I have a friend who was once the union delegate for the faculty of a Catholic high school. He is married to a wonderful girl who worked as a benefits specialist in a large hospital in New York City.
I am bright enough to have worked on the faculties of two high schools, but in many respects, I am a dim bulb, so I had to ask him to explain to me, as best as he was able, why health care has become a point of contention between the Eighth Cardinal Archbishop of the Archdiocese of New York, and the 44th President of the United States. My friend is a thorough man, so he started with the basics:
An employer pays thousands of dollars, per employee, per year, so that employees can have health insurance. Employees receive such medical services as are covered by those insurers: surgery, medication, consultations, whatever is according to the nature and the extent of the policy that is selected by the employer for the employee.
The employee may have some input as to which policy is selected, and employees may be required to contribute something to the cost, but the employee would not have insurance if the employer did not pay for it. This was true in America before the 44th President became the latest chief executive who sought to provide every American with health care. For the most part, it is still true.
This is simple enough for even me to understand. Indeed, it is the substance of my own experience. I was employed by the Archdiocese of New York for all but the most recent five years of my adult life.
For that entire time, I had health insurance that I deemed more than adequate. For more than half of the more than twenty years of my employment, I did not have to contribute anything from my paycheck towards my health insurance, and when I finally was required to contribute, I was paying less money each month for my health insurance than I was paying for my telephone.
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My employer picked up the lion’s share of my health insurance, doing for me what it would have been ruinously expensive for me to do for myself. I don’t believe I ever said thank you.
Before I submitted to the tutelage of my beleaguered friend, I thought I knew as much about health insurance coverage through employment as I needed to know – which was, thanks to my more-than-adequate coverage, not all that much.
Now, just as I am ready to conclude that I understand sufficiently, the 44th President of the United States is requiring me to stretch my understanding far enough to accommodate two additional propositions.
* He wants the insurance company that my employer has employed, and all the insurance companies employed by all the employers of the Republic, to be required to pay for birth control
* He wants me to understand that he is accommodating the principles of religiously-affiliated employers who consider any manner of birth control other than abstinence to be morally objectionable by making such birth control available to its employees directly through their insurers – the very insurers who would not be their insurers if their employers did not pay them to be their insurers.
The Cardinal Archbishop of the Archdiocese of New York, whose three most recent predecessors were my nominal employers for over twenty years, obviously speaks for the American Conference of Catholic Bishops, and apparently speaks for many leaders of other religiously-affiliated institutions, when he calls the president’s proposal a violation of conscience, and a violation of the right to religious liberty that is guaranteed to all religiously-affiliated groups – and to all American citizens – by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.
He says that the accommodation is not an accommodation at all, because if the insurance companies are required to provide birth control, and the church is required to hire the insurance companies, then the government is effectively violating the First Amendment rights of the church.
The Cardinal Archbishop does not seem to be satisfied with the proposition that birth control would not be coming directly from his archdiocese. This doesn’t surprise me in the least. Religious groups traditionally make no distinction between the direct violation of conscience and the indirect violation of conscience – and this is presumably because they believe that God makes no such distinction.
For what it’s worth, I also don’t believe that God makes any distinction between a direct or indirect violation of conscience. I also believe that the First Amendment of the Constitution is a guarantee that religious liberty will be neither directly, nor indirectly, impeded by the federal government. I understand the misgivings of the Cardinal Archbishop of the Archdiocese of New York.
I explained these misgivings to my friend, the union delegate. I should add at this point that my friend struggles to be a good Catholic, but the last few years have made him angrier and more frustrated with the leadership of our church than he has ever been – and that is saying a great deal.
My friend looked at me with equal measures of pity and exasperation. I recognize that look right away, because I get it a lot. He explained to me that the Cardinal Archbishop would not have to pay for anybody’s birth control, because the insurance companies would provide free birth control for the employees without charging the employers any extra for it.
The insurance companies, my friend told me, would gladly pay for birth control, because it is so much more cost-effective than paying for pregnancy. The Cardinal Archbishop would not have to pay for it – no religiously-affiliated organizations would have to pay for it: they would just continue to pay the insurance companies, and the insurance companies would pay for it.
“Besides,” he said, hoping that even if this impeccable logic did not enlighten me, his weary tone would discourage me from asking any additional questions, “most Catholics don’t agree with what the church has to say about birth control anyway.”
I let the matter drop, not wishing to tax my friend’s patience any further. He tried to help me understand that the 44th President was not pressuring the Cardinal Archbishop, and other religious leaders, to compromise religious principles.
He tried to explain to me that the president was actually accommodating them, and their inconvenient and unpopular scruples, on his way to an utterly transparent vision of universal health care.
He lost me in the end, because I don’t really understand what the well-known unpopularity of church teaching on birth control among avowed Catholics in America has to do with the legitimacy of the Cardinal Archbishop’s objection: Should it matter that the principles that religiously-affiliated groups are determined to uphold have been rejected by many of their presumed adherents?
Should it matter, when I stand on principle myself, how anyone else – those closest to me, members of my own household, feels about my principles?
Consider the following proposition:
“In the United States of America, people who believe it is morally acceptable to use birth control, in any or all of its manifestations, have as much right to avail themselves of it as the Cardinal Archbishop, and any other citizen of the republic who is so inclined, has to speak out against it.”
Simple as I am, I think this is an accurate statement, and it has been so for as long as the Cardinal Archbishop, and the 44th President of the United States, and I can remember.
It is also a statement that makes it fairly clear to me who should be required to pay for birth control, and who should not be required to pay for birth control.
J.R. McCarthy is a Bronx-born schoolteacher and poet and is an occasional contributor to the Irish Echo.