|Fleeing a Bank Robbery mural Lake Placid, New York|
Never far from the center of contemporary American politics, questions of the separation of church and state have hit an new high (or low) under the Obama administration’s recent decision to require religious organizations to cover reproduction and contraceptive technologies and devices as part of their employee health care benefit packages – tricky in that apparently most organizations are now required to provide a minimum health care benefit to their employees.
This is seemingly especially controversial within certain Roman Catholic circles – I say “certain” because it is becoming painfully evident that cracks in the Catholic edifice have become even more pronounced over the Vatican’s objections to politicized ethical healthcare dilemmas that many Catholics have already quietly accepted as reasonable and practical – especially in light of what many non-conservative Catholics are agreeing seems to be a Conservative and Republican war against women, being an alliance between Colorado Springs and the Republican Party to roll back decades-long advancements in the rights of women, for access to abortion and in the use of innovative reproductive technologies in family planning and women’s healthcare.
As of this writing, the latest salvo in the battle between Washington and Rome was the firing of an Indiana Roman Catholic Church school teacher, Emily Herx, over her alleged use of in vitro technologies in an attempt to become pregnant – not to mention Peoria-based Bishop Daniel Jenky’s recent comparison of President Obama to Stalin and Hitler for requiring the church to “compromise” its ethical and theological teachings in the matter of reproductive technologies. Recall that Cardinal Francis George, whose seat is the Archdiocese of Chicago, is the former head of the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops – a position now held by New York-based Cardinal Timothy Dolan – so the activism in the Midwest is possibly coordinated rather than grassroots.
Perhaps desiring to co-opt any political opposition to the Obama administration, both Republican and their constituent Tea Party and Colorado Springs’ affiliates have rallied to the “Catholic” cause. Alexander Bolton, a writer for TheHill.com, a Congressional on-line newsletter, sees a direct linkage between the Roman Catholic Church’s ability to influence voters and Republican electoral interests in key swing states such as Florida, Ohio, Iowa and Colorado (Bolton, see below).
Bolton quotes Deal Hudson, president of Catholic Advocate, as stating that result of a two-week public demonstration against the Obama administration’s encroachment on religious liberty and the expected need for civil disobedience “… is the most dynamic situation I’ve even seen since I’ve been involved in Catholics and politics … I think civil disobedience is almost inevitable.” Hudson also served as the head of the Catholic outreach of the Bush-Cheney campaigns of 2000 and 2004. Bolton indicates that “[s]ome activists expect civil disobedience, which could lead to powerful images of priests and nuns being led away in hand restraints,” (Bolton, ibid).
Ron Bonjean, a Republican strategist, says of the rallies and potential arrests, that “[t]hese would be devastating images for the Obama administration… You have a very important religious demographic coming out in protest of Obama’s policies and being arrested for their expression. These images would be politically damaging for the president’s campaign,” Bolton, ibid).
If this seems to be becoming more of a political matter than religious, the Catholics are already, according Hill, linking up with the powerful Evangelical Right lobby of Colorado Springs to cooperate on an advertising and media campaign designed to drive home the issue. QEV Analytics pollster Steven Wagner, in completing polling work for The Catholic Association, observes, “Everyone says this election is about the economy. I can see the issue of religious liberty being what decides the race. If Obama continues to lose Catholics by the margin the Pew poll suggests, that means he could lose … key swing states…” (Bolton, ibid). These Pew poll indicate that in 2009, 17% of Catholics felt Obama to be unfriendly towards religion. In 2012, the number is closer to 31%, (Bolton, ibid).
In January 2012, the bishops in the United States sent out letters to their parishes, requiring the priests to read them from the pulpit encouraging worshipers to contact Washington with their opposition to the new rules. According to Bolton, this campaign was buttressed by support from Evangelical Right groups such as the Christian Coalition in fund-raising and direct-mail campaign to raise money to oppose Obama’s campaign. Bolton quotes conservative Catholic activist Larry Cirignano as stating, “It’s not just Catholics that are against the contraception mandate.… If this goes through, there’s no stopping what’s next. It’s all about all the religious freedom issues, from putting God into the Pledge of Allegiance to putting ‘In God we trust’ on money,” (Bolton, ibid). Cirignano’s tie-ins to Constitutional issues seems designed to appeal to the Republican hard-core Tea Partiers for support in the Catholic struggle.
