Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Mr. Dolan and ObamaCare: An Historian of the Future Looks Back (2)

You're now at stage two of your research as an historian trying to unravel the conflicting arguments of the bishops-vs.-ObamaCare debate in the early 21st century: now that you've found out how downright confusing (and misleading: you're still baffled by Mr. Dolan's patently false assertion that the Obama administration's approval of guidelines for contraceptive coverage requires Catholic taxpayers to support abortion!) these arguments are, you've decided to turn for clarification and light to the intellectual and media arbiters of the American Catholic church of Dolan's day.

You do so reasoning that if anyone can sort out conflicting arguments, figure out what's fallacious in them, point to underlying connections that expose the falsehoods of officialspeak, and help keep a religious body on a credible moral course, it's the intellectual leaders of that religious body.  Since they're trained to deal in truth and uncover falsehood--certainly not to be media mouthpieces for officials who use deceptive officialspeak to play fast and free with the truth.

At this stage of your research, you decide to do what you did at your initial stage, when you began by reading comments about the Wall Street Journal essay Mr. Dolan wrote to defend the values of life against ObamaCare in January 2012.  You turn to one of the leading American Catholic intellectual forums of the period--perhaps the leading forum, a journal called Commonweal.  And as you scan through one of its many discussions of the HHS guidelines and the Obama administration, you're struck by the following statement:

[T]here’s good reason to argue that that [i.e., religious freedom] is the real issue, not bishops, not contraception. 

You're struck by this statement for a variety of reasons.  First, it's being written by the former editor of the journal Commonweal, who, along with her husband, wields enormous influence in American Catholic intellectual and media circles.  And who, because of her prominent position and that of her husband, is closely connected to more than one of the bishops about whom she's writing in the previous comment.

You're also struck by the willingness of one of the leading Catholic intellectual spokespersons of the day to swallow--seemingly uncritically--what is essentially the bishops' own argument of the period: namely, that they are defending "religious freedom" against the intrusion of secular bodies antithetical to religious freedom in matters such as ObamaCare.  You seem to recall that the bishops made this claim such a media priority as the 21st century began that they even set up a special office to "protect" religious freedom, as they claimed that religious freedom was under attack.

But you're struck by the statement for another reason: your research has led you quickly to see that contraception is, in fact, most certainly the "real issue" (or, at the very least, one of the most significant "real issues") in the bishops-vs.-ObamaCare debate, and you find it baffling that leading Catholic intellectuals would seek to gloss over that "real issue" as they help the bishops spread their propaganda.

But also that they should simply refuse to discuss the issue altogether.  To be specific: you find it baffling that anyone interested in keeping this conversation oriented to "real issues" and the truth would seek to declare off-limits the finding that 90%+ of American Catholics practiced contraception in the period you're researching.  Or, when they do advert to this finding, that they dismissively ignore it as a "majoritarian" finding--as though they, an intellectual elite defending a magisterial teaching that has not been received by almost all of their brother and sister Catholics, have a uniquely correct optic on this issue.

But they aren't obliged to discuss how they've arrived at this optic when the vast majority of their brother and sister Catholics have reached different conclusions.  The rightness of these intellectuals' position is self-evident: it goes without saying because they are an intellectual elite.  And discussing what the other 90%+ of Catholics who are not in their elite circles do is vulgar and unintellectual, beneath the notice of real intellectuals.

You're struck, too, by the implication running through this commentary of significant Catholic intellectual and media spokespersons closely tied to the bishops that the phrase "religious freedom" is a  magic shibboleth that should in and of itself shut down all argumentation.  Just making the statement, "This is about religious freedom," seems to be an argument deemed sufficient to stop debate.  Since what religious freedom is and is about, you conclude these Catholic intellectuals are asking others to believe, is beyond question.  It's a value whose worth is self-evident, and those who week to weigh this value against other conflicting values deriving from the common good in the bishops-vs.-ObamaCare debate are off-track in their analysis.

But as an historian, you know this can't possibly be the case, since there have been, by the early 21st century, significant precedents in which even the Supreme Court chose to override the religious freedom of institutions owned by religious bodies to serve values considered essential to the common good.  One of these, you recall, was the case of Bob Jones University v. United States (1983), in which the university claimed that its religious beliefs should permit it to forbid interracial dating and marriage among its students.

