Sunday, February 05, 2012

Old Whine in New Bottles

By Luis Granados

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has launched a campaign against what it calls a concerted attack on religious liberty. Not in Pakistan or Iraq, but right here in the United States.

Archbishop Timothy Dolan, USCCB’s president, complains about a “drive to neuter religion,” intended to “push religion back into the sacristy.” He’s not claiming any violent assaults on worshipers, seizure of church property, criminalization of preaching, or discrimination against believers in housing or employment. What makes him see red is the government starting to treat Catholic organizations the same way it treats everyone else. The horror!

The bishops have two main complaints: laws allowing marriages of which they disapprove, and laws requiring healthcare plans to offer specified coverage, including contraceptives.


Catholic God experts teach that sex for purposes other than procreation is sinful, thus ruling out all forms of homosexual sex. The logical next step is to rule out marriage between members of the same sex. Fine – if the church wants to tell people what it thinks God is against and urge them not to do it, it has every right to make that case. Duly elected and appointed government officials, though, in a growing number of jurisdictions, are changing laws to allow same-sex marriage for people willing to take their chances on the afterlife. With the right to marry comes the right to be treated like you are married, and the right to the same legal status as any docile Catholic in daily life.

“Conscience violation!” shrieks the church. Why? Catholic florists and caterers, they insist, must have the right to refuse to serve weddings they disapprove of. Catholic hoteliers must have the right to refuse accommodation to same-sex couples, who might perform unspeakable acts on their Catholic sheets. Catholic adoption agencies must have the right to refuse service to same-sex couples, and Catholic schools must have the right to expel children who commit the sin of having been adopted by people whose sexual habits are disdained by the church.

Here’s a fact you didn’t know. When you think about the organization calling itself “Catholic Charities,” do you picture an outfit that receives donations from the church and individual Catholics, using them to do good in the community? I always did, until I learned that an astonishing 62% of its funding comes from various levels of government, and only 3% comes from Catholic diocese funds controlled by the bishops doing the complaining. Truth in advertising would call for a change in Catholic Charities’ name, to something like “Taxpayer Funded Program to Make the Catholic Church Look Good.” A mouthful, I’ll admit; I’m open to suggestions for an accurate name that would yield a clever acronym. In any case, when whatever-you-call-it decided to stop helping all orphans altogether in order to make its political point against adoption by gay parents, the bishops pleaded for public sympathy for their injured consciences.

The Catholic argument is identical to that used by white supremacists, religious and otherwise, who demanded the right to refuse to serve black people during the Jim Crow era. There are people who earnestly believe in the inferiority of the black race, and that it is God’s plan for the races to live separately. That’s why, they say, God put blacks on one continent and whites on another. Their belief is every bit as sincere as the Catholic belief that homosexual activity is immoral. Maybe the segregationists, or the Catholics, or even both, are right. But when duly constituted governments accountable to the people take a contrary view, then the same laws need to apply to everybody the same way. That’s what my conscience says, and my conscience is as good as theirs is.


The new healthcare law requires insurance plans to offer at least minimum levels of coverage of basic medical needs, thus allowing consumers to compare apples to apples when they shop for insurance. Included on the list of minimum requirements is coverage for contraceptives, used by an enormous proportion of women in their child-bearing years. This, according to the bishops, is an attack on religious liberty, because it forces people who don’t approve of the use of contraceptives to pay premiums for the benefit of those who do.

I help pay for a lot of things I don’t approve of. Ethanol subsidies. The war in Afghanistan. An embassy in the Vatican. Weapons for Israel. John Boehner's salary. Your list is probably different, but I’m sure there a lot of things you help pay for that you don’t approve of, either. Neither of us like it, but we know we’re part of a bigger group, and it’s not possible to make everybody in the group happy all the time. So we don’t demand special treatment, or an individual reduction in our tax payments for programs we don’t like, because we know government couldn’t function if everyone paid only for the things they like.

