Saturday, January 21, 2012

Obama Administration Rejects USCCB Pressure re: HHS Guidelines: Catholic Commentariat Reacts

And, to piggyback on what I have just posted about the religious right's game plan to make the 2012 elections all about God--well, "God" of a highly refracted, politically selective sort--there's this interesting update: though I had predicted here in a number of postings that the Obama administration would cave to the considerable pressure of the highly funded U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' lobby as it demanded an expanded "conscience exemption" for Catholic institutions vis-a-vis contraceptive coverage in health care plans, the administration has just announced that it's going to implement the proposed HHS guidelines that recommend such coverage.

For reports on the decision, see Sarah Posner at Religion Dispatches, Laura Bassett at Huffington Post,  and Jessica Arons at Think Progress.  The USCCB issued an inflammatory statement immediately, which I haven't seen as a press statement on the USCCB website, but which was disseminated yesterday by Catholic media figures who apparently had immediate access to it.  These include, of course, Michael Sean Winters at National Catholic Reporter and Kevin Clarke at the America "In All Things" blog.  Clarke had also published an initial summary of the administration's decision at the same blog site before the USCCB statement appeared.

Since Winters has been acting as an unofficial USCCB mouthpiece for some time now as the media have discussed this issue, he's predictably in fettle--though perhaps not fine fettle--now that a decision has been made to call the bishops' political bluff, and has just issued a hot postscript entitled, "J'ACCUSE!" (all caps and exclamation point in original) stating that he won't vote for Mr. Obama for dogcatcher or anything else, ever again.

Well, the dogcatcher bit is my embellishment.  Michael states (disingenuously, in my estimation) that he's not a Catholic special-pleader and not anti-contraception--but he immediately undercuts the latter statement by adding, ". . . I must say that Humanae Vitae in its entirety reads better, and more presciently, every year."  (Remember that, as I've pointed out constantly in my responses to Winters on the HHS contraceptive-guidelines issue, he's claimed from the outset that the debate was never about contraception--when it patently was about contraception all along, and about his and other Catholics' attempt to enforce conformity to the teaching of Humanae Vitae years after the huge majority of Catholics have rejected that teaching and have continued to claim Catholic identity despite our dissent from magisterial teaching about sexual ethics.)

Michael's primary reason for accusing Obama of treason: it's all about conscience.  It's about the "rights of conscience" and freedom of conscience.  It's about--this goes without saying--the rights of the bishops' consciences and the freedom of the bishops' consciences.  Nowhere in Winters's arguments does any recognition of the rights of the consciences of the vast percentage of the Catholic laity who not only approve of but use contraceptives ever crop up.  Not at a single point.

It's as if all those brother and sister Catholics simply do not exist.  As if they do not matter.  As if they do not have consciences at all.  Only he and his USCCB cronies exhibit conscience, we're supposed to imagine.

And so Mr. Obama is, Winters proposes, attacking Holy Mother Church (yes, he does use that phrase) by accepting the recommendation of the National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine that preventive health care for women should, as a matter of course, include access to contraception.  Michael's wild, over-the-top conclusion: 

[T]he president’s decision yesterday essentially told us, as Catholics, that there is no room in this great country of ours for the institutions our Church has built over the years to be Catholic in ways that are important to us . . . 

It did nothing of the sort, of course.  Nothing about yesterday's decision implies that Catholic institutions--many of which have already been providing contraceptive coverage in their health care plans--will cease to function or are being shut down by a decision to assure that all employers provide contraceptive coverage in health care plans.  And yesterday's decision only "essentially told us, as Catholics" that the administration does not support us and our institutions if we buy into magisterial teaching about contraception.

The large majority of us do not.  And, despite what Michael and the bishops want to tell us, we do have consciences.  And we use our consciences, and have been using them in our decision to dissent from magisterial teaching about contraception.

The assault on Catholic conscience implied in Winters's assessment of the administration's decision--the refusal to respect or even admit the existence of widespread faithful dissent from magisterial teaching about birth control--reflects the equally outrageous rhetoric of the USCCB old boys' club for which he's a media mouthpiece.  The USCCB press statement that Michael reprints in his first piece on the HHS decision for which I provide a link above states, 

"The government should not force Americans to act as if pregnancy is a disease to be prevented at all costs," added Cardinal-designate Dolan.