But, even though it was easy for the university to demonstrate that it was correct in maintaining that the religious beliefs of its founding religious body did, in fact, condemn interracial dating and marriage on faith-based grounds, the Supreme Court held that the school's attempt to promote that faith-based position within its own policies was "contrary to public policy" and "violate[d] deeply and widely held views of elementary justice" among citizens who did not share the peculiar faith-based views of the university.  And so the court upheld the removal of the school's tax-exempt status by the IRS as long as the school insisted on its right, per "religious freedom," to enshrine prejudice in its code of student and employee conduct.

As an historian, you also seem to recall that this Supreme Court decision came down during the administration of Ronald Reagan.  A Republican.

And you wonder (again, your historian's penchant for looking at "real issues" through the real-life optic of the past is in evidence here) why leading Catholic intellectuals of the 21st century who helped the bishops spread their rhetoric treating "religious freedom" as a not-to-be-questioned rhetorical shibboleth seem to have no knowledge of precedents like this, which call into question their simplistic and not exceptionally honest approach to religious freedom.

You're troubled by the implication of these leading Catholic intellectuals that, if Catholics do it, it must be right.  Catholics, they seem to imagine, can't possibly be like those faith-based groups of the American South that once stoutly resisted the intrusion of federal executive, legislative, and judicial bodies on their religious freedom as they chose to defend segregation.  As an historian, you remember that another historian from the 21st century, Amanda Porterfield, wrote about that moment in American history in her book The Protestant Experience in America (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2006), noting that as President Truman sought to integrate the armed services, "[p]roponents of racial segregation were fierce believers in God and religious freedom who believed that the Bible sanctioned racial segregation and that morality and social order depended on it" ("Introduction," p. xxxvii).

You wonder why Catholic intellectuals who appear to assume that if Catholics do it in the name of religious freedom it's okay and unquestionable don't want to discuss these historical precedents that, at the very least, complicate their appeal to religious freedom as a shibboleth.  They're as unwilling to look at or talk about these historical precedents in which religious groups sought to use religious freedom to enshrine discrimination in their institutions as they are unwilling to look at or talk about the "real issue" of contraception in the real lives of 90%+ of their real Catholic brothers and sisters.

And you're struck by another point, as you read around in the literature generated by leading American Catholic intellectual forums of the period under consideration--by journals like Commonweal.  It begins to strike you that, anytime one of these religious freedom-vs.-human rights issues comes along in cultural debates, it's always about religious freedom as the "real issue."  Or so they claim, as they try to shut down the discussion of everything except the abstract phrase "religious freedom."

For these intellectual arbiters of what Catholicism means in the public square, it's never about, say, the human rights of gay and lesbian persons.  Or of women in debates about contraception.  It's always about the "real issue" of religious freedom.  It's never about real human beings whose real human lives are made difficult or tortured in some way by those who insist on their right to practice discrimination on grounds of religious freedom.

All of this strikes you as baffling for a variety of reasons.  In the first place, you can't escape the strong feeling that American Catholic intellectual leaders and media spokespersons of the early 20th century were somehow spectacularly evading their responsibility as intellectual leaders in these debates, when they lined up behind the bishops' misleading rhetoric and tried to shut down honest discussions of the "real issues" and the real lives affected by the real issues they declared off-limits in their debates about religious freedom.  Leading Catholic intellectuals in the U.S. were abandoning their calling within the Catholic community, it seems to you, to act as checks against misleading rhetorical claims of the pastoral leaders of their community that damaged Catholic moral credibility in the public square (e.g., "Catholics will be paying for abortion now, under the ObamaCare HHS guidelines").  And leading Catholic intellectuals were actively assisting the bishops in promoting--in the name of "pro-life" teachings--political candidates and political leaders who could not have been further from the pro-life positions set forth in Catholic teaching.

And in the second place, there's that word "honest": something strikes you, as you look back from the perspective of history at how the intellectual leaders of American Catholicism handled these issues, as eminently lacking in elementary honesty.  Something strikes you as eminently dishonest about the claims of the intellectual arbiters of American Catholicism that contraception was not a "real issue" in debates about religious freedom and contraception, when 90%+ of Catholics were practicing contraception.

Or that gay and lesbian lives were not "real issues" (or even real lives) when the bishops chose to claim rights, on the grounds of religious freedom, to ride roughshod over those human lives, while their "liberal" intellectual defenders stood by in silence or--equally opprobrious--even helped the bishops craft intellectual justifications for their abuse of these fellow human beings.

As an historian, you wonder how it was possible for the intellectual arbiters of American Catholicism who were its primary media spokespersons ever to imagine that by promoting dishonesty, they were assisting and defending the Catholic church and serving its core values.  You clearly need to do further study to understand that conundrum.  

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