Saturday, February 18, 2012

Winning the Battle But Losing the War? - Part I

Along with most everyone else who has been awake during the past few weeks, I have been observing the controversy over the HHS mandate obliterating conscience protections for institutions with moral objections to providing insurance coverage for sterilization and contraceptives, including abortion-inducing drugs.  Three particular aspects of the popular response have been a great encouragement.

For one thing, as others have observed, it is rare to see the Catholic Bishops so united and so pro-active on any subject.  They have been speaking with one voice and speaking forcefully, and they remain steadfast in the face of the somewhat cynical Administration "compromise" proposal that doesn't really get at the problem.  That is encouraging.
Second, I think our Evangelical brothers and sisters understand that this is not a matter effecting only Catholics; their religious freedom is at stake, too, especially when it comes to providing abortifacient drugs (drugs that cause the expulsion of a fertilized ovum), which many so-called contraceptives are.  They are standing with us on this, and that is also encouraging.

Third, and perhaps more crucially, this controversy has brought into sharp focus something that I have been trying for years to impress upon anyone who will listen, especially my non-Catholic Christian brothers and sisters--that the contraceptive mentality, i.e., the notion that sex has no necessary connection with procreation of children, is at the root of the Culture of Death, especially the notion of abortion as a human right.  The Supreme Court itself enshrined this connection in American jurisprudence when it refused to take the opportunity afforded by the Planned Parenthood v. Casey case to overturn Roe v. Wade:
. . . in some critical respects abortion is of the same character as the decision to use contraception. … For two decades of economic and social development, people have organized intimate relationships and made choices that define their views of themselves and their places in society, in reliance on the availability of abortion in the event that contraception should fail.
In other words, for too long too many people have expected contraception to be readily available and to work as advertised.  If (when) it doesn't work, they expect abortion to be available as a back up plan.  This is why I am convinced that we will not make a real dent in the abortion culture without first changing hearts and minds on the subject of artificial birth control.  I am seeing signs that this is sinking in, and that is encouraging.

On the other hand...
... I have still had this nagging feeling that somehow the Bishops' current strategy of focusing almost exclusively on the religious freedom question, if it proves successful, is liable to yield a short-term victory at the expense of long-term influence on the culture.  What if, for example, the Obama Administration decides, finally, that this fight is not worth the political consequences they will likely incur, and they reverse themselves.  Not that this is likely to happen, mind you.  They seem to be dug in on this.  But what if?  In that case they will, of course, want to paint themselves as the magnanimous, reasonable party.  They may very well attempt to position themselves as the enlightened authorities willing to tolerate for the sake of religious freedom the rather oddball practices of a marginal sect that is stuck in the Middle Ages.

Well, apparently I am not the only one concerned about this.  Thaddeus Kozonski has posted a piece on the blog of the Center for Morality in Public Life, Ethika Politika, titled, "Religious Freedom and the Triumph of the Therapeutic", that articulates this problem extremely well.  I commend it to you.

Here is a sample quote from the article, re. the Administration's condescending arrogance toward the Church inherent in this mandate:
Indeed, the Obama regime did not decide to offer a compromised position for any other reason than self-serving pragmatism, with some ideological lip service given to a radically individualist conception of the right to “conscience,” meaning, in this case, the right for Catholics to believe in a cruel, sex-hating god, and to play-act in accordance with their fantasy. Are the Bishops satisfied with the Church over which they rule being characterized and treated by the state as nothing more public and authoritative than some superstitious debating society, as long as it can continue to enjoy tax-exempt status and some private freedoms of conscience for its members?
Another article along similar lines and equally worth the read was posted today on the Crisis Magazine website.  "Are Liberal Terms Dominating the HHS Mandate Debate?" by Patrick Deneen, explores many of the same troubling aspects of this debate, especially the inherent concession by most critics to a "private" view of religious faith, a view which is more consistent with liberal Lockean political philosophy than the teachings of the Catholic Church.  For the Church has always taught that followers of Christ have an obligation to contribute to the public good, in part by speaking out in opposition to practices that undermine the public good, like artificial birth control and abortion.  Here's a sample quote:
Catholic as well as non-Catholic defenders [of the Church's objections to the mandate] have largely sought to hold at arms length any claims about the rightness or truth of the Church's teachings on birth control; these are to be treated as belief within a "black box" that should be ignored by liberal society.  As long as those crazy beliefs don't harm individuals within or beyond the faith tradition, then they should be accorded respect and indifference by the State.  The Church seeks the leave of the State on the only terms recognizable by the liberal state: we have a certain set of private beliefs that aren't harming anyone.  Leave us alone, and we'll be quiet.
He goes on to point out that modern liberalism and it's overriding concern with individual autonomy, has reared its ugly head in our time, just as Pope Paul VI predicted it would in Humanae vitae, which I treated in more detail here.  That is, it has revealed itself as "tolerant" only to a point, and it becomes decidedly intolerant (and potentially even coercive) when it comes to any challenge to that autonomy.  Deneen worries, as I do, that allowing the debate to be framed in this way may perhaps win us the battle but lose us the war.

Am I overthinking this?  Being "unrealistic."  I would be interested to know what others think.


Rushad said...

You have echoed the sentiments of many regarding this subject, Heide. I'd imagine that many Catholics who don't consume themselves with thinking and reading about church affairs probably woke up the day Obama announced the HHS mandate and said "so what?" or (even worse) "that's great!" the reason being that for nearly half-a-century those tasked with the errand of catchesis in the Church have been, to use Cardinal Dolan's term, a bit "gun-shy" about explaining and defending the Church's very counter-cultural teachings on human sexuality. In a sense, the Church is reaping what she has down by simply sweeping the birth control controversy under the rug for so many years and not presenting a compelling and intelligent defense of the Gospel values she been mandated to inculcate within her children.

Heide said...

I think you're right, Rushad. The Church is certainly reaping what she has sown. It was exactly that tendency ("gun-shyness," in Cardinal Dolan's words) that kept me from considering crossing the Tiber long ago. Ironically, the Church is most attractive, especially to those who take their Christian faith seriously, when she is most firm in defending her teachings. And her bishops, in particular, need to be her strongest defenders in the face of the Culture of Death. I do think that Cardinal Dolan and his generation of bishops (mostly appointed by JPII and BXI) represent a turning point away from the "spirit of Vatican II" era. Of course, we laymen need to keep speaking the truth about the Church's teachings, too. Seems to me this issue has presented us with a "teachable moment," especially re. our evangelical brethren who don't get the logical connection between artificial contraception and abortion.