Gail Collins and David Brooks have a very illuminating exchange on the ongoing controversy over the contraception mandate. Brooks is, as you might expect, rather astonished at the “absolutist” stance taken by the Obama administration. He sees it as politically foolish, but he also sees it as substantively mistaken. He says:

The truth is that institutions with a strong sense of mission often attract diverse groups of people who want to attend or work there. Those schools and hospitals and charities are strong precisely because of their distinct mission and in the real world everybody involved tries to preserve that mission while respecting the diversity of those who aren’t members of that group. These accommodations are often messy, but they are worth making. We all make accommodations. It happens every day in a pluralistic society.

What Brooks recognizes is that this issue, however much Catholics as a whole may follow or not follow the teaching, is central to Catholic identity, and that therefore it is very much a matter of maintaining the “distinct mission” of the institutions. While the “assault on religious freedom” rhetoric can get a little overheated, Brooks correctly recognizes that in a genuinely pluralistic society, religiously-sponsored institutions which benefit the society should be given leeway to maintain their mission and identity.

Collins, however, is having none of it. Rarely have I seen such an unguarded, impolitic statement of the position defending the mandate. She calls the idea of exempting religious institutions “ridiculous” and “totally unjust” and even “crazy.” Furthermore, in response to Brooks’ reasonable example of a Jewish school (employing many non-Jews) that refrains from serving pork in its cafeteria, Collins says,

There’s a difference between what an institution serves its staff in its cafeteria and whether it can dictate what drugs they can use to facilitate their sex lives at home.

Collins does not elaborate on this “difference,” which seems obvious to her. Presumably it is that not serving pork isn’t “unjust” to anyone, whereas sex (unlike pork?) has some more fundamental status. But isn’t it worrisome that Collins feels so overwhelmingly confident in her ability to dictate this difference to religious institutions? However, this is not the biggest problem. Based on other (snide) comments, such as one claiming that priests and nuns who do good social justice work do not worry about “contraceptives lurking around the neighborhood,” it is evident that Collins is in fact crusading for contraception. That is, she views this not as an issue about whether institutions should provide health care coverage that covers contraceptives, but about whether contraceptives are available. Look at the above quote. What Catholic school or hospital is proposing to “dictate what drugs they can use to facilitate their sex lives at home”?! Contraception is widely available in our society. The issue is not the availability of contraception. The issue is whether contraception should be mandated to be provided free of charge as an employee benefit to all employees. As Collins evidences in her concluding comments that any compromise should force “the institution” to bear the extra freight, she views the right to free contraception as fundamental justice. Exempting religious institutions from acknowledging this right is akin to accepting them discriminating based on race. It is “totally unjust.”

I am not one to go out for the culture wars, but this kind of rhetoric (and its complete lack of understanding of the religious significance of the issue) sure makes it hard not to get into a little skirmish.

UPDATE: Aha, now we know why Collins is so upset. A (bad) priest called her mother a whore in the confessional for using birth control. So Collins is visiting the sin of that priest back on Catholics. On the one hand, serves us right. On the other hand, d’ya think we could have a public discourse a little less infected by individual stereotypes based on single personal experiences???? Imagine if Collins were writing about Latinos or Muslims…