Over the last few days, there has been no shortage of crazed invective on the contraception issue from certain religious folks. For them, the notion that religious institutions providing public services ought to play by the same rules as everyone else constitutes tyranny. So we have Rick Santorum, for example, casually invoking images of the guillotine and the French Revolution.
This is all just election-year grandstanding, of course. It is this year’s Ground Zero Mosque. If this were February 2013, or if a Repeublican were President, we would not be hearing the usual bleats and howls from the right-wing outrage machine. As Rachel Maddow pointed out on her show, numerous Catholic universities and law schools already provide coverage for contraception, and some Republicans are on record in the past supporting this.
With all the crazy talk out there, my nomination for the most utterly oblivious comment comes from Catholic blogger Edward Feser. He writes:
Suppose that the bishops had for decades consistently thundered against contraception and disciplined all priests and Catholic writers and teachers who publicly dissented from the Church’s teaching. There would be many more Catholics faithful to the Church’s teaching than there are now, both because more Catholics would realize how grave a sin contraception is, and because they would be having far more children than they do now. Even those Catholics who still disobeyed the teaching would be more likely to have a guilty conscience about doing so, and would be far less likely to dissent from it publicly. And non-Catholics would have no doubt whatsoever that the bishops, and Catholics more generally, would “go to the mat” to protect Catholic institutions from policies like the one now announced by HHS.
Let me suggest a different scenario. Had the bishops spent decades consistently thundering against contraception, the result, at least in the United States, would have been an exodus from the Catholic Church of a magnitude not seen since the Jews left Egypt. It’s hardly a secret that the overwhelming majority of American Catholics reject the Church’s teaching on contraception. And for good reason! They recognize it clearly as absurd and anti-woman and an impediment to living a happy life.
For its part, the Church, which is primarily a political organization that cares far more about secular power than it does about anything transcendent, would love to reverse its position on birth control, but that would make them look weak and compromising. But they also know that if they start acting like they really mean it, everyone would laugh at them and they would thereby render themselves irrelevant as an organization with any hold over public opinion. So they do the next best thing, officially maintaining the policy, but calmly looking the other way while virtually everyone flouts it.
You should read Feser’s whole post, if only for the light it sheds on the mindset of fanatical Catholics. He writes:
It goes without saying that the bishops have also done very little to discipline those Catholic politicians who publicly and obstinately promote policies which the Church teaches are gravely immoral. Only a few individual bishops have dared to state publicly that those Catholic politicians who promote abortion or “same-sex marriage” ought not to receive Holy Communion. But no such politician seems to have taken these admonitions seriously, and even the most conservative bishops seem to regard the harsher penalty of excommunication as unthinkable. How surprised should they be now that one of these Catholic politicians — Kathleen Sebelius — has moved on from promoting abortion “rights” to actively persecuting her fellow Catholics, while other Catholics in the administration (such as Vice President Joe Biden) stand by without protest?
That a Catholic could reasonably believe that Church teaching should not be the basis for public policy does not seem to have occurred to Feser. There is no contradiction in believing that X is morally wrong, while simultaneously believing that X should be legal. To argue that Catholic politicians are obligated to use their power to implement the Church’s moral principles is to argue that America should be a Catholic theocracy, and people who hold such views have no business giving lectures on tyranny and persecution.
For people like Feser, Catholicism is primarily about adherence to a set of doctrinal beliefs. But for many, Catholicism is something else entirely. For them, being Catholic is similar to what being Jewish is for many secular Jews. It is a culture, and an environment in which they feel comfortable. It certainly is not something that entails waiting on tenterhooks to hear the latest pronouncements from Rome. It is important in their lives, but not something that governs every aspect of what they say and do. If the polls are to be believed, a majority of Catholics support the President on this issue. If the Church really started excommunicating people willy-nilly, or started forcing people either to be abstinent or to have enormous families, or made unwavering adherence to every aspect of their doctrine a condition of membership, then they would thereby divorce themselves from the daily realities of people’s lives. Does the Church exist to be an island of fanaticism sitting in judgment over everyone else? Or does the Church exist to encourage people towards its way of thinking in this life, confident that God will handle the fallout in the next?
Of course, I would argue that Catholic moral teaching on a great many issues should be rejected because what the Church teaches is wrong, and sometimes even disgusting. Those in the pro-life, anti-contraception and anti-gay marriage camps hold positions that are themselves morally wrong and which lead to awful consequences that no one should find acceptable. But that is for a different post.
Moving on, here is what Feser has to say about health care reform:
The bishops have also put little emphasis on the principle of subsidiarity, according to which the needs of individuals, families, and local communities ought as a matter of justice to be met as far as possible by those individuals, families, and communities themselves rather than by centralized governmental institutions. This is a fundamental principle of Catholic social teaching, and its point is in part precisely to shield smaller and more local institutions from arbitrary and tyrannical power of the sort the federal government is now exercising vis-à-vis Catholic institutions. Yet most Catholics have probably never heard of the principle; worse, and as I complained in a post on the 2010 health care debate, though the Obama administration’s health care plan is seriously objectionable from the point of view of subsidiarity, the bishops took no account of the principle when commenting on the plan. Indeed, they gave the impression that, apart from some aspects of the plan concerning abortion and coverage of illegal immigrants, it was not only unobjectionable but something to “applaud.” How surprised should they be when government officials well known for their hostility to Catholic teaching use the power the bishops have urged them to take in ways the bishops do not like?
I am all in favor of solving problems at as local a level as possible. But it is a delusion of the first magnitude to think that more than forty million people without health insurance represents a failure of individuals, families and communities. I would very much like to hear how Feser thinks we can attain universal health care without running afoul of the principal of subsidiarity, which he fancies he understands better than the bishops.
If we think it is a problem that so many people lack health care until they are sick enough to go to an emergency room then only the government can fix things. But maybe Feser doesn’t think it is a problem, since he chides the bishops for applauding the goals of Obama’s reform while only objecting to certain specifics. The bishops probably just think that Catholic social teaching does not need to be obsessed with contraception, gay marriage and abortion, but could also find time to worry about those who lack basic needs.
The irony is that this whole kerfuffle shows why Obama’s health reform didn’t go nearly far enough. As pointed out by Lawrence O’Donnell on his show on Wednesday, a single-payer system for health care would have avoided this problem. Get employers out of the health insurance business and we avoid this problem altogether.
And the newest problem involves the Catholic Church. The Catholic
Church, as an institution, running hospitals and schools all around the
world, is not confronted by a theological challenge of the kind we`re
seeing today in any of the other countries where it employs people because
those countries do not make the irresponsible mistake of relying on
employers to help to pay for their workers` health insurance. This is a
uniquely American problem because the American health care system is and
remains a unique mess.
Where we now, after three years of the most successful health care
reform president we`ve ever had, now have more people without health
insurance in this country than when George W. Bush was president. And that
is no fault of President Obama`s. That is the fault of our employer-based
private health insurance system.
When unemployment goes up in our system, people lose not just their
jobs, they lose their health care. In other countries, they just lose
their jobs. Those countries think that`s bad enough.
Losing your job and your health care with it is an unrelenting piece
of American inhumanity that will be with us forever under the new health
care law. The law is frequently and always falsely described as one that
will achieve universal coverage in this country.