Catholics, Comstock and Contraception: A Response to Ramesh Ponnuru

I am no stranger to controversy, having been dismissed from Stanford University for my reporting on forced abortions in China’s one-child policy, but the reaction to my article, published in Crisis last week, has surprised even me.

The principle that I was defending—namely, that Catholic politicians should not run from their faith in running for public office—seems straight-forward enough to me. But it turns out that, just as most of Our Lord’s disciples abandoned him at key points in his ministry, so do many of his latter-day followers shy away from the hard teachings of His Church. The list of politicians who are “Catholic but” grows ever longer.

Here I would like to thank Deal Hudson for first drawing public attention to one Catholic politician in particular, Barbara Comstock, and the compromises that, in my opinion, she has made in seeking to have abortifacient contraceptives made available over the counter. Deal has done us all a service.

There are some, of course (there are always some), who would prefer that we simply remain silent on the issue of contraception. Ramesh Ponnuru certainly got his knickers in a knot. After calling my article “bull,” “a diatribe,” and “a low blow” (you get the picture), he attacks me for injecting Catholicism and contraception into public policy!

But I didn’t do that: Ramesh did, by posting his caricature of my article in the pages of a secular magazine–National Review Online.  Here is the letter I sent him subsequently:

Dear Ramesh,

I recently gave a homily on the morality of promoting birth control pills, those blessed little bundles of powerful steroid-based artificial hormones which—despite being cancer-causing chemical sterilizing agents, abortifacients, and environmental pollutants all rolled into one—many Americans can’t seem to live without.

All right. It wasn’t exactly a homily, since I’m not a priest and I wasn’t speaking in a church—at least not in a literal sense. But I did think I was preaching to at least a part of the choir, for I was writing an article for Crisis, which describes itself as “a voice for the faithful Catholic laity.”

So you will understand that I was speaking to an audience of believing Catholics in terms of our shared faith.  And I was asking a question: Is it licit—that’s a Catholic word for acceptable in the eyes of the Church—for a Catholic politician to be promoting birth control pills, as Republican candidate Barbara Comstock has done?

Apparently you were offended by the question since, in your own column, you called it “bull.” (Note to non-Catholic readers: This “bull” is apparently a contraction of a two-syllable word, and is not to be confused with a papal “bull”—specifically Humanae Vitae, issued by Pope Paul VI in 1968, which reaffirmed the consistent teaching of the Church over twenty centuries on the immorality of rejecting God’s gift of life by abortion, sterilization, and contraception.)

But I was happy to read that, after a paragraph or two of dancing around the question, you did finally come to my point.  Which is, of course, that I have difficulties—as a Catholic—with a Catholic candidate who is promoting easier access to abortifacient contraceptives.

Now you demur that “A faithful Catholic may in good conscience reasonably believe that making oral contraception available over the counter won’t do much to increase the use of contraception.”

I suppose so, Ramesh, but this really doesn’t buy you very much. In fact, it reads to me like you are admitting that making birth control pills available over the counter will increase the use of contraception—just not by very much. Sort of like the girl who says she is only a tiny bit pregnant.

Anyway, I happen to believe that making birth control pills available OTC, as they say, will significantly increase their use.  Isn’t that why we—you and I and virtually every other pro-lifer—objected when the Obama administration made the abortifacient Plan B available over the counter?

So you see, both as a Catholic and as someone who is pro-life, I have a problem with Comstock.

So I am going with someone who doesn’t have these liabilities, someone who in my view is the most electable conservative candidate to replace the retiring Congressman Frank Wolf.  And isn’t that what we’re all looking for?

All the best,

Steven W. Mosher

P.S. By the way, I didn’t tell other pro-lifers that “they’re going to Hell.” But I will be damned if I ignore the possibility that besides Heaven there are, well, other destinations.

Steven W. Mosher


Steven W. Mosher is President of the Population Research Institute located in Front Royal, Virginia.

  • thomistica

    In his NRO Corner piece, and the subsequent com box “discussion” about it, Ponnuru never made clear his views either on the abortifacient effects of contraceptives–or for that matter, Humanae Vitae itself. There seemed to be an almost studied reluctance to address these issues on his part.

    It’s not as if one can discuss the policy implications of contraception without first of all addressing the underlying moral issues of the actions in question. This was puzzling. Ponnuru wrote a terrific pro-life book. One just wonders where he stands on the issues just mentioned.

  • Paul

    Any Catholic (politician or otherwise) needs to realize that there’s no greater law than God’s law.

  • This is the second time I’ve seen somebody today not realize there is a third destination available; though not a final one. All who enter Purgatory will be converted to Catholicism by the time they reach the Church Triumphant.