No one is requiring any Catholic to use contraceptives. The church has every right to teach that contraceptive use is immoral and to urge people to forego it in their own personal lives. No one is trying to suppress its right to make its case. When the church demands special privileges to allow its members to avoid paying for things that affect only people other than themselves, just because God is on their side, that’s different.

The same contraceptive issue arises in HIV prevention and other international development programs. One of the simplest, cheapest ways to prevent the spread of HIV is to encourage the use of condoms – a far easier task than encouraging people not to have sex at all. So, the U.S. Agency for International Development requires distribution of condoms in HIV prevention programs run by contractors using government money, just like any other organization that promotes techniques that work over techniques that don’t. Those who don’t follow the rules don’t get contracts. The bishops cry foul, whimpering that since the Catholic aid programs are the only ones mulish enough to resist distribution of condoms, this is “anti-Catholic discrimination,” “an unprecedented intrusion by the federal government into the precincts of religion.” This is no more anti-Catholic than it is anti-Semitic for a cop to give a speeding ticket to a driver who turns out to be a Jew. There’s one set of rules, they’re based on empirical data and common sense, and they need to apply the same to everyone regardless of religion. If Catholics' conscience forbids them from distributing condoms, then they shouldn’t do it. But they shouldn’t get the contract, either. Jesus managed nicely without ever getting any government contracts.

Civil disobedience?

Now it appears that some eminent Catholic God experts are upping the ante, suggesting that Catholic civil disobedience may be necessary. The Vatican’s Zenit news service recently published a piece by theologian E. Christian Brugger claiming that the issue really isn’t about conscience protection at all, but about the fact that the Catholic view on contraception happens to be “truth,” and the rest of the world needs to acquiesce for that reason alone. Brugger concludes that:
We need to stand up and say confidently and resolutely to Kathleen Sebelius, her thugs at HHS and her puppet-master in the White House: Your view is false and untrue; it radically violates human good and is destructive of communal integrity. Forcing persons wrongfully to cooperate in actions they judge to be evil is evil. And no president, king or emperor rightly demands others to do what is evil. We won’t do it.
I’m not quite sure what he means by “We won’t do it,” but it sounds like he's saying that Catholic employers should refuse to offer the type of health insurance mandated by law, or perhaps that Catholics should refuse to pay the portion of their premiums calculated to fund services the hierarchy doesn't like.

This is not the first time Catholics have made such a threat. In the mid-20th century, the issue was schools. Catholic parents were required on pain of eternal damnation to send their children to a Catholic school, if one was available. In some dioceses, the sin of violating this rule was so grave that it could not be forgiven by an ordinary priest in the confessional, but required a special appeal to the bishop for absolution. The problem was that Catholic parents also had to pay taxes to support public schools, which they could not use because doing so would violate their religious obligation – just like they are now being asked to pay for contraceptives they are not supposed to use themselves.

A pamphlet issued by the Jesuit priest Paul L. Blakely, S.J., sounded a lot like Mr. Brugger:
Our first duty to the public school is not to pay taxes for its maintenance. ... Justice cannot oblige the support of a system which we are forbidden in conscience to use, or a system which we conscientiously hold to be bad in principle and bad in its ultimate consequences.

Catholic civil disobedience sometimes turned into violence. New Brunswick, Canada, is normally thought of as a pretty sedate place. Prior to the 1870s, its school system was run entirely by Anglican and Catholic denominations, who were generally regarded as doing a terrible job. Canadians envied America’s secular public schools, and elected government officials pledged to copy them. As the conversion moved forward, the Catholic hierarchy responded with cold fury, and a grassroots effort to discourage payment of taxes to support the evil of secular education. As Brugger puts it today, “Forcing persons wrongfully to cooperate in actions they judge to be evil is evil. And no president, king or emperor rightly demands others to do what is evil. We won’t do it.” On January 15, 1875, Catholic rioters in the town of Caraquet began trashing stores belonging to the forces of evil. The government recruited a militia to restore order, and the resulting violence ended with two deaths, one on each side.

Will today’s overheated Catholic rhetoric end in violence? Of course not. It couldn’t happen here. Any more than it could happen in, say, 1875 New Brunswick.

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