The Times, the White House & "Catholic colleges"

As faithful readers of this weblog will know, your GetReligionistas are convinced that it is stunningly simplistic for journalists to talk about the "Catholic vote," as if there was one mass of Catholics who agree on how they should apply centuries of Catholic doctrine to their actions in voting booths. About a decade ago, an elderly priest here in Washington, D.C., told me that he is convinced that -- at the very least -- there are four competing camps of "Catholic voters" here in postmodern America. As a reminder, here is the typology as I have shared it in the past:

* Ex-Catholics. Solid for Democrats. Cultural conservatives have no chance.

* Cultural Catholics who may go to church a few times a year. This may be one of those all-important “undecided voters” depending on what’s happening with the economy, foreign policy, etc. Leans to Democrats.

* Sunday-morning American Catholics. This voter is a regular in the pew and may even play some leadership role in the parish. This is the Catholic voter that is really up for grabs, the true swing voter that the candidates are after.

* “Sweat the details” Catholics who go to confession. They are active in the full sacramental life of their parishes and almost always back the Vatican, when it comes to matters of faith and practice.

As noted, the final camp -- the depressing world of confession statistics are the key -- represents a very small piece of the American Catholic pie.

Now, on to the current headlines. You see, it helps to keep that "Catholic voters" typology in mind while reading mainstream media coverage of the escalating conflict between the Obama administration and the world of religious education and non-profit ministries. Since clashes with the Catholic hierarchy have received the most ink, it helps to remember that not all "Catholic colleges" are "Catholic colleges" in the same sense of the word. The same statement is true of "Catholic hospitals."

Thus, one would expect various kinds of Catholic institutions to have different policies when it comes to defending church doctrines on controversial issues -- such as birth control.

This brings us to the following headline in The New York Times: "Ruling on Contraception Draws Battle Lines at Catholic Colleges."

The only appropriate response? Well, DUH. Of course this fight is drawing battles between the White House and Catholic institutions, as well as spotlighting preexisting fractures in the world of Catholic higher education. Simply stated: These schools are not preaching or practicing the same faith. Why shouldn't they clash when it comes time to react to a government action affecting religious liberty?

Here's the summary language in this story:

Many Catholic colleges decline to prescribe or cover birth control, citing religious reasons. Now they are under pressure to change. This month the Obama administration, citing the medical case for birth control, made a politically charged decision that the new health care law requires insurance plans at Catholic institutions to cover birth control without co-payments for employees, and that may be extended to students. But Catholic organizations are resisting the rule, saying it would force them to violate their beliefs and finance behavior that betrays Catholic teachings.

“We can’t just lie down and die and let religious freedom go,” said Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Now hold your breath. Here's the payoff punch:

In an election season that features Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, who have stressed their Catholic faith, scientific thinking on the medical benefits of birth control has clashed with deeply held religious and cultural beliefs.

Once again, science on one side vs. blind religion on the other. That's the magic formula, it seems. Right Bill Keller?

Also, note that this entire matter is simply political, not theological. There are no real doctrinal issues to debate. The folks who see a religious-liberty crisis in all of this -- often liberal Catholics, as well as conservative -- are only doing so because of a political agenda. You know, like the right-wingers at the liberal National Catholic Reporter (and the editorial board of The Washington Post, while we are at it).

But enough about the predictable political framing in this story. Back to the Catholic colleges in the headline.

Some Catholic colleges are likely to ask for a yearlong delay in implementing the rule on birth control coverage, said Michael Galligan-Stierle, president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities. In the longer run, he predicted in a statement that either Congress or the Supreme Court would invalidate the rule. Belmont Abbey College, which is Catholic, and the interdenominational Colorado Christian University have already sued the Department of Health and Human Services, arguing that the birth control requirement violates the right to freedom of religion.

Birth control is considered a “preventive service” under the new health care law, but Mr. Galligan-Stierle said such services should be limited to preventing disease, not pregnancy.

“We do not happen to think pregnancy is disease,” he said. “We think it’s a gift of love of two people and our creator.”

The most important word comes right at the beginning of that passage -- "some."

In other words, there are Catholic schools that defend Catholic teachings and strive to recruit students, faculty and staff who join in that effort -- or at the very least seek to recruit those who will not oppose these teachings. Then again, many Catholic schools openly reject the teachings of their church.

Thus, we read:

At Catholic universities, some students support the right of the schools to uphold religious doctrine. But others, particularly professional and graduate students, have found the restrictions on birth control coverage onerous. ...

One recent Georgetown law graduate, who asked not to be identified for reasons of medical privacy, said she had polycystic ovary syndrome, a condition for which her doctor prescribed birth control pills. She is gay and had no other reason to take the pills. Georgetown does not cover birth control for students, so she made sure her doctor noted the diagnosis on her prescription. Even so, coverage was denied several times. She finally gave up and paid out of pocket, more than $100 a month. After a few months she could no longer afford the pills. Within months she developed a large ovarian cyst that had to be removed surgically — along with her ovary.

“If I want children, I’ll need a fertility specialist because I have only one working ovary,” she said.

A spokeswoman for Georgetown, Stacy Kerr, said that problems like this were rare and that doctors at the health service knew how to help students get coverage for contraceptives needed for medical reasons. Asked if Georgetown would begin covering birth control under the new rule, she said, “We will be reviewing and evaluating the new regulations, ever mindful of our Catholic and Jesuit identity and mission.”

I kept waiting to see if this story would recognize the wide diversity that is found Catholic education. I was expecting, frankly, to hear from qualified, experienced Catholic educators who want to defend their faith on this matter -- which would mean resisting government actions to force them to financially support actions they believe are sinful. Instead, we get this accurate, yet rather bombastic quote:

Senior Catholic officials said that students at Catholic universities should know what to expect, and that those who disagree with the policies can choose to go elsewhere. “No one would go to a Jewish barbecue and expect pork chops to be served,” Mr. Galligan-Stierle said.

That's a valid quote and it's valid for the Times to use it.

My question is simple: Is this one of those urban, sophisticated Times stories in which the editors (if they agree with their newly retired editor) believe that they do not need to cover both sides of an issue? Is it enough now that they quote the valid, powerful anecdotes and arguments on one side and then reduce the other side's convictions to rumblings about politics and a punchy soundbite?

Just asking.

The key to future coverage is to find out if the government will find ways to honor the convictions of Catholic schools that want to defend Catholic doctrines and will openly and legally state that in all contacts and legal covenants with students, faculty and staff. In other words, can the government find ways to treat these religious private schools -- Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, etc. -- like the religious institutions that they are.

And the rest of the Catholic schools? The leaders of those schools are free to kneel to the state on this matter. They have ever right to do that, if the Vatican decides to let them do it -- while remaining "Catholic colleges." Then again, there is this.

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