    I can certainly believe Catholic politicians endorsing birth control, will spend a good deal of time in Purgatory if they do not repent first.

    • ColdStanding

      Theodore! Those souls in Purgatory are already repentant!

      Here is the syllogism:
      All souls in Heaven are holy
      All souls in Purgatory will go to Heaven
      Therefore, all souls in Purgatory are Holy (having repented of their sins)

      The souls in Purgatory make up the Church Penitent.

      The reason why they are in Purgatory is that they have not paid the temporal punishment due to their sins. Those unrepentant go to Hell. Those repentant but not yet pure go to Purgatory (for a time). Those repentant and having made satisfaction for their sins, the Holy or Purified, go to Heaven.

      • You are right. If they can’t even be repentant enough to still want to go to heaven, then they are most certainly going to hell.

    • C

      They had better HOPE they only spend a good deal of time in purgatory, instead of in the aforementioned, ‘other destination’, for causing scandal and harming the innocent.

      • If they don’t hope for that, then they aren’t even repentant enough for purgatory, as ColdStanding pointed out to me above.

  • Maria

    Thank you, Mr. Mosher. We don’t hear the straight and clear truth too often. Good job in opening eyes and ears. Hopefully, some hearts will follow. The very lives and the bodily health and well being of women and children are in peril in this world and we should strive tirelessly in their behalf, but our ultimate concern is for the souls that are being lost. Preaching the Gospel is what we were commissioned to do when we were baptised. No earthly disdain should hinder us.

  • lifeknight

    Sorry I was absent from yesterday’s discussions. Mr. Mosher, you have always had the correct position: a little bit of evil is still evil. In contrast, Mr. Ruse has been the compromising voice in the spiritual battle against contraception and abortion. I asked before to get the names of the OTHER Catholics who signed the letter from the VA “Catholic” politician. Can you provide us with a list?

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  • theresa

    Thank you very much, Mr. Mosher. I have asked Mr. Ruse, and maybe Mr. Ponnuru will do the same, to please stop writing for the reasons fully explained below.

    The persistence of your error of judgment is astonishingly remarkable and,
    regrettably, is matched only by your fallacious, underwhelming arguments.
    You state that you have fought the contraception battle for over twenty years and yet you fail to detail why you have endorsed a candidate who spearheaded (yes, “spearheaded,” her term, not mine) a campaign to make the pill more widely available to women without prescription. (I thought you said in your latest apologia attempt that you were going to address the “main arguments” of your interlocutors — a mere oversight I suppose.).

    Although scientific studies over decades have elucidated evidence of the abortifacient
    effects of the pill, you, akin the views of major pill proponents, are now questioning the plausibility of this evidence. How admirable of you to uncover in your research the thought of a Catholic theologian to support your thesis. (Based on this logic, I suppose we can question whether the atomic bomb ever killed anyone since “in reality” the existence of the atom is “theoretical,” as is Einstein’s “theory” of relativity).

    And then there is your position that over-the-counter availability of the pill may have
    the favorable, contrarian effect of lessening its use (since it would be “out-of-pocket,”
    not government- or employer-subsidized). That recalls to mind a “prominent” Catholic who, rather than condemning Barack Obama’s pro-abortion stance, took the twisted act of endorsing him on grounds that Obama’s policies would have the overall effect of reducing the number of abortions. (So much for following Catholic doctrine, prominent Catholic.). Analogously, instead of questioning or demanding an explanation from Comstock, you have chosen to give her a “free pass” on a stance indubitably at odds with Catholic teaching.

    Unless or until you retract your position, please stop writing on this subject, Mr.Ruse, as you are causing more injury than good to the Catholic community by perpetuating the myth that the credentials of a Catholic candidate who publicly promotes the pill is more worthy of the “Catholic” vote than those of other candidates in the field. It’s time for you to swallow your pride by doing the “honorable” thing (before it’s too late) and confess your misguided judgment as Steven Mosher, Maggie Sullivan and a host of others have eloquently explained.

    I can only hope that hubris has not played such a paralyzing, debilitating role that you are now, unwilling or incapable of the courage, to alter your judgment. As a fellow brother in Christ, I pray this is not the case.

    And please, no dismissive rejoinder on your part that reminds us once again how
    long you have tarried in the contraception and abortion battlefields of the past since many of us have also toiled in these vineyards but without any recompense other than rebuke, insult, humiliation, risk of jail, personal injury, or daunting prospect of devastating
    financial loss. Let us join together to follow the path of sanctity, rather than political expediency, Mr. Ruse, and be guided by the exemplary words and acts on the culture of life by Blessed Mother Teresa and Blessed John Paul II.