While working on the introduction to a book I intend to publish in the next few months, I am reading “Radical Love: Forever Changed” by Donna Lowe and Kimberly Parker. In the introduction to part three, Lowe and Parker write about how little things from our past – a certain sound, a television program – may cause us to relive painful emotions. The point they make is that we ought to be intentional about not allowing ourselves to become trapped in those responses. This is the purpose of spiritual disciplines. This is the work of radical love.

The debate about the clash of rights around the Obama administration’s decision to require employers to provide health insurance coverage for contraception – even some Catholic institutions– has taken me to such a painful place.

President Obama announced an adjustment to the policy that no longer requires religious institutions to provide such coverage, rather the mandate shifts to insurance companies. This accommodation has satisfied some Catholic organizations, but the Catholic Bishops remain dissatisfied. However, the discourse around this issue is still painful.

When I was a little girl, I saw ugly, angry, violent images of people in the south claiming that the push to end apartheid in America was a violation of their rights –states’ rights, free association rights, property rights. However, the civil rights movement was about making sure that every citizen in the nation enjoyed equal protection under the law.

When my children were children, we watched this battle told in documentary form in the series “Eyes on the Prize.” As a seminary professor, I used this series as a resource in my class on the civil rights movement. This class included the conservative reaction to the movement, including anti-abortion demonstrations. Over the years as I have watched the “culture wars’ in the United States, I have often thought that religious people wanted to use the government to advance their religious agenda.

In this current debate, when I hear the complaint from the Catholic Bishops that a health- care mandate to provide contraception for women is an assault on religious liberty, I see those ugly images from my girlhood past because the question of contraception for women is a question of equal protection under the law. Once again we have a clash of rights. The Affordable Care Act is the law.

Also, when I hear the Bishop’s complaint, I wonder whether or not this is a way for them to restrict the use of contraception through the limitation of access to contraception. According to most reports, 98 per cent of Catholic women use or have used contraception. The Catholic teaching against contraception has failed. Is this a way to use the government to achieve what the Church has not and will not be able to achieve?

This is a question because Anthony Picarello, general counsel, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said on The “PBS Newshour” that the Church wants an exemption that goes beyond Church affiliated institutions. He said:

“I think, again, what we’re looking for in terms of breadth is to protect the religious liberty interests and consciences of all of those who would be affected by the mandate. So that means employers — religious employers, yes, but also employers with religious people running them or other people of conviction who are running them.

“It means religious insurers. And they do exist. Under this mandate, they’re required to include in their policies that they write things that they don’t agree with as a matter of religious conviction, and individuals as well who have to pay for it through their premiums.” (http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/politics/jan-june12/contraception_02-09.html)

If the exemptions were to go this far, how many women would this affect? How many women would not be able to afford contraception?

But all of this is my own personal stuff. Let us bracket it.

I think it is important to understand the reasoning that supports the Church’s ban on contraception. It derives from the idea that the primary purpose of sexuality and of marriage is procreation, and that anything that hinders this is contrary to the natural and eternal laws of God. The argument says that every sexual act is and ought to be an opportunity for procreation. Yet there has been much scholarship among Catholic theologians for many years that takes a different view.

Moral theologian Lisa Sowle Cahill tells some of this history in an essay entitled: “Catholic Sexual Ethics and the Dignity of the Person: A Double Message.” (http://www.ts.mu.edu/content/50/50.1/50.1.6.pdf) There has been both personalist and traditionalist streams of thought in Catholic moral scholarship. The personalist stream “turns attention to the experience of spouses in all its cultural and social variability” (133). Traditionalist, including the magisterium considered “the” experience of married sex as an invariant thing.”

The question is whether or not procreation is the primary purpose of sex. Personalists see other purposes such as expression of conjugal love, mutual pleasure, and joy as functions of sex that are as important as procreation. Cahill argues that procreation is not the be all and end all of human sexuality:

“Certainly it is not always wrong to prevent a physical faculty from attaining its end; procreation is not an absolute good or duty; and even if procreation is a contribution to the common good, the duty to make this contribution has limits(or else no method of birth control would be licit) (135).

Much of the reasoning that underlies the Church’s prohibition against the use of contraception is based in natural law. As a Baptist, I base much of my spiritual morality in the Bible as mediated through my personal relationship with Holy Spirit. I have written about the spirituality of sexuality. Sex is another way that God loves us. (http://onfaith.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/panelists/valerie_elverton_dixon/2010/04/the_spirituality_of_sexuality.html)

But, even if one looks closely at the natural law tradition, its conclusions are not fixed. Natural law provides for the function of reason. It provides for the idea that what we can know of the eternal law at one moment in time can be different at another moment in time. Thus, what Augustine and Aquinas (both deeply misogynistic thinkers) understood of the natural law may be quite different from what reason reveals of the natural law in 2012.

In my opinion, the Catholic Bishops representing the Catholic hierarchy are making an idol of the teaching against contraception. They worship this created thing rather than the living Creator, and every living thing changes. God reveals different aspects of God’s own Divine self. God sends new mercies day by blessed day. (Lamentation 3:22) The Bishops are worshiping the idol of doctrine at the expense of women’s health and of human happiness.

The natural law tradition argues that rational creatures ought to live toward their final cause, to live into their purpose for being. For believers, the purpose of our living is to be praise to the glory of God. (Ephesians 1:6) Such may or may not include procreation. This means that church doctrines and disciplines ought to at best comport with, or at least to be second to compassion, mercy and radical love. God is Love.

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