Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Catholic Contraception Controversy Continues, Centrist Power-Brokers Carry Water for Bishops

I have worked with myself to discern whether or not I ought to say anything further about the intra-Catholic discussion now going on re: how the Obama administration should respond to the proposed HHS guidelines that would require faith-based organizations to provide contraceptive coverage in their health insurance plans.  More than a little hot ink has already been spilled about this controversy, and I'm definitely one of the spillers.

I also don't want to give the impression that I'm writing about these issues out of a sense of personal animus against some of the centrist Catholic journalists I keep mentioning in these postings.  I don't know any of these people.  They write from and reside in circles of power and connection that have nothing to do with my life in the hinterlands.  If I am in any sense at all an annoyance to them as I write on this blog, I am, I feel sure, the kind of annoyance a tiny biting fly is to an elephant.

And yet, despite my misgivings about saying anything further about the HHS controversy, I feel compelled to keep writing.  I feel compelled to do so for a variety or reasons (and the verb "work" in my opening sentence does have resonances of the old evangelical tradition of working with oneself and others to discern the path of salvation in difficult circumstances): so I write here out of the sense that my work on this blog is vocational, an extension of my thwarted teaching and writing as a Catholic theologian.

I feel compelled to keep writing because some of the centrist Catholic power-brokers who have led the charge for the USCCB since this controversy began keep writing.  And of late, as the resistance to the bishops' lobbying becomes stronger among many Democratic constituencies, these centrist power-brokers  are becoming more outspoken.  They're taking the gloves off and showing us what they have really been about all along, as they promote the bishops' position as "the" Catholic position for the public square and try to bully dissenting Catholics into silence and submission to "the" Catholic position.

And so the need to challenge these centrist power-brokers' unilateral and exclusive claims to represent Catholicity tout court, along with their claim that the bishops and Vatican unilaterally and exclusively define official Catholic teaching, grows stronger.  I continue writing about these matters because I consider it extremely important for alternative views of what authentic Catholicity is all about to have a say in this important ongoing public discussion--because the views touted by the centrist power-brokers and the bishops for whom they carry water do not represent the decisions of informed conscience that the people of God are making about these issues.  And because their version of authentic Catholicism in fact betrays much that is central to our tradition at its best.

A case in point, then: the Catholic understanding of the role of informed conscience in the political and moral judgments of believers.  At the heart of much that Michael Sean Winters continues to publish at National Catholic Reporter about the U.S. Catholic bishops and their attempt to pick a fight with the Obama administration over "religious freedom" issues and contraception is a certain presupposition about conscience and Catholic teaching that is, to say the least, peculiar.  It's, in fact, downright misguided.

Here's how Winters puts the case in something he posted at his NCR blog last week: the magisterium defends both "liberal" Catholics' understanding of social justice issues and conservative Catholics' notions about sexual morality.  It's inconsistent and self-defeating, Winters argues, for what he calls "liberal" Catholics to seek to throw away magisterial teaching in the area of sexual morality, while urging the magisterium to bolster its claims about social justice issues.

As he deals with these issues, Winters has argued persistently that the bishops who are opposing what he continues to regard as an "attack" on Catholic religious freedom as they lobby against the HHS  guidelines are the same bishops who uphold strong Catholic social teaching in the area of health care provision and immigration.  The bishops are as resolute, he thinks, about standing in critique of our culture's sell-out to atomic individualism in areas of economic and social justice as they are about standing in critique of "the ambient culture’s sexual mores." (I'll voice my doubts about characterizing the bishops this way in a moment.)

And so "liberal" Catholics who find the bishops' position on contraception (and sexual ethics in general) wanting, on grounds of informed conscience, are actually pressing the same argument, but from the opposite end of the spectrum, that their brother and sister Catholics who are conservative press about Catholic social teaching, when they promote the doctrines of Hayek and von Mises.

