The Catholic bishops think that they have a right to an opinion about contraception and abortion. They do. They also think that when they speak in the name of their Church, as custodians of its moral philosophy, to people who want to listen, they have a right to be heard. They do.
Unfortunately they think as well that when they are heard they deserve deference and to be obeyed. They don’t.
The right of a church (or a religion) to teach is not the same as the obligation of the people to listen, especially when listening would mean setting aside one of the core principles of a constitutional democracy: the health and welfare of its population regardless of what any individual or group, religious or secular, considers sacred truth .
In the United States, among the 43 million fertile, sexually active women who do not want to become pregnant, 89% are practicing contraception. Whatever else the bishops might want to preach about, contraception is the least likely to result in obeisant listening: the failure of Catholics to heed the absurd teaching of Paul VI’s panicked “birth control encyclical” (Humanae Vitae, 1968) is impressively documented in every survey done since 1970.
If abortion remains a controversial topic for some ethicists, the court of public opinion gave the verdict on birth control a long time ago.
But obedience is the trademark of the Roman church, as it was originally of the Roman Empire. When the bishops of Rome first assumed the title pontifex maximus or supreme pontiff in the late fourth century, they did so using the imperial idea that the emperor was the bridge (pontus) between the gods and mankind. Beginning with Augustus, Roman emperors were venerated as the sons of god: it’s one of the reasons Jesus gets the title in his christological role as “king of kings,” and why in their inspired mode, ex cathedra–from the throne of Peter–popes are thought to be infallible when teaching on “matters of faith and morals”–something no protestant, never mind an agnostic or a United States congressman, is required to believe.
Welcome to America, Land of the free and home of the politically vacuous. If anyone needs to be indignant about anything in the Obama administration’s effort to secure contraceptive protection for women as part of health care coverage by employers (including corporations owned by the Catholic Church), it should be the congressional leaders who are now screaming about the government’s “intrusion” into matters of conscience. They should be telling the Church to calm down, hush up, and learn to be American. Congress is entrusted with the legislative function of government, yet a significant majority of American legislators, or at least those who can read, are banefully ignorant of the secular character of the document that describes their job.
Whose conscience? What teaching? By what authority? This isn’t China, or the Europe of the Middle Ages. It’s the world’s oldest (yes oldest) continuing republic. It is supposed to be the place where the pretensions of hierarchical religion and monarchical rule were set aside in favor of a secular constitution that guaranteed freedom of religion but not its dominance over the welfare of its citizens. The fact that a plenum of backward politicians, if that is not a tautology, happen to find that their antediluvian religious views and political needs coincide with the teaching of Rome on this matter should have no bearing on the discussion of contraception, health care, and reproductive rights. None.
But naturally, in hyper-religious America, any program that seems to challenge the unwritten catechism of the Christian right is construed as an assault on the freedom to worship, on religion itself. The Sean Hannitys and Laura Ingrahams of this old world with their rabidly anti-gay, anti-woman, anti-science agenda and traditional-Catholic fear of sexual freedom dominate the discussion with a mixture of political illiteracy, brusque stupidity and the sort of dull sophistry that we usually associate with salesmen working on commission at Radio Shack. But they have an audience, and they have homo Americanus’ natural gift for missing the point in their favour.
If John Kennedy were a candidate for the presidency in 2012, given what likely would have been his views on contraception and abortion, he would have been trashed by the Catholic media and the bishops for being a disloyal son of the Church. In fact, that’s just what Rick Santorum, that most mule-faced and mulishly stupid of Catholic rightists, called him.
The Church as church has every right to its doctrine and its view. But religious doctrine should not stand (in countless cases has not stood) when a religious organisation (for example) advocates child marriage, or the abuse of children in the form of corporal punishment, or life-threatening health practices that would restrict emergency treatment to minors. The Catholic Church has lost significant moral persuasiveness in recent years by preaching on stage its gospel of life and sermonizing about the rights of the unborn, while behind the curtain abusing the born, the vulnerable and the old as “human weaknesses” that the laity should learn to comprehend and forgive. The denial of contraceptive rights to women as a fundamental part of health care is just another example of this malignant behavior.
Because of its antiquity, the rules and pronouncments of the Catholic church are not often compared to those of other denominations; after all, in addition to being the world’s largest owner of private hospitals it is the world’s most ancient monarchy. To a large extent, its theology has defined both the institution of marriage, the nature of the family, and the conflicting duties individuals face in their religious life and as citizens.
The church has argued and will continue to argue that the City of Man is the imperfect representation of the City of God–to which the church stands nearer because of its privileged position as guardian of timeless truths. Once again, the Church is free to believe this. It is not anyone else’s duty to accept it as true. The Church’s position on contraception and abortion is derived from particular traditions regarded as sacred by its teachers. By their very nature, therefore, they are not binding on the conscience of those who regard those truths as damaging, irrational or destructive. The secular state is under no more obligation to accept the Church’s teaching on reproductive issues than it is to accept the Church’s teaching on the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. If American legislators would howl at the latter example, why are they lined up behind the Church in opposing freedom of choice. After all, the church is supposed to know more about eternal than temporal things, and nothing is more temporal then reproduction.
But the church as an owner of corporations is not acting in the same role as the Church as the avowed dispenser of God’s grace through teaching and the sacraments. Its ecclesiastical privileges cannot extend into its social involvements and projects.
What the Church claims to do for the salvation of souls is one thing: if you believe it, and it doesn’t hurt animals, by all means continue to do it.
But contaception is matter of the flesh, for men and women who have presumably decided not to heed the jeremiads of two hundred aging celibate prelates who will never be pregnant, never suffer a miscarriage, never have to consider the risks of giving birth, or of giving birth to a child with a genetic disorder.
Most sickening of all of course is the bare teeth hypocrisy of the politicans who want to see the Obama administration’s decision about contraceptive care as a violation of the First Amendment, an infringement of the free exercise of religion. It is the government “telling religion what to do,” they say, with the assured self-satisfaction of a high school debater who’s just scored a point against the team from the next county.
Well, exactly. That is exactly the way our system works. It tells religion when to climb down. It says a Presbyterian can believe in God’s prevenient saving grace and a Catholic can believe in actual grace earned through merit and priestly offices.
It says the government couldn’t care less unless the two want to fight it out with guns (cf. Amendment II) at dawn. It says a woman can believe in a hundred gods or in no god at all and still run for elected office. It says that a Church should not be licensed to be a hospital but might own hospitals that meet specific standards for health care. Those standards are not doctrinal but empirical, measurable, scientific. That hospital is not required to perform abortions. It is required to provide the same standard of care for its employees–not all of whom are Catholic–as they might expect from a hospital that was not subject to the Church’s magisterium.
If the bishops and the Christian Right and their Republican mouthpieces win this one, the Constitution loses. But most Americans won’t know that and many won’t care.