Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Mark Silk and Michael Sean Winters on Contraceptive Battle and Analogical Imagination

At his Spiritual Politics site, Mark Silk takes a careful look at Bishop William Lori's recent kosher deli parable--what Jodi Jacobson calls the "ham-sandwich" defense of religious freedom.  Silk's conclusion: Lori's parable is an exercise of the analogical imagination "fit to make David Tracy wish he was a Protestant."

As Silk notes, the analogy doesn't hang together, because kosher laws do not forbid Jews' selling or provision of pork.  They forbid Jews' eating of pork.  Silk concludes, 

And that's the point. Orthodox Jews understand the requirement to keep kosher as a religious duty required only of their kind. The Catholic bishops feel that contraception is an evil in the world at large that they cannot be complicit in. And so rather than simply say, fine, you take your health care coverage and avail yourself of whatever legal services you're entitled to, they say, "Sorry, because some of those are sins for us, we won't pay for you to commit 'em."

But, just because the analogy didn't work, doesn't mean that Catholics cannot entertain and hold ideas, such as material cooperation with evil, that prohibit us from doing facilitating the actions of non-Catholics who, in the event, have chosen to work at or attend a Catholic institution and know they are signing up for no meat on Friday, some measure of episcopal and, ultimately papal, oversight, and no contraception coverage included in your health care package.

I'll admit that I have some difficulty parsing Winters's sentence, and I'm inclined to give up after the statement "Catholics cannot entertain and hold ideas."  But I'll give it a try.

First of all, Silk's central point is that, for a tradition that prides itself on being analogical, it's crucial that analogies work.  An analogical tradition can't hang together or be intellectually coherent when its analogies limp and are obviously absurd.  I'll return to that in a moment.

Second "material cooperation with evil": really?  Do Catholics really believe that they're materially cooperating with evil in helping other folks access birth control?  When 90%+ of Catholics themselves use birth control in good conscience?

And here's a point Winters has not wanted to see all along as the "material cooperation with evil" notion has been discussed vis-a-vis the HHS guidelines for contraceptive coverage: Catholics in one predominantly Catholic nation after another have been cooperating materially with evil for some time now, if that's what the provision of contraception through health care plans really boils down to.  Catholics in one nation after another have been silently and seemingly placidly engaging in material cooperation with evil as their national health care plans provide contraceptive coverage for all citizens.  With not a peep of protest from the Catholic community, the bishops of these nations, or the Vatican.

What's special about the United States and its bishops?  And why are they just now discovering how heinous this material cooperation with evil is in providing access to contraception, when Catholic institutions in the U.S. have already been providing contraceptive coverage in many places, and when laws have already been on the books to require such provision?

The phrase "material cooperation with evil" is patently silly when we're talking about provision of a component of health care that most Catholics themselves regard not as evil but as a positive good.  I'd strongly recommend that Winters and others who are trotting out this patently silly phrase because they imagine it sounds theologically grave in the HHS discussion ditch the phrase if they want to retain people's intellectual respect.

Unless, that is, they're willing to push the U.S. bishops very hard to put their moral weight behind conscientious objection to some real material cooperation with evil--the kind in which all of us American Catholics are implicated on a daily basis, and which the bishops never open their mouths to decry, as they shoot their mouths off about women's access to birth control.

And then there's the real shocker of Winters's argument: if you're a non-Catholic and you sign up to "work at or attend a Catholic institution," please be forewarned: you "are signing up for no meat on Friday, some measure of episcopal and, ultimately papal, oversight . . . ."  Read the fine print carefully, you non-Catholic workers in Catholic institutions: work in one of our institutions, and you're signing away your rights as an American citizen to be covered by some basic provisions of American labor law and American civil rights legislation.

Because you're placing yourselves under the "oversight" of the man who sits on a throne in Rome.  And when he and his bishops prefer to think differently than the law of the land thinks about matters of labor and civil rights, the men in ecclesiastical robes deserve to win.  Because they and their co-belligerents say so.

I suspect these conclusions (including the punchy little jab about meatless Fridays) will come as quite a surprise not merely to non-Catholics who work in Catholic institutions, but to most Catholics who work in these institutions, as well.  And who never dreamed they were forfeiting basic rights of American citizenship when they signed on to work at a Catholic institution.

To return to the point about analogies and whether they work or not: in an analogical tradition like Catholicism, when analogies used by the tradition's central spokespersons not merely limp, but fall flat on their face, the tradition's ability to make its point in the public square is seriously impeded.  Because when Catholics can't employ analogies clearly, they can't entertain and hold ideas.

Since the analogy is the container in which Catholic thought is contained.  And when it's full of holes, the ideas it's designed to contain leak out.

And they've long since leaked out of the cracked pot in which the bishops and their co-belligerents are carrying around their little assortment of inconsequential notions about material cooperation with evil and meatless Fridays and the wondrous Constantinean worldview that gives clerics special rights to ignore secular laws in the battle against women's rights to basic health care.

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