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Letters & Op-Eds - 2013

Sarasota Herald-Tribune

Church, Catholics don't always think alike

Jon O'Brien

21 October 2013

Despite what our bishops might have you believe, Catholics stopped looking to the pope and other members of the hierarchy to provide us with leadership on matters related to reproductive health care, sexuality and women's autonomy a very long time ago.

Many Catholics remain hopeful that Pope Francis will translate his hints about a more open church into much-needed reform. Most will judge his record -- correctly -- by actions, not words. Until we see those actions, Catholics will continue to go about our daily lives, making the decisions that we need to make for ourselves and our families, without waiting for the Vatican to let us know it's OK. We each turn to our own conscience for that, as our church has always taught we must do.

As Pope Francis himself reminded us, nobody should ever confuse "thinking with the church" with "only thinking with the hierarchy of the church." Catholicism in the United States and around the world isn't owned by the bishops any more than the state of Florida is owned by the governor. Rather, we are a big church, a diverse church with a long and storied history -- one whose teachings have changed and will continue to change over time. And when we say "church," we truly do mean the entirety of the Catholic people around the globe, not just the vocal minority represented by the bishops.

When planning our families, deciding whether to continue or end a pregnancy, and protecting ourselves and our partners from HIV, Catholics have long rejected the hardline stances of the bishops.

Catholic women have abortions at the same rates as do non-Catholics, and Catholic couples use contraception at the same rates as do other couples. We follow our own consciences when it comes to critical moral decisions, and do so fully within our rights and obligations as Catholics.

Our lives are more complicated, our futures and those of our families more delicately balanced than the bishops will acknowledge.

As Catholics, we know that our neighbors should receive the same respect for their conscience and moral agency, and the same rights to their religious liberty -- whether they are Catholic or not -- that we expect for ourselves. We believe this not in spite of our Catholic tradition, but because of it.

This is certainly true in Florida. In 2012, during the run-up to the November elections, local bishops stumped hard for Amendments 6 and 8. These ballot initiatives would have jeopardized women's ability to access abortion and given religious institutions the right to access government funds while discriminating in employment practices and service provision.

Catholic voters, however, refused to be bullied from the pulpit. With Catholics making up 23 percent of voting Floridians last fall, we can be sure that many of the 4.2 million people voting in support of women's autonomy and true religious liberty were doing so as faithful Catholics. Lest anyone think that these Florida voters were an anomaly, nationwide, only 8 percent of all Catholics believe that the views of their local bishops are "very important" when deciding how to vote, and only 14 percent agree with the bishops' position that abortion should be illegal under all circumstances.

When it comes to Catholics and reproductive health, the real mystery is not what the majority of Catholics believe, but how long it will take the hierarchy to start listening to Catholics, who are, in fact, the church. We await their respect for how we live our faith every day, including respect for the health-care services we need. But we're prepared to keep making our conscience-based decisions with or without a nod from the bishops or the pope, just as we have been doing all along.

This post was originally published by the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.