Saturday, October 8, 2011

Daniel Maguire Gets the Commonweal Crowd Right

And speaking of centrist Catholic opinion makers who predictably tack right while they inform us that they and they alone represent what Catholicism is really all about, ignoring all the while the wide divergence between their hierarchy-serving positions and those of the large majority of their fellow Catholics (I'm building here on comments I've just made about John Allen's latest advertisement for Rome and the U.S. bishops):

I find Daniel Maguire's takedown of the Commonweal crowd in an essay about Catholics and abortion in Religious Dispatches this week superb.  Maguire focuses on Commonweal's recent "Can We Talk about Abortion?" discussion.  He notes that Commonweal has a "mostly conservative stance on abortion," as (I'm interjecting this: Maguire doesn't address this topic) it does on issues of gay rights and other issues that might place this Catholic journal at odds with powerful members of the hierarchy.  Though a majority of their fellow Catholics for whom the Commonweal set claim to be speaking have no problem at all challenging the hierarchy on some of these issues . . . .  And so, as I have often noted, while professing to occupy the center, this and other centrist Catholic publications in fact bolster the right wing of the Catholic church--even its far-right wing--while reading anyone to the left of the rightward-skewed center out of their conversations.

Maguire observes that the three authorities whom Commonweal recently invited to talk about abortion--Dennis O’Brien, Peter Steinfels, and Cathleen Kaveny--all "hew closely to hierarchical teaching, which they identify tout court as 'the Catholic teaching.'"  He notes that Steinfels, husband of Commonweal editor Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, is "hard right on abortion," and avows in his essay that he has "sympathy" for the position of the bishops--an avowal that is, in Maguire's view, "an understatement."

Maguire argues that Steinfels takes the traditional Catholic tripod on which theological consensus about controversial theological or moral issues has historically rested--the combined positions of "hierarchy, theologians, and sensus fidelium"--and reduces it to the "monopod of hierarchy," "brandishing hierarchical texts" as proof texts that close the conversation as he makes this move.

And this assessment strikes me as important to note not merely because it happens to coincide with the assessment of Commonweal I've often offered here, but also because, as it happens, Commonweal editor Margaret O'Brien Steinfels is a member of a group of high-profile Catholic opinion mavens who recently wrote federal secretary of health and human services Kathleen Sibelius to argue that the proposed guidelines requiring insurance plans to include coverage for contraception do not contain sufficient protections for the conscience of religious employers who may not approve of contraceptive use.

Michael Sean Winters at National Catholic Reporter has been assisting this group, and he continues to try to argue--as he did in this recent article written after, as he notes, he had  "sat down with Richard Doerflinger, the Deputy Director for Pro-Life Activities and with Anthony Picarello, the General Counsel of the USCCB"(!!)--that the issue at stake with this battle for conscience protections "is not really contraception."

And yet, the issue is and has been contraception from the moment the HHS guidelines were placed on the table--as the bishops' spokeswoman Sister Mary Ann Walsh noted this past July, in a statement arguing that the proposed new health insurance guidelines trample on Catholics' religious freedom.  And as Andrew Sullivan noted later the same month, the fanfare surrounding the proposed guidelines--along with the claim that the religious freedom of believers is being assaulted--is situated within the context of a much broader initiative of the political and religious right in general.  Which deliberately seeks to confuse the issues of abortion and contraception, with the insinuation that mandating contraceptive coverage is a first step to mandating abortion coverage . . . .

The argument that the bishops and their influential supporters like Margaret O'Brien Steinfels or Michael Sean Winters are trying to make about conscience and religious freedom in this debate conveniently ignores, of course, that the huge majority of American Catholics both approve and practice contraceptive use.  And so the "religious freedom" that is supposedly under assault by the Obama administration with these guidelines is a "freedom" asserted by a tiny minority of Catholics--the bishops themselves, and those intent to do the bishops' bidding--of their right to block the access to contraceptive coverage in their healthcare plans of fellow Catholics and all other citizens who may not share the bishops' views on contraceptives, if they happen to work for Catholic employers.  And potentially in Catholic hospitals, which receive strong government funding and which serve a significant proportion of the population . . . .

When the argument for religious freedom becomes an argument that I have a unique faith-based right to deny services like access to basic health care to you--that I have a unique faith-based right to deny your human rights--something is wildly wrong.  And that's a point that Daniel Maguire and a number of other Catholic theologians who stand on the opposite side of the fence from the two Steinfels, Winters, et al. about these issues sought to make in their own recent letter to HHS about these matters.

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