I will grant that some bishops have over-stated the case, but can Moses really doubt that there have been misguided appeals to a false sense of conscience to justify political stances at odds with Catholic teaching? Can he not see that such misguided appeals are found on both left and right? I can find Mr. Moses plenty of Catholics who would not have found DeGette and Maddow’s exchange shallow and wrong-headed as well as many Catholics who blithely ignore the whole tenor and tone and content of Catholic social teaching in their rush to embrace the anti-Christian doctrines of Hayek and von Mises.

There are a number of things wrong with this argument, it seems to me.  In the first place, it's historically counterfactual.  As someone who remembers the widespread protest of many American Catholic theologians when Paul VI issued his encyclical Humanae Vitae upholding the magisterial position on artificial contraception, I remember quite specifically that the bulk of theologians who called for public rejection of Humanae Vitae were among the strongest defenders of Catholic social teaching within the American Catholic context.

One can certainly come to an informed critical judgment of conscience that questions magisterial teaching about sexual ethics without ditching magisterial teachings about social justice in toto--just as, one presumes, one can come to an informed decision of conscience which upholds both the position of Humanae Vitae and the teachings on social justice.  Though I must admit I have yet to meet very many Catholics on the right end of the political and theological spectrum who promote both Humanae Vitae and Populorum Progressio or Economic Justice for All . . . . 

And it would take a lot of convincing to convince me that the bishops really do stand strongly and unambiguously for Catholic social justice teaching in the public square today.  The claim that they do strikes me as counterfactual, to say the least.  And, in my view, a more accurate assessment of the bishops' fundamental stances of late is to note that they have abandoned and even gutted the Catholic social justice traditions in their public teaching, precisely as they've amped up the hardline sexual teachings.

The issue of conscience is key here, as Winters notes.  But I find his notion of how conscience operates in the Catholic tradition theologically lacking.  In what Winters writes about the bishops and their teaching (and the Vatican and their teaching) there appears persistently to be embedded an exceptionally "high" theological notion of the magisterium which gives the magisterium virtual power to coerce or browbeat the conscience of individual believers, and which defines those who dissent from magisterial teaching on the basis of informed conscience as inadequately Catholic.  There appears to be a concomitant belief that without that strong and "high" understanding of magisterial teaching, Catholics succumb to a culture of relativism in which no Catholic values can be sustained by the laity as they communicate Catholic values to the culture at large.

This understanding of conscience seems to me to overlook what is absolutely central to the argument of most Catholics I know, theologians or otherwise, who have long since rejected the position of Humanae Vitae (as did the theological commission Paul VI struck to advise him about birth control), while they accentuate church teaching about social and economic justice.  What I remember theologians like Charles Curran and many others arguing for at the time Humanae Vitae was issued is precisely this: on the basis of their informed consciences, a large percentage of Catholics have rejected magisterial teaching on artificial contraception, and their decisions of informed conscience in this regard should be respected and taken into consideration by the magisterium.

They have rejected and continue to reject magisterial teaching in the area of sexual ethics not because their consciences are uninformed or lax, or because they have succumbed to a relativistic notion of sexual morality.  Nor has their informed conscientious decision to reject magisterial teaching on birth control led to their wholesale rejection of magisterial teaching in all areas.  They have made their decision to critique or reject magisterial teaching in the area of sexual ethics on the basis of informed conscience which has carefully weighed the teaching and the arguments upholding it, and has sought after prayer, study, and discernment to call the teaching into question.

And it's important to note here that in fact for a large percentage of American Catholics, theologians or otherwise, who critique the magisterial position on sexual ethics, one of its key shortcomings is that it does not give sufficient play--not nearly enough--to matters of social justice as it deals with questions like homosexuality (or, for that matter, about all the issues implicated in a consistent ethic of life).  The same informed consciences that reach a conscientious decision to critique or reject the magisterial position on sexual morality very frequently reach a conscientious decision to give a high profile to Catholic social teaching when it comes to matters of human rights and social and economic justice.

Because their informed consciences urge them in this direction . . . . And those same informed consciences urge them to challenge the lack of justice and respect for human rights in the magisterium's approach to gay and lesbian persons . . . . 

