Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Two Updates: Iglesia Descalza on Theologians' Statement re: Authority in Catholic Church, Alan McCornick on German Bishops' Discussion of Morning-After Pill

I'd like to point readers today to two very valuable postings at other blog sites which provide updates to or further commentary on stories I've told here in recent days:

First, at her Iglesia Descalza site, Rebel Girl sketches some helpful background information regarding the statement on how authority is exercised in the Catholic church about which I blogged yesterday. As my posting noted, Catholic theologians around the world are calling on the church's leaders to craft "a new system of authority" in the Catholic church, in which authority is used according to gospel values and Vatican II's vision of collegiality.

As Rebel Girl notes, the theologians' statement was first publicized last fall, but has not gained much media attention until now, when the transition in the papacy makes it appear very timely. She notes that Dutch theologian and former priest Johannes Wijngaards, a noted advocate of women's ordination, has played a significant role in gathering theologians together to make this statement. As she also notes, the Church Authority website on which the theologians' statement appears contains valuable "case studies" on some of the most important issues being debated by the Catholic community today, including the sex abuse scandal, contraception, homosexuality and homophobia, mandatory celibacy for priests, women priests, and pastoral treatment of divorced and remarried Catholics.

Second, at his Hepzibah site, Alan McCornick offers more blockbuster commentary on the case in Cologne/Köln in which a woman who was raped was denied treatment at a Catholic hospital following her rape. I pointed readers a few days ago to Alan's previous posting about this story, noting that among its many valuable contributions is that it reports exhaustively on what the German media have been saying about the story.

As with everything that Alan writes, his latest report is so thorough and rich that it's hard to excerpt a key section to draw to readers' attention. Alan notes that when Germans heard of what the hospital in Cologne/Köln had done, they "went ballistic," and when initial coverage of the story on one television talk show was so critical, the show decided to try to balance its first coverage by inviting practicing Catholics and the head of Germany's evangelical church to comment. And then:

The Catholic guests fell all over each other distancing themselves from the incident.  Lots of use of words like “outrage,” “disgusting” and “shameful,” and virtually everybody agreeing “this is not what the Catholic Church is all about!”   

Nobody, or hardly anyone, in Germany seems to think it's morally legitimate to deny the morning-after pill to a woman who has just been raped, on the ground that this pill is forbidden by Catholic teaching because some people think it's an abortifacient. And now, as I noted a day or so ago, what has happened is that the conservative cardinal-archbishop of Cologne/Köln, Joachim Meisner, has suggested that the morning-after pill is not an abortifacient, but works by preventing ovulation (and, therefore, conception in a rape situation), and the German bishops appear poised to make a similar statement.

Alan's pithy summary of this part of the story:

So the Cardinal decided to step in and ask some very smart questions. 
How does this pill work, exactly?  Does it destroy a fertilized egg?   Or does it simply prevent implantation of the sperm? 
The distinction, in the Catholic way of thinking, is crucial.   If it destroys the fertilized egg, it’s an abortifacient, since a fertilized egg is defined by catholic officialdom as a human baby.  It’s a killer.  And if it doesn’t, but simply prevents the sperm from reaching the egg, arguably no abortion has taken place.  It’s not a killer.  It’s just a “preventative.”  And, Meisner opines, a “preventative” would be OK.   (Details on the pill are available here and here and here.)  
Let that sink in. 
A form of birth control would be OK? 
Did he really say that?  The cardinal?

Alan's theological summary here is absolutely correct: what the German bishops appear to be about to propose is that, under circumstances of rape, a contraceptive may be morally administered in order to prevent conception: "a form of birth control" would be morally preferable to forcing a raped woman to bear a child conceived against her will through rape, or, to placing her in a situation in which, down the road, she might feel compelled to choose an abortion once it became evident she was pregnant.

My posting a day or so ago contrasting the way in which the U.S. Catholic bishops have dealt with these issues and how the German bishops appear to be dealing with them (the link is above) notes that the U.S. bishops have been strongly inclined to treat the morning-after pill as an abortifacient for political reasons. Throughout the period leading up to the 2012 presidential elections, at a rhetorical level, the U.S. bishops constantly insinuated or stated outright that the Obama administration's healthcare guidelines were forcing Catholics to pay for abortions, because these guidelines provide for healthcare coverage of the morning-after pill, and that pill is an abortifacient.

