Monday, July 23, 2012

Contraception & Conscience: Between Athens & Jerusalem.

By Caryn D. Riswold
“Our Catholic identity is at the heart of our institution’s mission, but, in light of the importance of the health of our employees and the prevention of disease, we entered into these plans … We are not changing our employee health care insurance coverage.” ~ The University of Dayton, February 2012.

“We will not participate in a plan that requires us to violate the consistent teachings of the Catholic Church on the sacredness of human life. … Beginning with the 2012-13 school year, the University 1) will no longer require that all full-time undergraduate students carry health insurance, [and] 2) will no longer offer a student health insurance plan.” ~ Franciscan University, May 15, 2012.
These two statements highlight a significant location in the 2012 contraception debate: Church-related higher education. They also point to the role of conscience in Catholic moral theology that is now being invoked by evangelical Christians in their opposition to the Affordable Care Act.

The above statements both came from Catholic universities in Ohio. The first is from the University of Dayton and the second came from Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio. Franciscan bills itself as one of 21 “faithfully Catholic” universities (out of over 200) as determined by the conservative Cardinal Newman Society. UD is a Marianist university with over 2,000 employees, part of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities as well as the Lilly Fellows Program National Network, an ecumenical group of church-related colleges and universities around the country.

We can’t forget that Sandra Fluke, the woman whose testimony brought on the wrath of Rush Limbaugh early this year, is a law student at Georgetown University, a Jesuit University and the nation’s oldest Catholic university. It’s president, John J. DeGioia, drew attention when he announced that Georgetown would not change its healthcare coverage.
“Unlike Catholic Church teaching, evangelical doctrine does not oppose all contraception. But evangelicals do oppose prescription drugs such as morning-after pills that they believe cause abortions. [nota bene: they might believe it, but it does not]

“ ‘Wheaton is an evangelical institution with a Protestant conviction that takes a clear pro-life position as a community,’ [Wheaton College President Philip] Ryken said. ‘This insurance mandate is against our conscience and our Christian conviction. We as yet have found no recourse but to file this suit.’”
Preserving the freedom to exercise individual conscience is a key element for many Christians. Catholics for Choice, for example, points out that reproductive justice happens when “the individual conscience of each person is recognized as the keystone of moral decision making.” Georgetown President DeGioia himself issued a statement defending Sandra Fluke from Rush Limbaugh’s attacks earlier this year saying in part that her “expression of conscience was in the tradition of the deepest values we share as a people.” Christians of many sorts, from colleges and universities of many types, work and wrestle at the intersection of faith and learning. Church and academy. Private religious commitments and public political life.

They are all in their own ways responding to Tertullian’s famed second-century query: “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church?” It’s about faith and reason. For Tertullian, Jerusalem was the metaphorical location of religious authority, revelation, and church, while Athens represented government, the philosophers, and the academy. For the second century apologist, the two had nothing to do with each other.

But for Christians today, they have an enormous amount to do with each other.

By seeing contraception and the Affordable Care Act’s mandate that treats it as preventive healthcare for women (which it is) sitting in this ancient intersection, we can see the important role that reason and science play in the discussion, as well as respect conscience as a gift from God. As the UD statement points out, making the best decision for the health of employees is something that the employee should be able to do, not the institution.

Because there will always be decisions that individuals and institutions need to make, and options available do and will continue to change over time, the very best thing that any religious tradition or its educational institutions can do is empower each individual conscience for educated discernment within the community. It is perhaps because the Catholic tradition does such a good job of this that the vast majority of Catholic women and men make decisions at odds with the bishops when it comes to their own reproductive lives.

They’re making up the minds that God gave them.

Image: via the Flickr photostream of southie3.

Caryn D. Riswold, Ph.D., is a member of the National Network Board of the Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and the Arts.  She is Associate Professor of Religion and Chair of Gender & Women’s Studies at Illinois College, and is the author of Feminism and Christianity: Questions and Answers in the Third Wave (2009).  She is one of twenty participants in the 2010 Faith and Reproductive Justice Leadership Institute at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C. You can follow her on Twitter @feminismxianity.

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