In case you're wondering, the issue at hand really isn't fluoridation, but rather the kinds of issues that seem to get a rise out of folks. Right now the Katherine Sebelius's ruling that health insurance carriers must provide contraception is being used to rally Catholic troops by their bishops, though to what end is not clear. Republican pundits and politicians seem to be on the band wagon as well, declaring that somehow this ruling is anti-religion or anti-Christian. Not sure how this is true. The government isn't making anyone use contraception, it just says that if you are an institution offering health insurance (the exceptions being churches), then you need to offer the services. This affects Catholic institutions such as hospitals and universities that have church connections, but the majority of employees of the institution are likely not Roman Catholic. This really is only a matter of fairness in my mind, but what really baffles me is the inconsistency of the Catholic Church at this moment. They're getting all hot and bothered about this topic, one on which a large majority of Catholics seem to differ with their bishops upon, but don't seem at all concerned about how Roman Catholic presidential candidates are stepping all over other parts of the Catholic Social Teaching. Anyway, I'll turn you over to Martin Marty and he'll help guide the discussion about contraception and our national political debate! Really, I don't think the next election is going to be won or lost on this issue, as Peggy Noonan apparently suggests -- but I'll let you be the judge.
-- Martin E. Marty
Sighting national debates over the religious and judicial implications having to do with fluoridation of water would draw little notice. Such was not always the case. At last mid-century, when the pile of letters to the editor of The Christian Century might thin out for a few weeks, we editors would play games. From our experience, we’d ask, what subjects that we might take up would draw numerous vehement Letters to the Editor to inform and entertain readers? The top two at that time were “antivivisection” and “fluoridation.”
We could have added any number of others that had to do with the collision of interests pitting “the common good” versus “individual freedom,” especially freedom of religion. Pasteurization of milk, vaccination, and chlorination of water were among them. Beyond the needs of the body but dealing with the body politic have been vast numbers of others: the military draft, Sabbath and Sunday laws, and compulsory flag-salutes were or are among them. Often small religious groups best raise conscience matters. Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Scientists, Scientist, Seventh-Day Adventists, Latter-Day Saints, the Amish. None of the issues could be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, so majorities of voters or legislatures or justices ruled. This means that they used “coercion against conscience,” driving some citizens to inconvenience and prison. There were often accommodations and compromises along the way. Somehow the republic survived.
Peggy Noonan in her Wall Street Journal column addressed this winter’s hot issue. In Washington “a bomb went off that not many in the political class heard, or understood.” She referred to the Health and Human Services ruling that “Catholic institutions—including charities, hospitals and schools” will be forced to cover with insurance some procedures with which their church and many or most members disagree. Why she turns sectarian and parochial and reduces this worthwhile and troubling controversy to Catholicism alone, it is hard to tell. Or maybe it isn’t, because Catholics vastly outnumber the religious groups mentioned above. They have clout and have to be noticed, and this Saturday’s column was an attempt to rally the troops.
More Noonan judgment: “In other words, the Catholic Church was told this week that its institutions can’t be Catholic anymore.” The columnist then cheers, for intra-church political reasons, since their need to react will unify Catholics, “long split left, right and center.” Why this HHS ruling? “There was no reason. . . none. Except ideology.” That also over-narrows the case. People on the other side, many of them Catholic, favored the ruling as an issue of justice. They may have been wrong, but they at least help make possible something better than a reduction to sectarian and ideological self-interest.
To turn this to something more positive: what if we agreed that this controversy is too important to waste by such reduction? We live in a republic where not all electoral outcomes, legislative acts, or judicial decisions will satisfy the consciences of all conscientious people and interests, religious or not. Recognizing that, citizens have taken many courses: non-violent or violent resistance, compromising, negotiating, living with a world not entirely of one’s own making or politicking. Seeking immediate and total political advantage is tempting; Ms. Noonan gleefully, if I read her right, argues that this single decision has determined the outcome of elections a year from now, and foresees new power for the 77.7 million Catholics in this land.
Peggy Noonan, “A Battle the President Can't Win,” Wall Street Journal, February 3, 2012.
Martin E. Marty's biography, publications, and contact information can be found at www.memarty.com.
Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.