Living through the contraception rule controversy

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Guest blog post by Stephanie Niedringhaus

One of the challenges of working for a Catholic lobby in Washington is that we unintentionally get caught up in firestorms around the so-called “culture wars” even though our mission is to promote social justice. The past couple of weeks were no exception, with much heated rhetoric and finger-pointing around the DHHS rule on contraception.

Why did we get caught up in this? Because, like the Catholic Health Association, two years ago we publicly supported President Obama’s healthcare reform initiative (“Obamacare” to its opponents).  

As Amy Sullivan wrote in The Atlantic this week: “Without the work of women like Sister Carol Keehan, president of the Catholic Health Association, and Sister Simone Campbell of the Catholic social justice group NETWORK, there would be no health reform and therefore no contraception coverage mandate to argue over -- not just for the employees of Catholic hospitals and universities, but for the estimated 24 million other women who will benefit from this aspect of the law.”

Because of our support, we were deluged with media attention and messages, some of gratitude and others consisting of ugly, personal attacks. But we were convinced that the law would save lives, which made it all worthwhile.

Fast-forward two years, and here we were again, revisiting healthcare issues with over-the-top attacks on all sides. Like the Catholic Health Association, we initially expressed our dismay with the contraception rule as it was first described in January. (And who exactly decided it would be a good idea to announce it around the time when prolife people were in Washington for the Roe v. Wade anniversary? Thus linking it in many minds with abortion?)

Many of us in the progressive Catholic world have invested much time and energy working for comprehensive healthcare reform, and watching this sideshow play into the hands of reform opponents has been deeply painful. Like others, we worked feverishly behind the scenes to try to undo some of the damage. Even so, we saw some people pull back from publicly supporting aspects of the Affordable Care Act for fear of being tainted by what was going on. So frustrating.

Also frustrating was the level of discourse. Most of us know about the famous letters that were read aloud from pulpits or placed in parish bulletins. But I have also followed discussions in the media and on blogs, with ugly anti-church comments streaming out. (Is it possible to mention the word “Catholic” without a torrent of comments mentioning “pedophile priests” and “old men in dresses”?)

We were relieved when we received word that the White House had agreed to a sensible compromise, and we and others, including the Catholic Health Association, immediately issued statements of support. The Bishops called it “a first step in the right direction,” but they said they wanted more details.

Contrary to some reports, this really was a matter of conscience rights.  And, as we stated in our press release, “We are so grateful that through thoughtful consideration of the competing needs of people of different faith perspectives the administration has found a way to honor faith-based conscience objections. This is the sort of creative problem-solving that is at the heart of making our Constitution work for all the people of our country.”

So where do we go from here? Is it possible that this could be the first of a series of sensible compromises that will address the divisiveness within our nation and church community? Will Catholics across the spectrum come together to focus more on economic and social justice? I pray so.


Guest blogger Stephanie Niedringhaus is the Communications Coordinator for NETWORK, a National Catholic Social Justice Lobby.

Guest blog posts do not necessarily reflect the opinions of U.S. Catholic, its editors, or the Claretians.