I suspect it will come as a great surprise to the 90+ of faithful Catholics in the U.S. who have long since chosen to use contraceptives that they are making this choice because they regard pregnancy as "a disease to be prevented at all costs."  What this implies about the maturity of Catholics' conscience--about the rights of the consciences of Catholics--is odious.  It's distasteful in the extreme.

This inflammatory, rightward-skewed (and politically charged) statement tramples on the rights of the consciences of millions of Catholics by implying that the large percentage of faithful Catholics who choose on grounds of conscience to use birth control are doing so to prevent a non-existent "disease" of pregnancy.  And not because they choose to exercise good stewardship in their reproductive lives and with their reproductive choices, employing the medical technology at their disposal in this area as they use medical technology in every other area of their lives to be good stewards of their bodies and resources.  

I began these reflections by noting that I'm piggybacking on what I wrote earlier today about the hyped-up "religious" rhetoric of the 2012 election cycle--a campaign in which the religious right is doing everything in its power to assure that a Republican, any Republican, be handed the White House in 2012. To their discredit, what the American Catholic bishops chose to do by drawing an artificial line in the sand with their demand for an expanded "conscience exemption" is all about playing dirty politics, and nothing else.  It's about colluding in the strategy of the religious right in general during this campaign cycle to assure that a Republican be elected in 2012 and the Obama administration evicted from the White House.

The USCCB has artificially manufactured a non-existent controversy about the HHS contraceptive guidelines as a political tool to try to muster Catholic opposition to the Democrats in 2012.  The demand for an expanded "conscience exemption" came along during this campaign cycle years down the road after many Catholic institutions long since decided to cover contraceptives in their health care plans.

Even the fringe-right Catholic college, Belmont Abbey, which is now suing the federal government about the HHS guidelines, was already providing contraceptive coverage in its health care plan up to 2007, until its then new president William Thierfelder, who came to the college through an ad in the Legionaries of Christ-owned National Catholic Register, suddenly "discovered" that the college health care plan covered contraception and, without consulting the faculty, unilaterally chose to discontinue this coverage.  This despite the fact that the Benedictine monastery that owns Belmont Abbey College owns the land on which a lucrative shopping center nearby is located, where a number of stores make a great deal of money selling contraceptives--money that then pours into the monastic coffers by way of rent.

The controversy over Catholic institutions' coverage of contraception in health care plans is an artificially engineered one.  It's being created at the very top of the Catholic church in order to score political points for the Republican party in the 2012 elections.  The pope himself is part and parcel of this political strategy, as his remarks about "radical secularism" and religious freedom two days ago to a group of U.S. Catholic bishops making their ad limina visits suggest.

And it's perhaps all to the good that the decision the Obama administration has just made has now caused at least one of the centrist Catholic media commentators who purports to be a liberal Democrat but who has shilled unabashedly for the USCCB and the religious right to come out of the closet.  It's not in the least a surprise to hear that Michael Sean Winters defends Humanae Vitae and supports the bishops when they attempt to reduce the rights of Catholic consciences to the rights of their own consciences.

These penchants have, after all, been barely disguised in everything he's written about these issues in recent years, and it's good that the public now knows what the game plan has been all along with Michael Sean Winters, and, implicitly, with all the so-called liberal-centrist Catholic media gurus who profess to lean left while they do everything in their power to try to beat the Democratic party into submission to the will of the Catholic bishops, as if those governing the United States have some special responsibility to consult the bishops as they make governing decisions in a pluralistic secular democracy.  

Whether Michael's defection portends the defection of all Catholics from the Democrats in 2012, as he seems to think it will, remains to be seen.  I suspect that those Catholics who intended to oppose Mr. Obama in the 2012 elections have long since made up their mind to do so, and the decision about the HHS guidelines--that is, about a game being played by beltway powerbrokers who only imagine that they speak for the rest of us--will simply confirm what they've already chosen to believe.  

And I continue to maintain that more Catholics have--and use--conscience than Michael and the bishops want to think.  And if the moral and political conclusions to which many of us Catholics come are not the same moral and political conclusions Michael Sean Winters and the bishops reach, they are every bit as much conscience-based as the ones to which Winters and the bishops exclusively apply the term "rights of conscience."  Many of us, in fact, will be applauding the decision of the current administration to assure that women have access to contraceptive coverage in health care plans--if only because, among other reasons, we care about the value of life, and know that increasing access to contraceptives will diminish the abortions that the USCCB and its friends have always claimed they, too, desperately want to diminish at all cost.

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