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William O'Rourke

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Contraception Wars and Woes

Posted: 02/23/2012 4:36 pm

I share at least one attribute of the Catholic Bishops, now at war with the Obama administration: I don't want to talk about contraception, either.

I've taught for over three decades at the university which some characterize as the place where the American Catholic Church "does its thinking." Well, here are some thoughts on the matter. The first is the one above: the Catholic bishops are really put out, miffed, because they don't want to talk about contraception, but the Obama administration, allegedly, has forced their hands.

The bishops don't mind talking about abortion. They find some purchase on that topic, some sympathy with the larger American public, along with a good many of the "faithful." Indeed, most everyone wants the number of abortions decreased to as close to zero as possible. But a debate over contraception puts the bishops in another place altogether.

Had the Obama administration announced their "compromise" first, rather than second, after a bit of clerical harrumphing, the issue may have left the public square and gone away. Indeed, more than half the states, as it's been pointed out, already have similar mandates, and Catholic universities and hospitals have been dispensing "birth control" for a variety of reasons for many years.

It's not clear whether the Obama administration took this strategy -- getting the bishops all exorcised -- deliberately, or accidently, by mishandling the policy rollout. Regardless, it's out there now. The bishops don't want to talk about contraception, because it puts a spotlight on one of the Church's least defensible, and most paradoxical, strictures.

Oh, it can be defended alright: as a matter of faith. A show of loyalty demanded of the flock, an act of hazing and abnegation, aka sacrifice. My generation wasn't allowed to eat meat on Fridays, though this dietary no-no eventually just went away. But religions require this sort of thing on the part of their co-religionists; the secular version pops up in the news now and then when fraternity members die because their hazing rituals had become too intense.

And speaking against contraception in the 21st century makes the bishops look anti-science. Catholics are not anti-science, though a number of their evangelical supporters certainly are. It puts Catholics in a crowd that they don't necessarily want to be in: All those anti-evolutionary troglodytes scraping their knuckles on the ground, the we-don't-descend-from-apes crowd.

Whenever the word "abortifacient" is uttered, the attack-on-science banner is raised. We're down to molecules and bio-chemistry at that point. But, it is an attempt to drag contraception onto safer ground, or, at least, ground the bishops have captured, the well-tilled anti-abortion fields.

But another important, but hardly mentioned, reason the bishops don't want to talk about contraception is it makes them talk about themselves, which highlights, in the starkest ways, the all-male hierarchy of the Catholic Church and its women problem. The control of women. And the bishops did not want to get into any of that, since it is obvious to all that a totally male clergy, saddled with a vow of celibacy, wants its parishioners to be like them, mostly celibate, however preposterous that sounds today. Abortion, however, lets the bishops talk about two people, one of whom might be male.

The pro-abortion movement has been saddled with an all-too-focused name. It's actually a pro-woman movement, insofar it was always women who took the lead to change the laws of the land. The pro-"life" anti-abortion movement began as a male-dominated movement and male figures are featured most prominently still. You should have seen the odious figures who showed up at Notre Dame when President Obama's commencement speech was announced: Alan Keyes and Randall Terry, grubbing for attention (which they got).

Since the early 70s and the passage of Roe v. Wade, the term Catholic Right has been more or less coined. Back when I originally published The Harrisburg 7 and the New Catholic Left -- there is a new edition with a fresh Afterword out -- what was new was the Catholic Left. There had been the old Dorothy Day Catholic Left, but the anti-war priests and nuns of the Vietnam period were the New.

They were in opposition to the bishops back then, too; but the Catholic Church wasn't thought of as the "Right" back then. The Bishops were, of course, that, but then there was no need for labels. But over the decades a Catholic Right was created, or, rather, more pertinently, a religious right was hatched, to try to ecumenically turn back the progressive impulses that reared their multiple heads throughout the period. The Catholic Bishops being the repository of authority does not go unchallenged, as Gary Gutting effectively points out.

Natural law, of course, is full of contraception. Garry Wills goes into the theological background of "natural law," but I prefer a more pragmatic approach: Fertilized eggs are lost in the thousands, if not millions, world-wide by couples trying to get pregnant. (There is always a poignance in the case of couples trying to get pregnant and the majority who are trying to avoid it, or those who become pregnant at the drop of a hat.) And Natural law also includes the ever-present, it seems, tried-and-true, centuries old, methods of birth control that include famine, pestilence, natural disasters; and, in place of abortion, we have infanticide. You see where all this sort of logic can lead.

Catholics have wrestled with contraception and the Church's teachings on it over the decades, generation by generation. The younger generation seems to be wrestling less, given the advances in the methods of contraception now available. One of my sisters (I'm from a family of eight children) got birth control pills back in the 1960s when the doses involved would choke a horse (or, at least, make a horse infertile), because of her "irregular" periods, before she went off to a nunnery for a couple of years.

My mother, at the same time, had three painful, late miscarriages in a row, after having her eighth child, when a friendly priest finally permitted her to use birth control, saying she had brought enough Catholic children into the world. Such stories of my mother's generation are legion -- and often heartrending.

But, enough. Religion may no longer be the opiate of the people, but it is certainly the father -- not the mother -- of all political wedge issues.

 

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