As I noted in this same posting, right-wing evangelical groups intent, along with the U.S. Catholic bishops, on unseating Obama for political reasons have also hopped onto this morning-after-pill-as-abortifacient bandwagon. As Fred Clark notes, one of these groups includes the owners of the Hobby Lobby chain, which has sued the federal government to demand that it be exempt from providing birth control coverage to employees--because this coverage includes, Hobby Lobby insists, coverage of abortifacients.

In case you've missed the word "political," let me repeat it: the primary, overarching objective of the U.S. Catholic bishops and their right-wing evangelical allies in this crusade against contraceptive coverage is political. Their objective has been to unseat a Democratic president. This was the sole objective of the absurd, failed Fortnight for Freedom circus events sponsored by the USCCB last summer.

And the drumbeat goes on: just last week, in a conversation with a right-wing Catholic at a thread at National Catholic Reporter, I got an earful about how the Obama administration has violated Catholics' consciences and is forcing us to pay for abortions via the morning-after pill. When I informed this fellow Catholic of the discussions now taking place among the German bishops, he was outraged: so Europe, too, is going to hell in a handbasket, he replied! No wonder: look at how soft they are on the gays.

I suspect the U.S. Catholic bishops and their right-wing evangelical allies know full well that strong scientific consensus sees the morning-after pill as a contraceptive, and not an abortifacient. But the bishops and their religious right bedfellows have not hesitated to lie to spread disinformation about the morning-after pill to their adherents for political reasons. They know that in suggesting to many faithful American Catholics that the Obama administration is forcing Catholics to pay for abortions--something it cannot do, given the stipulations of the Hyde amendment--they will fan the flames of Catholic suspicion and hostility against Democrats in general and will continue to give Catholics the impression that voting Republican is a matter of Catholic faith.

All of this as background to my repeated contrast of how the German Catholic bishops and the U.S. Catholic bishops are now dealing with the moral complexities of the interlocking issues of rape, contraception, and abortion: the simplistic, science-defying, authoritarian approach the U.S. bishops have taken to the discussion has everything in the world to do with their absolute captivity to their super-rich right-wing handlers, who are intent on using the Catholic church to try to prevent Democratic control of the political life of the nation.

The German bishops have no such political ax to grind, and are not similarly in the pocket of the economic elites of their country (though they are as cozy with those elites are as the Catholic bishops of most areas of the world). And so they can think about these complicated moral issues in the way the Catholic tradition of moral thinking has always thought about complicated moral issues: by balancing this good and this undesirable outcome against that good and that undesirable outcome, and using reason to determine which good and which outcome seem morally preferable in a situation in which norms are in conflict.

And by taking into account the best that science and reason have to offer us as we apply our faith stances and norms derived from faith to moral reasoning. By recognizing that no situation of moral complexity yields one automatic and overriding certain answer, but that mature moral reasoning always involves dealing with shades of gray and weighing this against that.

The grand tragedy of what the U.S. Catholic bishops have managed to accomplish, through their lack of sound pastoral leadership of the American Catholic church in this period in which they have allied themselves with the religious right and sold their souls to economic elites, is that they have succeeded in evacuating a powerful, strong tradition of moral reasoning, which balances faith and reason, of all meaning, as they turn it into a simplistic, unconvincing, top-down exercise in authoritarianism.

The U.S. bishops have preferred to take the authoritarian path, when it comes to issues like the ones now being openly discussed in Germany: to issues like how the Catholic tradition at its best should respond pastorally to a woman who has been raped and does not want to conceive a child due to her rape. The U.S. bishops have chosen to trust in authoritarian pronouncements that eclipse moral reasoning and ride roughshod over years of productive work by theologians on issues like the one now under discussion in Germany.

They have chosen to behave in an authoritarian way, and in doing so, they have forfeited their authoritative moral voice, to echo a good distinction TheraP made in a discussion following one of the postings here yesterday. And when religious leaders forfeit an authoritative moral voice, they abdicate moral leadership as a consequence.

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