A politician’s gaffe is often defined as speaking the truth or saying what he or she really means, when that truth or honest opinion violates an official piety. Evasions are useful in enabling society to function without coming apart at the seams. What we don’t say often helps preserve relationships. Last week we saw how regard for an official piety was deferred to in order to salvage the main outlines of an important public policy.
In announcing a compromise on birth control benefits for employees of Catholic institutions, President Obama was at pains to assure the Catholic Church of his respect for religious freedom and freedom of conscience. He wouldn’t make the Catholic institutions pay directly for contraceptive coverage but he would have their employees covered through private insurance firms. For a moment it looked as if the Catholic bishops would accept this circumvention — it spared a kernel of their “principle” even as they recognized that the great majority of their own followers practice contraception — but then they dug their heels in and denounced the compromise. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops called the compromise “unacceptable” and called on Congress to pass a “Respect for Rights of Conscience Act” that would prohibit even insurance companies from having to cover what goes against someone’s “religious beliefs or moral convictions.”
The bishops claim the higher ground of morality, and no official or political candidate dares say that in today’s world their position is deeply immoral. Against the unprecedented recent growth of human population, and the growing threat to the Earth of human activities harming its environment and depleting its resources, a religious policy that only encourages unrestricted birth is destructive of humanity’s long-term, general well-being. The church position grows out of the admonition in Genesis: “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it ….” This was good counsel at a time when all too many children died in childbirth or within a few years thereafter, and when Nature was a largely hostile force that challenged humanity to gain some control over it. But what was good counsel then is anything but today, when unwanted procreation mostly keeps poor families poor. Child mortality is mostly way down, and, with the exception of cataclysmic storms and earthquakes, we don’t fear Nature as we once did — although the recent signs point to our need to learn to cooperate more with Nature rather than to try to “subdue” it.
How one misses Pope John XXIII and Vatican II, a time when the Catholic Church was showing signs of becoming attuned to the real demands of the world we now inhabit. Compassion and understanding were valued over rigidly doctrinaire positions. Beneath the charismatic appeal of John Paul II was a retreat to earlier church orthodoxy, which has only been carried further by his successor, the current Pope Benedict. While the church has been admirable in opposing the Iraq war and the general push toward armed conflicts, it has in too many instances stood in the way of efforts to better the lives of the poor, as in its hostility to the worker priests of Latin America, and it has continued to hold women to a subservient position in the church hierarchy.
As Nicholas Kristof wrote in Sunday’s Times: “I may not be as theologically sophisticated as American bishops, but I had thought that Jesus talked more about helping the poor than about banning contraceptives.” He remarked on the “patronizing tone” of the arguments, “as if birth control amounted to a chivalrous handout to women of dubious morals,” pointing out that middle-class women largely avoid the unwanted pregnancies that burden the lives of poorer women who can’t afford birth control. Kristof questioned whether we should accommodate any and all kinds of religious relief, noting that we ban polygamy even for the pious.
While a cynic might argue that the Catholic Church opposes contraception chiefly only to ensure the growth of the world’s Catholic population, the greater motivation is probably the fear that the removal of this tenet might tend to undermine other doctrines, that it is a kind of domino vital to the support of the entire structure. John XXIII and Vatican II showed that this need not be so, that the church, by embracing the actual teachings of Jesus, could be a force for peace, goodness, human prosperity, and protection of the Earth without giving up the cornerstone of its belief in a supreme being and the possibility of an afterlife. That would be a position deserving of general respect regardless of whether one agreed with it.
— Henrik Krogius, Editor
Brooklyn Heights Press & Cobble Hill News