UPDATE: This story was originally published at Daily Kos. I followed up with a letter to my Bishop, which I published at the Broad Side. -Elisa
Once again, I find myself shaking indignantly at my church’s leadership and at the same time contemplating what I should do for this year’s annual “Bishop’s Appeal” that supports our inner city Catholic schools, clergy and ministries in our parish. God, I hate Catholic guilt!
And make no mistake. I am Catholic to my core. I am a political progressive who has never voted for a Republican in her life and lives in the equally progressive enclave of Berkeley, California. Nothing has turned heads more here than the revelation that I attend mass every Sunday with my children and that I am active in various ministries at my Catholic church.
As a child, I attended Catholic school for nine years in my Caribbean working class neighborhood in Miami. My childhood memories are dotted by masses in Spanish, lovely images of Mother Mary processions and the hope that came with a Cuban rafter showing up to our shores with nothing but a statue of her. Many in my family and childhood best friends are Catholic. Catholicism shaped the person that I am today from the decision to marry my first serious boyfriend — we’ve been together for 15 years! — to my working in social justice. And I love my fellow Catholic parishioners, who thankfully, are nothing like…our church leadership.
Once again, I find myself indignantly shaking my head at the church. Catholic Bishops — who are old, purporting to be celibate, largely white men completely out of touch with their constituents — were on a rampage last week against the Affordable Care Act for a rule that requires coverage for free birth control. Never mind that this bill has already helped millions of Americans gain access to health care. Contraception itself prevents unintended pregnancies, improves outcomes for children already on earth, reduces abortions and saves lives.
And the hypocrisy that emanates from the Bishops’ actions reek like a big pot of rotting meat. Just take a look at the number of them who covered up crimes of pedophilia in the Catholic church. These men do not have a moral leg to stand on that the president would have been wise to gently show them the door.
But so loud were these bishops that the Obama Administration has decided to give them an out from directly providing women, including non-Catholics, free birth control. The health insurance companies will have to pick up the tab, which is fine by me as long as women have access to this preventative care. But I am still peeved at the hypocrisy and unchristian actions by the Bishops.
Catholic Bishops’ outcry has NOTHING to do with “religious freedom”
It is disingenuous for the Bishops to say that the government would be overstepping its bounds and violating “religious freedom” by mandating that they provide birth control to their employees, including non-Catholic staff. Catholic hospitals, charities and universities have long received billions of dollars from the federal government whether for financial aid for non-Catholic students to attend a Catholic university or Medicaid dollars for low-income patients treated at Catholic hospitals. To say that the government “should stay out” is like saying that the average taxpayer giving to these institutions should have no say in how the money is spent. Talk about having your cake and eating it, too.
And just to show how out of touch the Bishops are from their Catholic parishioners, a majority of Catholics on the ground — more so than the general public – supported having Catholic institutions offer their employees free birth control. A whopping 98% of sexually active Catholic women have used birth control at some point in their lives. As I often joke, without the miraculous invention of birth control many of us would have 15 children!
The outcry by the Catholic Bishops has nothing to do with their parishioners, performing God’s will or the church’s finances, some of which, again, comes from taxpayers. This has everything to do with their hunger for (more) power.
As I often point out to non-Catholics, the Catholic Church is a 2,000-year-old institution that doesn’t reflect modern life at all. The leadership is a closed society of largely white men in luxurious dwellings, which I try not to subsidize by focusing my donations on specific ministries and my own parish. Thus, my confliction about the Bishop’s Appeal this year. These men are so out of touch with their parishioners, who are juggling jobs, children and relationships, and politically, support women becoming priests and other reforms to the church.
It is our pastors, nuns and parishioners on the ground that visit the sick, feed the homeless and help people in need. We know how crucial birth control is to keep families from falling into poverty. We also know that birth control prevents abortions and saves lives. When I think of birth control, I often think of my own visits to Planned Parenthood when I was a broke college student who was trying to do right by me, my husband — then boyfriend — and our future life together. I also think of Catholic moms like Rita:
Rita was suffering from a serious heart defect. She was six weeks pregnant and had a defective cardiac valve that had to be replaced with a synthetic one. Pregnancy put her at high risk for a blood clot forming on the new valve and travelling to her brain, where it could kill her.
Rita had not been using contraception because she had no insurance to make it affordable—not because she didn’t want to use it. While in the hospital, despite taking blood thinners to treat her clots, Rita had a stroke. The woman I had spent hours with talking about caring for her five living children, her marriage, how to handle her unplanned pregnancy—that woman could no no longer speak or walk. When I think of birth control access, I think of Rita and her family.—Jen Russo, MD, Pittsburgh, PA
Where is the Bishops’ compassion for mothers like Rita? As I mentioned earlier in my piece, Catholics do use birth control — 98% of sexually active Catholic women! — because, again, our lives do not reflect those of the Bishops. We understand that life on the ground is so much more complicated than it is within the walls of the Bishops’ dwellings.
I am angry and I am sad. Thankfully, the president has found a way to assure that women have access to ALL life-saving and preventable care, regardless of where they work. I can’t say the same about my church’s leadership. As a Christian, the Bishops’ actions don’t sit well with me as it seems to go against Jesus’s teachings to put ourselves in other people’s shoes and treat others as we would want to be treated. I can’t help but think that if these privileged men lived one day of their average parishioner’s life, they would be singing a whole new tune.
I pray that the Holy Spirit will guide these men towards genuine understanding and compassion.