The Conscience of an Institution

The Conscience of an Institution

by digby

So last night Mark Shields and David Brooks clucked and sobbed and rended their garments over the Obama administration's decision to require most Catholic institutions to offer health care coverage that includes birth control. According to them, this is going to cost the Democrats the election as Catholics around the country will now vote for the Republicans --- even though 98% of Catholic women have used birth control and 70% use the highly effective methods of sterilization, the pill and the IUD. Evidently, it's some sort of hypocritical pride thing (or it's just something made up in the heads of some male elites who are invested in the idea of the "Catholic vote" being contingent on birth control for some reason.)

Here's Mark Shields, very confused and depressed about the whole thing:

MARK SHIELDS: I honestly don't know. I think there was a tone-deafness. I think maybe the Mitt Romney thing is contagious.

I mean, there just really was. This was after the president in private conversations and in public speeches at the commencement address at Notre Dame had said, we're going to work out a compromise. We will work this out. We will have a solution that respects the conscience.

The conscience clause is deep in our tradition. It's Quakers at time of war. It's Seventh-day Adventist not being forced to work on the Sabbath. It's Orthodox Jews being given kosher food. You know, it just really, to me -- I don't know. You can make a political calculation, but I honestly don't know why they did it.
First, they did it so that women will have their birth control covered even though they happen to work as a file clerk in a Catholic University or an x-ray technician at a Catholic Hospital. I can understand why they didn't think about that. After all, in the entire discussion "women" didn't even come up. Why should they? This isn't about them. It's about the important men who make decisions for them.

Secondly, Mark Shields and everyone else who is shrieking about conscience clauses fail to see a very important distinction. A Quaker individual is not required to join in combat. A Seventh Day Adventist individual is not forced to work on the sabbath. An Orthodox Jewish individual is provided kosher food. A Catholic individual is allowed to exercise her conscience and not use birth control. These are what is known in common parlance as "people" as opposed to institutions.

After all, as Katha Pollit points out in this piece:

Are [individual] Quakers, Jehovah’s Witnesses and other pacifists exempt from taxes that pay for war and weapons? Can Scientologists, who abhor psychiatry, deduct the costs of the National Institute of Mental Health? As an atheist, a feminist, a progressive, I ante up for so much stuff that violates my conscience, the government should probably pay me damages. Why should the bishops be exempt from the costs of living in a pluralistic society?

Indeed. After all, the religious institutions have one very special privilege: they pay no taxes, unlike their followers, who are required to pay for many things they disagree with. Apparently, that isn't enough, however. The Church wants to pay no taxes and be exempt from the costs of living in a pluralistic society. Sweet deal.

People are getting very confused on this issue. We ostensibly believe in rights and liberties in America and have a set of rules in our constitution guaranteeing them. But lately, we've decided that these phony constructs of institutional rights and liberties --- "corporate personhood","conscience of the church" --- actually supercede individual rights and liberties. I don't mean to evoke the sacred founders here, but I'm afraid they would say that idea is, in their words, total bullshit. They knew very well that the government wasn't the only possible oppressor. 500 years of bloody European religious history had taught them that.

If the Catholic bishops don't want people to use birth control it needs to convince people not to use birth control. That's how we exercise "conscience" in a free society. No Catholic employees anywhere, including a Catholic bishop, will be forced to use birth control, I guarantee it. Their individual consciences will be respected.

Beyond that, this is a matter between the Church and the congregant to work out for themselves. There is no reason for the government to discriminate against citizens who happen to work for Catholic institutions simply because the hierarchy of that institution doesn't want them to behave a certain way in their private lives. We don't do that here. At least, we didn't used to.

Update: And then there's this little bit of tittilating gossip, delivered in a hushed, conspiratorial tone:

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you have a sense of why?

DAVID BROOKS: No, and it is a great mystery.

I hear conspiracy theories. Who switched the president's mind? Who would have the power to change his mind after he had made these vows? I don't know. I really think they should come out and address it a little more, because not getting some of the front -page covers that I think it deserves. But it is out there.

Well who would that be, do you suppose? Would it be the shrieking harpy Michelle Obama who forced poor old henpecked Barack to make a bad decision against his will? Yes, I'm afraid so. And this isn't just coming from the depths of the wingnut fever swamps. That's on the PBS News Hour.

I'm telling you, you let these liberal bitches near a president and the next thing you know they're running the damn country.

Update II: Joan Walsh has a nice piece about the hypocrisy.