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More, Wolsey, and the Pill

Is contraception really the ground on which Roman Catholic bishops want to dig their trenches in some assumed great battle of a war against militant secularism in the United States?  I doubt that bishops normally spend much time talking about diaphragms, IUD’s, birth control pills, condoms, or vaginal spermicidal ointments.  They certainly know that lay Catholic response to Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae in 1968, barring Catholics from using artificial birth control methods, has never found a reception among Catholic women in the US, that it’s very promulgation went against the recommendations of prominent Catholic lay scholars and ethicists, and that only a tiny percentage of Catholic women today heed the ban.  They must have noticed that their priests seem to have no trouble welcoming sexually active women of child bearing years to the Eucharist, the vast majority of whom stubbornly refuse to follow clear Church teachings.  Surely some of them realize that the pronouncement of an elite, male only club regarding issues affecting women in the most intimate way comes across as suspect.

Of course the initial reaction to the Obama administration’s mandate was framed around the issue of religious liberty.  Could or should the government impose its public health view on institutions founded, owned, and run by the Church?  Or, put the other way around, should church related institutions be exempted from laws that apply to everyone else?  Legal scholars are split on this issue, though I would be a lot more sympathetic if these institutions weren’t so heavily supported, as are all hospitals and universities these days, by public tax dollars.  Few if any would survive without Medicare and Medicaid dollars, federally subsidized student loans, federal research grants, or property tax exemptions. Accepting tax dollars does suggest the rationale for some surrender of privileges that may be legitimately granted to those religious institutions – like a congregation – that rely on no public support.  But when the bishops collectively rejected even the administration’s compromise which would have freed hospitals and universities from having to provide coverage for contraceptives themselves, it is harder to see this merely as a religious liberty question.  What’s going on here?

Part of what’s going on, of course, is that the bishops are not accountable to the views in the pew or the community, but to Rome and to their own conscience which, given the past few decades of episcopal appointments, is probably close to one in the same.  I wouldn’t want any religious leader, Catholic or Protestant, timid about publicly declaring her or his convictions.  But why take the megaphone on contraception when Catholic social teaching has eloquent statements on the economy which today is a matter of life and death to millions?  Why is the president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops challenging the President of the United States in such aggressive, angry tones on this issue when criticism of going to war in Iraq was far more muted in spite of its obvious contradiction of Catholic just war theory?  Why contraception?

In truth, I think this has less to do with the ethics of biology than it does with a profound struggle many religious leaders today – Catholic and Protestant – wrestle with, namely the reality of the death and dying of the privileges of establishment, Constantinian Christianity in the West, a process that has accelerated through the second half of the twentieth century and the first decade of the twenty-first.  Christendom conferred many privileges on the church (or at least portions of it), for centuries, and the church grew to expect those privileges as a matter of inherent right.  Government exceptions like the one at issue are a fading vestige of an era when public policy reflected the mores of majority religious groups and when privileges of one sort or another were granted to some religious views – idiosyncratic or not – and denied to others.  The loss of them, either by self-surrender or by the force of law and cultural change, is never easy.

It may be about contraception.  But it’s also about the bishops’ sense of place in a world that is rapidly changing, where most people would never deny the legitimacy of the priestly, pastoral, and prophetic ministry in both church and society, but where fewer and fewer believe that the public should pay for it or require that any should submit to it.  The resistance and resentment is hardly surprising.  The current bishops were almost all appointed under the influence of Pope Benedict and his predecessor, John Paul II (himself heavily influenced by then Cardinal Ratzinger). Benedict has made clear his desire to reclaim Europe and the West for a robust Catholicism reflecting an earlier era, one that has been increasingly marginalized.  In the United States the theory of a level playing field for religious groups has always been subordinated to the reality of a field tipped significantly toward mainstream Christianity.  Given their papal charge, and the imperial trappings many of them enjoy, seeing the field leveled inexorably toward the true free and fair exercise of religion means nothing less than the loss of privileges so unexamined that they have come to be seen as divinely, or in this case, constitutionally ordained.

The potential for this episode to further discredit and marginalize the Catholic Church in the U.S. is distressing, for our culture badly needs Catholicism’s rich liturgical aesthetic, theological heritage, and moral voice.  And it is a cautionary tale for Protestant leaders as well who also hear the siren call of another era when presidents attended to their words and the faithful flocked to their pews.  Better to shape society by the priestly mystery and beauty of our rituals, the generously compassionate character of our pastoral and diaconal care, and the moral force of our prophetic voice, than by clinging to the last remnants of presumed influence in the halls of political power.  The bishops may want to play Thomas More, bravely standing up to Henry VIII’s assault on the church in the 16th century.  They may well end up, however, more like Henry’s court priest, Cardinal Wolsey, ultimately sent away humiliated for succumbing to the seductions of political power, wealth and influence that seeks the court’s beneficence rather than its soul.

John H. Thomas

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