Re-engaging the birth control debate: A dualistic approach
Published: Saturday, April 28, 2012
Updated: Monday, August 27, 2012 17:08
The national discourse on the highly-debated birth control mandate, in which religiously-affiliated institutions such as hospitals and universities may have to provide birth control coverage in employee health plans, has drawn attention and responses from religious and non-religious leaders alike. While what has often been at the forefront in this discourse in recent weeks appears to be the contested morality of birth control and contraceptives in certain religious circles, these are secondary issues that not only reveal the need for more critical conversations internally in religious institutions, but point to a deeper concern at hand – the limitations and boundaries of religious freedom in a changing American cultural and societal landscape.
While I, as a young Catholic, agree that the Catholic discourse on birth control, sexuality and contraceptives (among other issues) has stagnated and has failed to fully address changing and current realities, I also agree with Catholic and other religious leaders in saying that this mandate is indeed an incursion on the religious freedoms of not only Catholics, but of other faith communities who may hold similar views and concerns rooted in a theological or spiritual hermeneutic.
Healthcare reform is necessary, but the relationship of faith communities to these changing realities must also be re-engaged.The issue at hand is not healthcare policy, but the government’s encroachment into the sphere of religious life, the division of religious communities and institutions and declarations as to what is or is not religious enough in relation to secular policies. Healthcare reform is needed, but are we willing to, in the process, sacrifice religious freedoms and ignore the moral objections of religious communities?
The reason this mandate has moved to the center of nationwide thought and concern is because of the realm of possibilities that are opened up regarding the involvement of secular institutions in questions of religious identity. A similar blurring of divisions and authority can be noted in a recent controversy at Manhattan College in New York and St. Xavier University in Chicago, in which the National Labor Relations Board ruled these institutions as not sufficiently religious to fall outside of the agency’s jurisdiction.
While the issues of labor laws and the complex reality of the state-federal political relationship need to be navigated responsibly, these actions reveal a growing involvement of secular institutions and rulings into religious affairs. This affects not only Catholics and Christians, but all religious communities in the United States. If these mandates and rulings succeed and set precedent, what are possible further consequences? How far will the government be allowed to go in setting boundaries on religious identity?
These threats to religious freedom have also come from elsewhere, most recently in the news of the undercover NYPD investigation of Muslims in New York. What all of these developments ultimately point to is the need for our discourse to evolve. Just because we, as a nation, have struggled with questions of religious freedom and religious pluralism and identity for more than two centuries does not mean that we have come close to solving these questions and to fully engaging the reality of pluralism, secularism and democracy. As a society, we are uncomfortable with questions of religion and pluralism, and we are afraid to challenge established, constructed boundaries. We must find ways to critically address issues of religious freedom in an evolving world. Young leaders must be central in encouraging this societal shift.
I see the interfaith youth movement as providing a possible vehicle for this changing discourse. At DePaul University, the largest Catholic university in the United States, we have provided state-mandated birth control options for students and staff for years, but we have also carved out the critical spaces both in and out of the classroom. We have done this by having engaging, respectful conversations on these issues while also being rooted in the tradition of the Catholic Church and the reality of religious diversity. In growing together in these questions, we are also committed to common action for the common good, and religious freedom is a necessary component of this communal welfare.
The interfaith youth movement and organizations like Religious Freedom USA and the Interfaith Youth Core are working to promote new spaces for this discourse on issues of religious freedom, and these conversations must continually be pressed forward. Young leaders, religious and non-religious, must work together in being the catalyst for change that is needed in our society. Faith communities must begin to creatively and critically address these issues, and only then can we responsibly engage in the pressing questions that demand our reflection and attention.