Friday, December 2, 2011

They Continue Writing about Catholic Pride and Contraception: And I Keep Responding

I said several days ago that, while I don't want to keep hashing and rehashing the bogus politically manufactured controversy about the U.S. Catholic bishops and contraceptive health care coverage in Catholic institutions, I'd keep doing so as long as Michael Sean Winters and others keep writing articles giving the bishops cover.  Because somebody has to challenge the toxic absurdities (and political game-playing) that have taken center stage in American Catholicism with the bishops and their defenders, as this cynical bogus political controversy has developed.

And since Mr. Winters published yet another bishop-promoting article yesterday, I'm writing once again to challenge what his article has to say.  Actually, I hardly have to say a word.  Read the thread following the article to which I've just linked, and you'll see a wide swath of American Catholics telling Winters he's plain wrong.  That the Catholics he claims to represent aren't by any means all the Catholics in the country.

That large percentages of American Catholics not only support the use of contraception and use contraceptives themselves, but that they also have come to informed decisions of conscience that contraceptive use is good.  That it's a means of exercising in our reproductive lives the same kind of good stewardship we're called to exercise in other aspects of our lives.  That responsible use of contraception and making contraceptives as widely available as possible helps rather than hinders the church's pro-life goal of diminishing abortions.

Above all, that the leaders of no religious community have the right to engage in overt faith-based discrimination in their institutions, when those institutions employ both members of their own religious community who have widely diverging viewpoints, as well as members of other or no religious community, who may not buy into the presuppositions of the faith community at all.  That respecting people's right to make their own conscientious decisions and their right to basic health care, including contraceptive coverage, is a positive good strongly emphasized by Catholic teaching itself, and that, as one respondent to Winters's latest screed, TomC says, it's "simply disgusting" to defend the bishops' "right" and "freedom" to discriminate.

Mr. Winters's latest pro-USCCB argument (his arguments keep shifting with the wind as each attempt he makes to carry water for the bishops is demolished by NCR readers) is that the Obama administration is trampling on "Catholic pride" with the HHS guidelines requiring employers to include contraceptive coverage as part of their health care plans.  And "Catholics" will retaliate in swing states like Pennsylvania by voting against the Democrats in the coming elections, since "Catholics" don't "take kindly to any efforts to tell them how to run their schools, hospitals and social service agencies."

As I say to Mr. Winters in my response to his article (which has just appeared at the NCR site), nor did the vast majority of white Southern Christians take kindly at all to the efforts of the federal government to tell us how to run our institutions during the Civil Rights period of the 1950s and 1960s.  We fought bitterly for our faith-based, traditional, biblically grounded "right" to discriminate on grounds of race--and to keep doing so even when federal laws forbidding such discrimination were enacted.

We resented the intrusion on our "religious freedom."  From the time I first began to attend Sunday School in the Southern Baptist church as a boy, I heard one story after another about how our forebears had left the British Isles and Europe to gain the right to worship in freedom, and how this is the core Baptist value--and we never want the state interfering with that right.  We wanted the wall separating church and state high and solid to keep the state from telling us what to do (though, ironically, apart from the Catholic bishops with their current "religious freedom" politicking, no one has done more to erode that wall in recent years than theocratic-minded Southern Baptists).

And when it came to race and our "right" to discriminate, we were wildly, absolutely wrong.  We could not have been wronger.  If the federal government had not "intruded" on our faith-based "right" to discriminate, we'd still be discriminating--just like that Baptist church in Kentucky that has just informed interracial couples they're not welcome to attend church.

There are rights, and then there are rights.  The "rights" of people of faith to deny basic human services like health care to others on the grounds of conscience, or to deny housing, employment, and other human rights to people on the grounds of conscience, have been and are rightly normed in pluralistic democratic societies by a fundamental principle of respect for human rights in general.  The government has, with strong reason, defended its prerogative to tell faith communities that they may believe whatever they wish to believe about, say, gay rights or women's rights.

But when they do business in the public square by employing people from diverse walks of life and backgrounds, and when they take government funds, faith communities do not have the right to engage in overt discrimination on grounds of race, gender, age, or social class.  No matter what their religious beliefs dictate in this regard.  