It is disingenuous in the extreme to argue that making informed decisions of conscience to critique and even oppose magisterial notions of sexual ethics leads to a no-holds-barred moral stance on the part of Catholics who thereby cave in to cultural relativism and undermine Catholic teaching on matters of social and economic justice.  The opposite development appears very frequently to be occurring, in fact, among many thinking and conscientious Catholics.  (But those Catholics are deliberately not represented as power-broking centrist Catholic intellectuals define Catholicity for the public square.)

Just as it's disingenuous to argue, as both Michael Sean Winters and Margaret Steinfels of Commonweal persistently do, that "Catholics" oppose the suggestion that Catholic organizations ought to be required to provide contraceptive coverage in employee health care plans . . . . And that "Catholics" will not vote for Democratic candidates in the 2012 elections if the Democrats trample on "Catholic" sensibilities about these issues . . . .

Note what these counterintuitive assertions imply for the current debate.  They imply that the Vatican and bishops represent Catholic belief and Catholic teaching altogether.  These assertions radically downplay the role of the laity (and of theologians) in shaping official Catholic teaching.

They also deny the reality of dissent--and, in particular, of dissent based on informed conscience.  They deny the reality of widespread and almost universal Catholic dissent from magisterial teaching about birth control--as if (and this presupposition seems to me especially reprehensible)--only the Vatican, the bishops, and their centrist water-carriers are bona fide Catholics.  Everybody else is on the outside looking in, and has placed himself or herself there by malicious choice--and should keep quiet as "Catholics" inform the public square what "Catholics" believe.

The notion of what Catholicity is all about that underlies these centrist power-brokering presuppositions about how Catholics should engage the public square simply writes entire constituencies out of the Catholic conversation.  It writes out of the conversation the large majority or Catholics in the developed sectors of the world who reject magisterial teaching about contraception.

It also writes out of the conversation the many Catholics who stand in solidarity with women in their struggle for women's rights, as it configures the Catholic conversation actively to alienate and exclude many advocates of women's rights.  This understanding of what Catholicity is all about colludes with church officials in keeping a lid on significant conversations that stand to make the Catholic church more authentically catholic, more inclusive, more engaged with what ordinary Catholics believe, think, and do, as it writes large numbers of people out of the conversation that purports to articulate "the" Catholic position in the public square.

And so, in the final analysis, I have concluded that the centrist power-brokering approach to the HHS controversy betrays the Catholic tradition itself, since it is clearly not energized by a desire to create a more catholic, a more inclusive, community.  It seems to me to be energized in large part by the desire to serve the bishops and the Vatican in their battles with this or that political group--and to maintain  the power-brokering status of the centrist Catholic intellectuals who insist on defining Catholicity for the American Catholic church as a whole.

At a point in the history of our church at which public esteem for the bishops and their moral authority is at an all-time low--for entirely understandable and laudable reasons--the claim that what the bishops say and do is Catholicism faces a steep uphill climb not only in the public square, but within Catholic circles as well.  And when one adds to this observation the additional observation that the belief system being defended now by centrist power-brokers--"Catholics" oppose contraceptive use and the inclusion of contraception as an expected part of health care plans--does not in any significantly correct way at all represent what Catholics say and do, then one has to wonder precisely why the bishops and their friends are choosing to make this particular issue a bully-stick issue as the 2012 elections approach.

And why they're growing so angry as, on the one side, many of their Catholic brothers and sisters assert their right to disagree with the bishops and bishops' friends about these matters.  And why they're now engaging in bullying tactics that amount to threats to assure that "Catholics" won't vote for Democrats in the coming elections, if the Democrats don't respect the bishops' "rights."  And why they're also increasingly exercised, on the other side, at the refusal of many Democratic leaders to go along with their arguments and with their claim to represent "the" Catholic position in the public square.

I have my ideas about why all this is happening now.  And they're not particularly flattering conclusions, vis-a-vis the bishops and their friends.

The graphic represents the results of a poll conducted in June-July 2010 for Planned Parenthood, as reported by CBS News on 1 Nov. 2101.

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