I’ve been reading a lot about the recent controversy over the pressure that American Catholic bishops are putting against the Obama administration over the mandate that employees at Catholic-run universities and hospitals (who all receive federal money) must receive coverage for contraception. According to the bishops, the law forces these institutions to go against their doctrine, which bans the use of the pill, condoms or any other artificial form of avoiding pregnancy (the rhythm method is OK, though).
This brought me back memories something that happened when I lived in Brazil at a time when the Brazilian Confederation of Catholic Bishops (CNBB) still held a strong influence over policy there. In 1985 the new civilian administration talked about the end of censorship in the country, vowing that works of art would no longer be cut or banned from the public – something that was routing during the dark years of the regime.
Shortly after that, they were put to the test and failed miserably.
In 1985, French film maker Jean-Luc Godard had made a film called “Hail Mary,” which told a modern take on the story of the Virgin Mary and the Immaculate Conception. Because of scenes of frontal nudity and other issues, the Roman Catholic church opposed to the film (Pope John Paul II stated that the picture “”deeply wounds the religious sentiments of believers”) and many protesters showed up in front of theaters that showed it.
When it came the time to release the film in Brazil, the CNBB did everything to stop the film from being shown in the country – and succeeded. Evoking laws that they had promised to repeal, the government promptly banned “Hail Mary” from theaters for years. The action generated a public outcry over censorship in the country, and when the country’s new constitution was unveiled in 1988, the practice was banned for good – which made the exhibition of Martin Scorsese’s very controversial “Jesus Christ’s Last Temptation” possible in spite of protests from various religious groups that rallied in front of theaters around the country.
This story might seem unrelated to today’s discussion, but the point it that no religious organization should determine what one country’s citizenry might have the right to do or not. Sure, any organization can preach its doctrine to the faithful (who have the choice of following it or not), but when it comes to national policy in a country that separates church in state, they are welcome to voice their opinions. However, I don’t think any religious group should get involved with government decisions.
Catholic hospitals and universities are not churches – their employees might have different faiths (or no faith at all). Also, most of these institutions receive public money, which means that they have to conform to the laws that are in the books. GOP Presidential candidate Mitt Romney wrote on his website that the Obama administration is “”using Obamacare (sic) to impose a secular vision on Americans who believe that they should not have their religious freedom taken away.”
The former governor is right about one thing: we have a secular government, not a theocracy. Another thing: Catholics who receive contraception coverage can opt not to use it at all if it is against their conscience – which makes the whole argument moot in the first place.