Because a viable civil democracy cannot function otherwise.  When people of faith claim a unique faith-based "right" to enshrine discrimination in their practices and in the public square, civil society begins to fall apart.

As a number of those responding to Mr. Winters's latest article about the manufactured bishops-vs.-Obama controversy try to tell him, the bishops are playing politics here.  And the partisan political game they're playing is ugly.  It has them (and their defenders) in bed with some of the shadiest, least morally admirable characters around on the American political scene--with folks like the ethics-challenged Mr. Issa of California, who, as Sarah Posner points out at Religion Dispatches, spent much of yesterday mounting the very same arguments Mr. Winters and Ms. Steinfels at Commonweal have been making, that "Catholics" are outraged that the Obama administration is considering the proposed HHS guidelines about contraception, and that the Obama administration is at war with "Catholics."

Michael Sean Winters wants to keep bringing into this argument, which is about forcing "Catholic" teaching about contraception on the public at large when even huge percentages of Catholics reject this teaching, the Trojan horse of abortion.  As if the argument is really about abortion, and as if blocking the "right" of "Catholics" to discriminate in the area of health care coverage and contraception will open the door to state-mandated abortion.  He writes in his latest article, "Some of this concern manifests an understandable awareness that if the government can mandate contraception today, it might mandate abortion coverage tomorrow."

But the stark reality of the bishops' morally dubious politics-playing, and of their persistent attacks on the rights of the gay and lesbian community, coupled with their latest attack on the right of employees of Catholic institutions to contraceptive coverage in health care plans, is this: through their treatment of gay citizens and their defense of the "right" to discriminate in health care coverage, the bishops and their defenders are radically undermining their argument that the Catholic church stands for pro-life values in the area of abortion.

The attacks on gay persons and the attack on contraceptive coverage are bridges too far, if the real intent of the bishops and their defenders is to demonstrate to the American public that they have a strong moral case to make against abortion.  The ethically indefensible way in which the bishops and their defenders have been behaving in the public square when it comes to gay and lesbian human beings and now to the issue of contraception does not convey to the public at large a strong sense that Catholic leaders and their defenders respect and value of life.  What it does convey to the public is that the bishops value money and power.  And cutting back-room deals.  And playing power politics with folks whose respect for the values of life is not in any way conspicuous at all.

If the bishops' case about abortion is truly moral, and is therefore compelling (since a moral case is compelling in and of itself), the bishops and their defenders should begin thinking about the message they're giving to the American public about that case--and about their commitment to moral values--when they funnel huge amounts of money into behind-the-scenes lobbying campaigns designed to strip rights from various constituencies.  And when they refuse to disclose openly and transparently how much money they're using to accomplish their lobbying goals, and precisely how they're using that money.

And when they refuse to discuss even with their fellow Catholics the disconnect between what they and their defenders say "Catholics" believe about issues like contraception or gay rights and what real-life Catholics actually believe.  And when they and their defenders squelch respectful and open discussion of these and other matters within the Catholic community itself.  Even as weekly Mass attendance rates drop to 31% in the nation as a whole, and 16% in urban centers like Boston--because, I conclude, people are weary of knowing we're excluded from the conversations that determine the future of the church.

When the point morality wants to make is clearly right, the moral case can stand on its own feet.  To the extent that it has to resort to shady back-room wheeling and dealing, when it relies on coercion rather than open discussion, and when it gets into bed with morally stinky political players to try to gain political advantage, something is radically wrong.  It has forfeited its claim to moral credibility.  

And as I've said before and feel compelled to say again, get your head up the posterior of the USCCB, and you're very likely to lose moral insight and the ability to see much beyond the confines of that dark place.  Pretty quickly so, I fear.

P.S. And after posting the preceding, I'm just now seeing Colleen Baker's refreshing takedown of Winters's arguments in this same essay, in her posting earlier today at Enlightened Catholicism.  As she says, Winters needs to review the venerable Catholic notion of the reception of doctrine, when he talks about what "we Catholics" believe, apart from Team Bishop.  That notion holds that the truth of a doctrine depends, in part, on its reception by the people of God.  The vast majority of Catholics do not and have not "received" Humanae Vitae, and so, as Colleen rightly notes, it's crazy to try to impose this non-received doctrine on society at large!

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