US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Reinforcing gender-based power structures in the workplace

Meghan Murphy-Gill | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

Picture a man in his 60s. He’s been married for more than 30 years. His kids have all grown up and left home, moving on to college and jobs and families of their own. It’s a safe bet that he and his wife aren’t trying to have more children, and sex is for, to use the church’s terminology, strictly unitive purposes.

Can you imagine that man having to march down to HR and ask for a permission slip from his HR to get his insurance to cover his Viagra prescription because his employer didn’t think that unitive purposes of sex should ever be divorced from the procreative purposes? What if his Viagra was used to, I don’t know, treat his migraines? 

Yesterday, CNN published on its blog an essay from an anonymous woman working for a Catholic social service agency. She wrote (emphasis mine):

When a colleague with a cancer-causing condition at my Catholic nonprofit needed contraception for her treatment last year, she didn’t know where to turn. Our employer doesn’t provide access to contraception, and she couldn’t afford the medication. Her condition got worse.

After months of waiting for permission from our employer, she was finally granted contraception coverage, and her condition improved. But she suffered needlessly in the interim.

Another co-worker, we learned, was paying $90 a month out-of-pocket for the contraception she needs to treat her polycystic fibrosis. That’s a significant monthly expense, especially considering “the pill” is the most commonly prescribed drug for women.

HR told us we had to ask permission of the agency’s CEO on a case-by-case basis. It reminded me of when I first got my period at age 12. My cramps were so bad that my pediatrician recommended contraception.

I had to ask my father’s permission. The only difference today is my colleagues and I aren’t young girls; the CEO isn’t our father.

What if one of these women was your daughter or sister or best friend? Would you be outraged? We—as Catholics—should be outraged that women are being forced to get permission slips from their employers to fill birth control prescriptions! It’s true, they could be using them for contraceptive purposes, and of course, the church doesn’t want to pay for that. But what about giving employees, human beings who take often low-paying jobs, to take care of others on behalf of the church, the benefit of the doubt? Where's the trust in faithful women to make informed decisions about their own health?

The church needs people who have the calling to serve others. The world needs them. So why are we treating them with such utter disrespect? Such a lack of compassion and faith?

Stories such as this have made me realize one thing. There is a thread of truth to the rhetoric in the response to the mandate: It's not about the church's teaching on contraception. But it’s not about religious liberty either. Rather, it’s about power and authority and the bishops’ attempt to wrest it from the hands of an informed, educated, and committed laity, largely comprised of who? Women.

How employees are going to use medication prescribed to them by their doctor is no business of the bishops nor is it of the CEO of church-run institutions. We can pray that the church’s teaching continues to influence the day-to-day decision making of the faithful, that it’s presence in the world is a sign and symbol of the compassion and love that are to guide us daily. We can pray that this is true even for non-Catholic employees of the church. But if we’re to treat the faithful like adults, and expect them to act like adults, we absolutely cannot practice this permission slip policy. It’s demeaning and gross.