meet The People’s Pope. TIME. March 26, 2014.

3. Americans, Including Catholics, Say Birth Control Is Morally OK. Gallup Poll. May 22, 2012.

4. Contraception. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. 2014.

5. Clergy Sex Abuse Crisis. Boston Globe. 2014.

6. Tentler LW. An American History: Catholics and Contraception. Cornell University Press. 2004.

7. Frequently Requested Church Statistics: US Data Over Time. Cara/Georgetown. 2014.

8. Briggs D. Counting U.S. Catholics: Signs of Growth and Decline. 12/27/12. Huff Post.

9. Kilborn P.T. Pressure Growing To Cover The Cost Of Birth Control. NYT, August 2, 1998.

10. Griswold v. Connecticut. 381 U.S. 479 (1965)

11. National Conference of State Legislatures. Insurance Coverage For Contraceptive Laws. 2012.


3 Responses to “Is It Time To Close The Bedroom Door On Catholic Bishops?”

  1. Steve Kellmeyer
    March 26th, 2014 @ 1:00 pm

    Hey, Mike, maybe you can answer this one for me.

    To write anti-Catholic bigotry like this, do you still have to formally join the Ku Klux Klan, or do you just get an automatic honorary membership once the column is published?

  2. Sheila Strand
    March 26th, 2014 @ 1:19 pm

    Dr. Magee, I agree with you 100%. Your thoughtful review of the Catholic Contraception Question is most welcome, especially in light of the fact that Catholic-run health systems affect so many Americans. I have been watching the Supreme Court Justices’ debate with some interest, as a former practicing Catholic and product of parochial schools. One Justice remarked that this may be the slippery slope of disengagement for employers who “religiously disagree” with all or part of the ACA. Much to ponder here. Thank you for bringing this issue forward in such a well-written and documented manner.

  3. Mike Magee
    March 26th, 2014 @ 5:51 pm

    In accepting Planned Parenthood’s “Margaret Sanger Award”, Martin Luther King said, “In our struggle for equality we were confronted with the reality that many millions of people were essentially ignorant of our conditions or refused to face unpleasant truths. The hard-core bigot was merely one of our adversaries. The millions who were blind to our plight had to be compelled to face the social evil their indifference permitted to flourish.”
    The US Conference of Catholic Bishops, in their inability to evolve over decades, and in their embrace of arrogant and secretive control over lay Catholics who have tried any number of strategies to be heard, have allowed comparisons to white segregationists of the past. Faced with the current reality, Catholics would do well to consider a campaign modeled after Rev. King’s Montgomery Bus Boycott.

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