Catholic Leaders Must Dial Down The Rhetoric

Catholic Leaders Must Dial Down The Rhetoric

As a non-Catholic, I wrestled with an internal conflict over the birth control battle of the bishops.

Part of me has been so outraged over this all-male effort to undermine women’s reproductive rights that I can barely string together words that are appropriate for family newspapers. The other part of me has wondered whether my not being Catholic renders this mess a whole lot of none of my business.

As of this week, conflict resolved.

On Monday, Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio — where Rick Santorum gave his I-almost-won primary speech earlier this year — announced it was canceling all student health care insurance because the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act requires coverage for “women’s health services.”

Translation: Blame the harlots.

“We encourage you to decide how you are going to provide for accidents or illnesses requiring visits to physicians, health clinics, or the hospital emergency room while you are a student here,” the university said in a statement.

In a news conference, the university’s president, the Rev. Terence Henry, said the Diocese of Steubenville had hired the top-gun law firm Jones Day to file suit against Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and President Barack Obama’s administration. The diocese joins 11 similar lawsuits, all of them filed by Catholic organizations.

“Under no circumstances can Catholics be both in compliance with this new law and at the same time live that faith that we believe,” Henry said. “This is not just a Catholic issue. It is an issue for all people. It attacks our basic religious freedom. … This is a do-or-die issue for Americans.”

And with that, I am done with any internal conflict over my non-Catholic status in America.

If the Roman Catholic Church wants to make this about all Americans, then this American is unequivocal: Access to affordable contraception saves lives, and there is no constitutional right to discriminate against the women who need it.

You don’t have to be Catholic to be offended by a relentless campaign to cast sexually active females as God-defying, wanton women. And you don’t have to be a woman to object to the bishops’ attempts to keep women enslaved by their menstrual cycles.

The latest Gallup poll spells it out. If you think birth control is morally acceptable, you’re a member of the overwhelming majority of Americans. For those of you who like numbers, that’s 82 percent of Catholics and 90 percent of non-Catholics who think birth control is just fine.

It’s just plain sad to watch the bishops’ efforts to dehumanize the women who are the breath and pulse of their churches. It’s alarming to listen to the increasingly violent language used by Catholic leaders to draw battle lines across women’s wombs.

The Rev. Henry described it as a “do-or-die” issue. Archbishop Timothy Dolan accused the White House of “strangling” the church. Bishop Daniel Jenky, a Notre Dame board member, compared the president’s position on religious freedom to the policies of Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin.

It’s this kind of incendiary language that launched a brave response by faculty and staff members at another Catholic institution in Ohio — John Carroll University. (Full disclosure: My daughter, who is not Catholic, is a 2010 JCU graduate.)

Religious studies professor Paul Lauritzen, who has been at John Carroll for 27 years, decided in early February to ask his fellow faculty members to weigh in on the contraception debate.

“The rhetoric was worsening,” Lauritzen said in a phone interview Wednesday. “We wanted to get out front of the incendiary language before some violent episode resulted.” He recruited two professors who established the school’s public health minor to help write the letter to JCU’s president, the Rev. Robert Niehoff.

“We … are committed to freedom of conscience and religious liberty,” the letter read, adding that the bishops have the right to “proclaim Catholic teaching vigorously and loudly.”

“However, we also believe that access to contraception is central to the health and well-being of women and children.”

The two-page letter ended with an appeal:

“We … ask that, along with the presidents of other Catholic and Jesuit universities, you urge the bishops to avoid the inflammatory rhetoric they have been using to attack the administration’s policy. We ask you to stand up to those who would play politics with women’s health.”

The letter was dated Feb. 14, 2012. Forty-seven faculty and staff members signed it.

Fourteen weeks later, those men and women who were brave enough to stand up for women’s health are still waiting for a response.

Meanwhile, countless people of faith are praying that women’s health never again becomes a “do-or-die” issue in America.

Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and an essayist for Parade magazine. She is the author of two books, including “…and His Lovely Wife,” which chronicled the successful race of her husband, Sherrod Brown, for the U.S. Senate. To find out more about Connie Schultz ( and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at



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