Unlike the Catholics, while most Anabaptists and Evangelicals have held to a Pro-Life theology and ethic regarding abortion, concerns over preventative contraception have not been a traditional concern amongst the various low church denominations and bodies. While the Roman Catholic theology regarding contraception is a valid Christian theology, its introduction into the Evangelical and low church theology is a significant alteration of traditional Evangelical thought – possibly indicating both a turning away from the Enlightenment-based theology of the Reformation-era Scottish and English churches towards a more Mediterranean neo-Scholastic theology.
One would hope that supporting churches would accompany such a change with the required debate, Biblicism, prayer and dialogue that such a change should entail, rather than to adopt it simply out of solidarity with a political campaign. There are significant moral and theological ramifications that can seemingly both be based on a Christian understanding of the Bible but that also carry significant, centuries-old ethical ancillary understandings – especially as we enter into the Postmodern age of genetic and computer technologies.
Other Catholic intellectuals are less sure of the powerful Conference of American Bishops’ stance on the Obama Administration’s attempts at reform. It is possible that the bishops are equally motivated by larger concerns – namely their opposition to gay marriage and abortion rights. Bolton quotes James Salt, executive director of Catholics United, a social-justice-oriented group, “[The current public relation campaign] reflects a great misplaced priority of the bishops. In no way is it apparent to me how Catholics in America are oppressed. Their positioning in society is greater than their numbers. There are six Catholic members of the Supreme Court … This is part of a very orchestrated campaign by the bishops to make contraception the focus of the 2012 election,” (Bolton, ibid). Bolton adds that Salt felt the broader goal of the bishops’ organization to be to place Mitt Romney in the White House so that he can nominate the key fifth conservative justice on the United States Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade. Salt does not mention other key essential controversies making their way to the Supreme Court such as a successful challenge to the anti-gay marriage Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and the right of religious organizations to discriminate in the hiring, firing and acceptance of non-conforming personnel and members.
|Emily Herx, Fort Wayne, Indiana|
Which brings us back to Herx. According Erin Murphy of WISH-TV (Indianapolis) and Kathleen DeLaney, Herx’s attorney, the Herx family was “blind-sided” by her following. In fact, Herx felt that in desiring to start a family, she and her husband were doing the right thing. According DeLaney, Emily was fired because in vitro is against the Catholic doctrine… but this was never explicitly spelled out, “There was no training provided, no warning given about activities in fertility or birth control or anything else…” Delaney (Murphy, see below).
Murphy quotes Brian Herx, Emily’s husband, “Had anyone from the administration … come and told her, we would have made an educated decision and an informed decision. And that’s the chance we were never given,” (Murphy, ibid).
The Diocese of Fort Wayne – South Bend responded, according to Murphy, that it has been saddened by the lawsuit but maintains its right as a religious employer to enforce Roman Catholic principles amongst its staff. The Catholic Church opposes in vitro fertilization because during the process, embryos might be destroyed. According to Church teaching, an embryo is a person and cannot be killed.
According to some reports, in firing Herx, church officials called her, “a grave, immoral sinner.”
Which brings us back to the disturbing sense of comradery between the conservative Conference of American Bishops and the Evangelical leadership amongst the Republicans – supporting theological and ethical positions for political reasons and without the proper debate, study and dialogue, leaves many questions unanswered – if a person can be fired for engaging reproductive assistance technologies – could someone be similarly fired for believing in the adult baptism or for questioning the traditional authority of the Pope – according to the northern Indiana Diocese, the answer seems to be yes. If Anabaptists and Evangelicals help to make contraception a political issue – are the Evangelicals and allied Anabaptists then taking on an anti-contraceptive ethic? Will we (Evangelicals, Anabaptists Mormons and Pietists) then similarly fire those who engage in family planning or reproductive health technologies or are we only conditionally willing to consider taking on this new ethic? (Unlike Protestant and Low/Evangelical Church tradition, official Catholic dogma leaves little wiggle room.) Will we make groups such as The Catholic Association clearly state the goals we pursue together as a group and drop the term contraception? How will this be decided? Would an arbitrary, gray teaching on these matters open itself up as a tool for abuse? Will Evangelicals demand that an Evangelical be appointed by Romney to even out the presence of four Catholics on the Court in exchange for our support? Is Herx’s otherwise illustrious career and those of others who fail to conform worth the political gains in Washington? So many questions…
(28 Apr 2012, Chicago, IL)
Note: In as much as my own background is evangelical Mennonite (small ‘e’), there is an identity dilemma or paradox in that we would association as both Evangelicals and Mennonites – most often resolved by relegating the Mennonite heritage to our cultural ethnic heritage and Evangelical being the religious descriptive. This perspective would not be shared by all Mennonites, Amish or Evangelicals.