One of the more interesting developments in the debate about whether or not to expand the conscience exemptions regarding mandated insurance coverage for procedures the Catholic Church finds morally objectionable, such as contraception, sterilization and some drugs the Church considers abortifacients, is the fact that so many Catholics who do not share those moral objections are nonetheless vociferous in urging a broader exemption. Friends who denounce the bishops as naïve or willing tools of the GOP, who think that contraception is fine, or who otherwise seldom miss the opportunity to trash the hierarchy, nonetheless find themselves disturbed by the idea that the federal government would force Catholic institutions to abide by rules that conflict with the dictates of the Church.
Some of this concern manifests an understandable awareness that if the government can mandate contraception today, it might mandate abortion coverage tomorrow. Many Catholics who are not morally troubled by contraception remain morally troubled by abortion. Some also perceive the essential religious liberty issues at stake. Unlike those champions of the “wall of separation” like the ACLU, who now can’t climb over that wall fast enough in order to tell Notre Dame or Catholic Charities what insurance plans they must buy, these Catholics recognize that the government should be wary of intruding into the religious sphere.
But, there is a yet deeper issue, and one that I suspect has not occurred to the people at the White House advising the President. It has to do with Catholic pride. There was a time when Catholics had to build their own schools because mainstream schools like Harvard did not welcome Catholics and public schools forced Catholic students to pray with Protestant texts like the King James Bible. The vast array of Catholic social service agencies often began as a ministry to immigrant co-religionists who faced all manner of hostility and little succor from the government. To the great credit of the Church, those ministries continued even when they were no longer primarily serving Catholics.
Those institutions were built by our ancestors, who often had only their pennies to contribute. They are “ours” not only in a legal sense but in a cultural sense. And, Catholics do not take kindly to institutions their forbears built because the mainstream culture would not admit them to their institutions, now being ordered to change their ways by the same people whose forbears kept Catholics out in the first place.
The current episode recalls the 1978 attempt by the IRS to change the rules governing the tax-exempt status of private Christian schools. Many of those schools had been created by southern Protestants in response to Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 Supreme Court decision that ordered an end to segregation in the public schools. In 1969, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights filed a suit seeking to strip these schools of their tax-exempt status and won. The Nixon administration issued a rule that only required the schools to insert a non-discrimination pledge into their bylaws, but organizations continued to sue. On August 22, 1978, the IRS issued a rule that required the schools to prove they did not discriminate rather than, as previously, forcing the IRS to prove that they did.
The backlash was immediate and intense. Robert Billings, who would become the first executive director of the Moral Majority the following year, launched a campaign to turn back the rule. The IRS received some 126,000 letters of protest. The calls to Congress were so many, they overwhelmed the switchboard. Richard Viguerie, one of the found fathers of the modern religious right, believed that the IRS backlash was decisive in driving conservative evangelical Christians into politics. “It kicked the sleeping dog,” Viguerie said. “It galvanized the religious right.”
It should be noted that by 1978 most private Christian academies had a few black students. But, these church-run schools were predominantly white in part because the churches they attended were predominantly white. It has been well said that Sunday morning remains one of the most segregated of times in American life. Students whose parents belonged to the church might receive discounted tuition, and those students whose parents went elsewhere might not be able to afford the full tuition. In short, you can explain the disproportionate lack of black students at the schools without recognizing explicit racism as the cause. Additionally, by 1978, Christian academies were often founded not to avoid segregation but to avoid sex education in the public schools. Having built these schools to escape what they believed were pernicious secular influences in the public schools, they did not take kindly to an assault on them from the government.
The Obama administration should be very careful in making its decision. Polls may indicate that many Catholics do not agree with the teaching of their bishops about contraception, but those same Catholics will not take kindly to any efforts to tell them how to run their schools, hospitals and social service agencies.
Most of all, Catholics understand that our schools and our hospitals and our social service agencies grow out of our faith. Unlike Luther, we have always put a high value on good works. Catholics take seriously Jesus’ words, found in the 25th Chapter of the Gospel of St. Matthew – whatever you do for one of these the least of my brethren, you do for me. Catholics grow up learning the corporal works of mercy – feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned, etc. – and that list is drawn from that same Bible passage. These institutions are expressions of our self-identity as Catholics. And even those Catholics who do not agree with all the Church’s teachings know that the mission of the Church, expressed in educational, medical and social justice organizations, is something integral, something in the DNA of those institutions, and that we don’t want the government mucking around in our Church.
As noted earlier, President Obama is struggling with white, working class voters in Pennsylvania. Many of those voters are Catholics. They care about the economy, to be sure, but that is not the only thing they care about. Picking a fight with Catholics is one thing he should avoid. Pricking their pride is just plain dumb.