Bishops' rift with Obama about politics, not religion
Like all Fox News talking heads, Kirsten Powers employs a simple (if not simple-minded) narrative to incite maximum tribal resentment among her listeners, in this case conservative Catholics.
And so, in her Daily Beast column on the current controversy over birth control, Powers argues: The Catholic Church says birth control is a sin. A bullying “secular progressive” government says the Church is no different from other employers who must provide health insurance to their workers. The Church complains its religious liberties are being trampled on. All right-thinking Catholics should therefore be outraged. Wash, rinse, repeat.
"It's hard to escape the feeling that the Obama administration is trying to run America's Catholic charities and institutions out of business,” Powers intones with characteristic Fox News nuance. “How else to explain the mean-spirited decision mandating that Catholic institutions be required to pay for health insurance that covers sterilization, contraceptives, and the 'morning-after pill,' which violates their fundamental religious beliefs?"
Like the Catholic bishops themselves, Powers frames the controversy as one involving religious freedom. Reality, however, is far more complex and efforts are thankfully underway to spotlight the promiscuous posturing going on here as well as put the controversy in its proper context.
It turns out, for example, that this is not a new issue at all, as Michelle Goldberg notes. Catholic institutions, in fact, have been operating for a long time in many states that already require contraceptive coverage for Church workers -- such as New York and California. These laws are on the books in 28 states. In only eight of them are Catholic hospitals and universities given an exemption and “nowhere has the Catholic Church shut down in response,” says Goldberg.
Jonathan Cohn of New Republic also points out that from a strictly “policy wonk perspective” the Catholic Church isn’t bankrolling birth control at all. Instead, it’s merely paying wages and benefits to the workers who are the real policyholders. “It’s really your money that's paying for your health insurance, not your company’s,” says Cohn, so “the only objection that ought to matter is yours.”
It’s true, that arguments like these are unlikely to assuage conservatives who now accuse the administration of engaging in religious persecution – and for students of mass hysteria, I highly recommend the sulfurous letters banged out by the Catholic hierarchy and read aloud in churches throughout America whose rhetoric reeks of the scorched remains of Christian martyrs who’ve been roasted at the stake.
But now that the Catholic bishops have had their tantrum, I’m confident cooler heads will ultimately prevail and a face-saving compromise will be found that allows women to get the affordable contraceptives they require while sparing the Catholic hierarchy of being complicit in sin.
The place to begin in untangling this controversy, however, is by recognizing that the American Catholic hierarchy forfeited its right to portray Church teaching on birth control as a religious matter instead of a political one a long time ago. Why are so many critics of President Obama, in other words, ready to take the Church at its word that this is a dispute over religious freedom when there is such a clear history here that says it isn’t?
In one of my rare moments of clairvoyance, I wrote last September that to understand why modern democracies need to erect steep walls of separation between Church and State, it was important to recognize that without those walls it would still be a crime in America for married couples to use contraceptives in the privacy of their own homes.
Most people today find the idea of such priestly meddling in our private affairs to be laughable, if not incredible.
But such was the power of the Catholic Church that -- beginning with passage of the Comstock Act of 1873 -- a century-long ban prevailed in most states against the transportation, distribution or sale of contraceptives to married couples as well as singles, Catholics as well as non-Catholics, until the Supreme Court finally stepped in and knocked down these ridiculous laws as unconstitutional in 1965.
Because of these morality laws, American "doughboys" who fought against Prussian authoritarianism and in order to make the world safe for democracy way back during World War I suffered an epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases after being sent overseas without condoms.
Indeed, as Susan Jacoby writes in Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, World War I marked a turning point in the growing political aggressiveness of the American Catholic leadership.
"Before the First World War, the American hierarchy generally confined its pronouncements on sexual issues to matters directly affecting Catholics," says Jacoby. But with its crusade against birth control, "the church set out on a radically different course, intended to prevent non-Catholics from gaining access to something deemed immoral by the Church, not merely for its own members but for all."
According to Jacoby, the Church hierarchy overplayed its hand in November 1921 when New York City police, acting at the "suggestion" of Archbishop Patrick Hayes, raided a meeting of about 1,000 who were attending an educational conference on birth control, and dragged feminist activist Margaret Sanger and another member of the British Parliament off the stage in full view of the audience.
