Saturday, January 28, 2012

Catholics Good, Jehovah's Witnesses Bad: Telling Admissions re: "Conscience Exemptions" Argument

Though Vincent Miller opposes the recent decision by the Obama administration to accept guidelines to make contraceptives accessible through health care plans, he recognizes that what he, the Catholic bishops, and their supporters are demanding vis-a-vis "conscience exemptions" is precisely what he would not endorse, if Jehovah's Witnesses sought conscience exemptions to deny health care coverage for blood transfusions.  Miller writes: 

Switching the content however, I become ambivalent.  I would hesitate to say religious liberty requires that Christian Science or Jehovah’s Witness affiliated organizations not provide policies that cover surgery or blood transfusions.  And, alas, Catholic teaching on contraception enjoys only slightly more support than these other strongly held religious beliefs.

I find this a telling admission.  In the discussion of the HHS guidelines that has been going on at various Catholic websites lately--notably in several threads at Commonweal (here, here, and here)--one can see richly displayed a kind of tribalism that eats corrosively at meaningful, thoughtful discourse about this and other issues among American Catholic intellectuals of the center.

The underlying mentality, which the centrist intellectuals share with their brother and sister Catholics of the far right, is an us-vs.-them mentality.  It assumes that we are right and above reproach.  Our tribe can't do and hasn't done wrong in the same way that other tribes can do and have done wrong.

Point out to these tribal, ethnocentric, and exceedingly parochial Catholic thinkers that what they're arguing for with these conscience exemptions is precisely what many white Southern Christians demanded at the time of the Civil Rights movement, and they'll quickly take umbrage: "But we aren't racists.  Catholics have always deplored racism.  This is different."

I'm particularly struck by the interchange between Luke Hill and Ann Olivier and others in the first Commonweal thread to which I've pointed readers above.  Luke Hill raises the eminently reasonable point that it seems rather strange to claim we're defending the rights of "conscience" against the Obama administration, when 90%+ of American Catholic couples have long been known to be using contraceptives.  

Those responding to Luke Hill's eminently sane observation then do what ethnocentric, tribal centrist Catholics predictably do when someone tries to move conversations like this to the experiential level: they claim that what real-life people, real-life Catholics, do doesn't count in an intellectual discussion.  They close ranks and continue talking about abstractions as though those abstractions have nothing at all to do with the lives of the 90%+ of their brother and sister Catholics practicing contraception.

They close ranks and act as if the entire church, with all its diversity and real-life complexity, on whose behalf they claim to be speaking as "the" Catholic voice, simply doesn't exist.

These exceedingly parochial, embarrassingly abstract (in the worst sense of that word: evading, disguising, and manipulating experiential reality), tribal, defensive, ethnocentric conversations between centrist Catholics and their soulmates of the political and religious right: they ultimately have little to offer the church as a whole.  Or the public square.

They have little to offer because they're inward-turned and elitist.  They don't take into account the experiences, stories, and lives of the majority of Catholics on whose behalf centrists claim to be speaking. They don't listen with any real respect to the testimony of brother and sister Catholics outside the closed, elitist circles within which the centrists live.  They refuse to think or talk about the effect of their abstract theories on real lives.

And they assume that if Catholics think or do it, it has to be right.  All of which leads to some pretty atrocious and uncatholic behavior on the part of those adopting these defensive, closed postures as they defend the indefensible in precisely the same way previous groups of Catholic intellectuals were capable of defending the indefensible during the periods of witch burning, slave trading, or fascist takeover of much of Europe in the first part of the 20th century.

I have news for American Catholic intellectuals of the center: every tribe can be spectacularly wrong.  And the more certain a tribe is that it and its leaders have the moral edge on every other tribe in the world, the more likely it is to be spectacularly wrong.  The more certain and set apart a tribe is, the more likely it is to be ignoring valuable information necessary to making well-rounded intellectual and moral judgments.

Which happens to be a point the gospels make when they insist that the Spirit chooses to speak to the so-certain and set-apart through just those the righteous and chosen have decided to discount, when the outsider from an impure tribe, the Samaritan, grasps a crucial moral insight by tending to a man wounded by the wayside, while the religious experts of the pure tribe, the  bishops priest and their centrist intellectual defenders Levite, miss the insight altogether.

No comments: