Perhaps I have not been clear in what I have written this week (here and here) about some of the fault lines that are apparent among American lay Catholics now that the pope's comments about contraception and family planning in the Philippines have opened discussion of those issues all over again. I'm going to try again.
In her National Catholic Reporter article about the Catholic church's complicity in the suffering of Glyzelle Palomar, Jamie Manson provides a clear, compelling case for why the issue of contraception (and the denial of contraceptives to women in developing nations) should concern all Catholics everywhere — as an ethical challenge: she writes,
For more than a decade, the Roman Catholic hierarchy obstructed the passage of the Reproductive Health Bill, a proposed Philippine law intended to bring free or subsidized birth control options (condoms, birth control pills and intrauterine devices) to government health centers, including remote areas where some of the poorest live. It would provide family-planning training for community health officers and require sex education in public schools. It also would vastly improve maternity care for poor women. Abortion and abortifacients would remain illegal.
The RH bill finally passed in December 2012, but its implementation was stalled by the Catholic hierarchy, who led a challenge to its constitutionality. In April 2014, the Supreme Court upheld its constitutionality but struck down, either partially or in full, eight of its provisions, which weakened the law. Filipino bishops declared the ordeal a "partial victory."
[I]n developing countries such as the Philippines, reproductive health care is widely denied to the populace because of the strength and lobbying of the Catholic hierarchy.
What I have been trying to draw attention to is not the response to the issue of contraception of the Catholic hard right as represented by groups like Human Life International, which has long argued that contraceptives should be actively opposed for women in developing nations. I'm trying to focus on what is a quite typical and predictable response of a solid core of American Catholics who are pro-contraceptive-use, who use contraceptives themselves, but who want flatly to deny that the Catholic magisterial teaching about contraceptives has much effect at all on women and children in poor nations. I want to focus on the response of many American Catholic "liberals" to this discussion, in other words.
In comments made by some lay Catholics in the U.S. at NCR this week, you can see this position clearly developed, with claims, for instance, that a majority of Filipino women must be using contraception, since the birth rate in the Philippines is moderate. This claim flatly denies what both Jamie Manson and NCR's editors are saying. In fact, it calls into question the integrity of these fellow lay Catholic witnesses to Catholic ethical truths in an important intraecclesial Catholic ethical discussion. It also flatly denies that the official teaching of the Catholic church vis-a-vis contraception has much effect at all on the lives of poor women and children in places like the Philippines.
Another tactic of this same set of lay American Catholics who themselves use contraceptives and who themselves approve of contraceptive use for others is the claim that the debate about contraception is a tired debate that reflects concerns of over-the-hill Vatican II lefties, while younger, with-it lay Catholics have transcended that post-Vatican II debate. Since lay Catholics in general, in the Western nations, no longer care what the magisterium says about these issues, and no longer listen when the magisterium talks about sex . . . .
It's important to note what this shoulder-shrugging argument intends: it intends to shrug its shoulders about sound, compelling evidence that the Catholic magisterial teaching about contraception has a direct, harmful, and ugly effect on the lives of poor women and children in the developing nations. It is undoubtedly true that a majority of lay Catholics in the U.S. and throughout the Western part of the globe use contraceptives and approve of contraceptive use.
It's also undoubtedly true that a majority of lay Catholics shrug their shoulders when the Vatican pontificates about this issue. This has been true since the 1960s. One of the primary reasons Paul VI chose to address the topic of contraceptive use with his encyclical Humanae Vitae is that he and the other leaders of the Catholic church knew full well that increasing numbers of lay Catholics were ignoring magisterial teaching about contraception.
But it is simply not true, as this "liberal" Catholic argument wants to maintain, that magisterial teaching about contraception does not have real, perceivable, and deleterious effects on poor women and children in the developing sector of the planet. And so it is not true, as this "liberal" approach to the issue would have us think, that we ourselves are not part of the problem — we who are lay Catholics in the U.S., who enjoy all the advantages and freedoms of people living in a Western democracy in which contraception is widely available and widely approved of.
It is not true, in short, that simply because we enjoy many such privileges and take them for granted, Catholic positions about contraception (and other sexual issues) don't affect people other than ourselves — including, notably, people who are vulnerable, people to whose immiseration the opposition of Catholic bishops to laws permitting wide availibility of contraceptives contributes in a very direct way, or people seeking the rights and privileges of marriage that we take for granted for ourselves who are denied those rights and privileges because of the teaching of the Catholic magisterium and how it is applied in the political life of many nations.
It's no accident, I'm suggesting to you, that the very same set of "liberal" lay Catholics in the U.S. who want to pooh-pooh discussion of the deleterious effects of contraception on women and children in developing nations also pooh-pooh discussions about how Catholic magisterial teaching on homosexuality affects the lives of LGBT people throughout the world in very negative ways. I'm also asking that you think about how powerful this shoulder-shrugging, no-skin-off-my-nose approach to thinking about these issues is particularly among American Catholics who think of themselves as liberal.
Who have long taken their own right to use contraceptives for granted. Who are hostile to the suggestion that Catholic teaching about contraception has negative effects on the lives of poor women and children in the developing nations (especially when that suggestion comes to them from an out lesbian Catholic theologian).
Who do not intend to lift a finger to address the negative, harmful effects of Catholic magisterial teaching about human sexuality on either poor people in developing nations, or on LGBT people throughout the world. Who do not intend, that is to say, to examine their own taken-for-granted astonishing privilege in any self-critical way, and certainly in no way that would recognize their own complicity in the suffering of the less privileged.
This way of thinking and this way of doing business is far more deeply entrenched among many "liberal" American Catholics than I think many of us have ever recognized. It's very apparent right now at places like the NCR discussion threads in the response of some lay Catholics to the discussion of the pope's remarks about contraception in the Philippines.
And it needs to be thought through carefully by the rest of us, because of the wide influence the folks mounting these arguments have in the culture at large, and in many Catholic institutions.