Participants were booked for disorderly conduct by police who openly admitted they were acting on the archbishop's "recommendations." Nearly every major paper in New York denounced the police action as a violation of free speech, said Jacoby, earning public sympathy for the right of women to control their reproductive lives.
This is not ancient history, for while it’s impossible to imagine such a thuggishly Taliban-like confrontation occurring today, the underlying attitudes about society and morality that provoked that incident almost 100 years ago prevail even today among the right wing fringe of the Catholic Church.
“Liberal modernity exasperates traditional religion,” writes Damon Linker, who once worked for right wing Catholic theocrat, the late Fr. John Richard Neuhaus.
What religious conservatives find so offensive about modern society, says Linker, is that it “fosters a pluralism that denies any one faith the power to organize the whole of social life. It teaches that public authorities must submit to the consent of those over whom they aspire to rule, thereby undermining the legitimacy of all forms of absolutism. It employs the systematic skepticism of the scientific method to settle important questions of public policy. It encourages the growth of the capitalist marketplace, which unleashes human appetites and gives individuals the freedom to choose among an ever-expanding range of ways to satisfy them.”
Linker says that conservative Catholics like Fr. Neuhaus are quite open in calling upon the Roman Catholic Church to assume "its rightful role in the culture-forming task of constructing a religiously informed public philosophy for the American experiment in ordered liberty."
Those reactionary views strongly resonate in the present controversy between President Obama and the bishops and echo in the Catholic hierarchy’s recent letters to the Church faithful.
So reactionary in fact, that Neuhaus’s idea of popular sovereignty and consent of the governed was for a free people to voluntarily subordinate itself to its God and to the Church hierarchy that presumed to speak in God’s name.
The important question for Neuhaus, and for conservative Catholics in general, says Linker, is not whether Catholicism is "compatible with democracy" but whether American democracy "could survive” without recognizing it’s ethical and philosophical roots reach back not to the liberal Enlightenment but to “the Catholic medieval theory of man and society."
Conservative Catholics believe that the United States will either “return to its medieval Catholic roots or the very existence of its democratic order would be imperiled,” said Linker. And that, to Neuhaus and the conservative Catholics for whom he speaks, “were America's only options.”
It’s true that the network of hospitals, schools and charitable institutions run by the Catholic Church advances the Church’s historic mission of service to the community. But also true is the equally important mission Church leaders have carved out for themselves -- which they are understandably reluctant to advertise openly -- as stewards of society, custodians of culture.
And as our self-appointed moral custodians, the Church hierarchy continues to think Americans would be far better off if contraception was outlawed altogether so as to emphasize that sex should be for procreation not recreation.
If the Catholic Church could have its way today I am quite sure that no one – neither Catholics nor non-Catholics -- would have access to birth control. We'd all be better people, the bishops say, more responsible and less selfish if unprotected sex with the possibility of conception was the only kind of sex we could have.
Rick Santorum says as much openly out there on the stump when he worries out loud about sex becoming "deconstructed to the point where it's simply pleasure."
Consequently, Santorum believes it is perfectly permissible for states to outlaw the sale or distribution of birth control so as to promote “family values” within their borders.Santorum, it should be remembered, is not running to become the Vicar of Christ but President of the United States. Yet, he is running as THE Catholic candidate for president as he wages a conspicuously Catholic campaign whose major themes -- “family, faith and freedom” -- are torn directly from the pages of conservative Catholic paternalism. Indeed, the Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne (a Catholic himself) says about the candidate who just won the last three Republican primaries that Santorum’s Catholicism “is the most important thing about him.”
The Catholic Church knows that, politically, it could never get a bill through Congress to re-criminalize birth control. So, by exploiting the present controversy with President Obama the Church leadership hopes to do the next best thing, which is: To humble and humiliate another secular leader the same way it has done to many others in the past and, at the same time, to make a statement by depriving the tens of thousands of Catholics and non-Catholics who work for Church hospitals, schools and charitable organizations of easy access to birth control.
At the end of the day, this conflict with the President is the culture-shaping political agenda the Catholic bishops hope to sneak through underneath the protective camouflage of "religious freedom."