American Catholics seem to be sleepwalking toward the edge of an abyss. It’s as if we’ve hardly begun to realize to ourselves what’s at stake in this election. We don’t like to think about it. We’re vaguely banking on the hope that whatever happens will not turn out to be a big deal.
One reason for the moral somnolence is that the Obama administration, abetted by the media, has been deliberately misleading the public with lying rhetoric about “access to birth control,” and a Republican “war on women.” Vice President Biden brazenly asserted that no Catholic institution would be required to provide birth control. The bogus “accommodation” gave supporters of Obamacare the rhetorical cover they needed to pretend that religious liberty concerns had been addressed. “The administration backed off,” is how one friend put it to me.
The calculating mendacity of the irreligious left is one of the forces we’re contending with. We can’t change it; we can only counter and parry as best we can. But the rhetoric on our side, too, is partly to blame for our too-slack resistance.
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Haven’t we all heard and been urged to remember and repeat that “this is not about contraception?” Rick Santorum said it in his C-PAC speech in February. My congressman (the good and honorable Joseph Pitts) said it too, at a meeting earlier this year with local pro-life and religious leaders. Many have said it, politicians, prelates and lay activists alike. And, of course, they had an important point. Even those who don’t have objections to birth control should oppose the mandate as an outrageous violation of the “free exercise of religion” guaranteed in the Bill of Rights. In a pluralistic society, we do well to highlight that element of the injustice.
But there’s a downside to the de-emphasis on birth control. When Catholics remind each other and announce to the world that “it’s not about contraception!” we’re subtly training ourselves and the rest of society to think of it as a distraction, a side issue.
Then, there is “the parable of the kosher deli,” told by Archbishop Lori and others, arguing that making Catholic institutions pay for birth control is like making a kosher deli sell pork. The analogy is valid as far as it goes. But this way of framing the issue, too, has had the effect of downplaying and obscuring the real evil of the HHS mandate.
Here’s why: It reinforces the public perception that the prohibition against artificial contraception is a kind of special religious rule relevant only to a small minority of strict Catholics. And meanwhile, those Catholics remain perfectly free under the mandate not to use birth control if they don’t want to. You see how a key point is lost? Orthodox Jews don’t have a problem with non-Jews eating pork, just as Catholics don’t think it’s sinful for non-Catholics to eat meat on Fridays during Lent. These are positive religious teachings, binding only for committed members.
The case is very different, though, with birth control. The prohibition against birth control is not a positive religious law. Catholics oppose birth control not because religious authorities forbid it, but because we’re deeply convinced that it harms persons, and hurts society.
The whole mission of the Catholic Church in the world—the theme and purpose and vocation of every institution and every Catholic individual—is love. Why does the Church set up hospitals and adoption agencies and soup kitchens? Why have whole orders of nuns been founded to care for the elderly or the sick? Why did St. Damien offer to go to spend his last years serving in a leper colony in Hawaii? Why did Mother Teresa establish homes for men dying of AIDs? Why do countless ordinary lay Catholics give time to visit prisoners or shelter unwed mothers or bring Holy Communion to shut-ins?
It’s not for money. It’s not for recognition. It’s not a plan to increase our numbers and our social influence. It’s not even because the Church is committed to taking care of her own. It matters not at all to any of these institutions or individuals whether the people they’re serving are Catholic. They don’t have to be Catholic. They can even be anti-Catholic. We don’t do it for ourselves; we do it for love.
We do it because we understand that each and every person is made in the image and likeness of God. Each, no matter how small or weak or wounded or messed up, is completely unique and infinitely precious. We understand that human life is a gift to be received, cherished, and served, not abused, not manipulated, not degraded, not destroyed. This is the essence of who we are, and our raison d’être in the world. And what is birth control—contraception—but a refusal of life, a rejection, a manipulation, a degradation and an abuse of human life and human sexuality.
Inwardly, religiously, we understand ourselves to be engaged in a cosmic battle between the forces of life and love on the one hand, and death and destruction on the other. Jesus has rescued us from death. Now our mission is to “make a return,” by fostering a culture of life and building a civilization of love. That’s the over-arching purpose of our lives; we strive to make it the theme of all our individual acts.
The first principle of that program, laid down by St. Augustine (and Hippocrates before him), is “Do no harm.” We can’t do good by committing evil. No matter how noble our goal, it’s not okay to hurt persons as a means of achieving it. We can’t collude with wrong; we can’t subsidize the objectification of women and other injuries to the dignity of persons; we can’t facilitate the killing of innocents; we can’t betray our central vocation.
When the federal government uses the force of law to mandate that Catholic institutions and businesses provide birth control and sterilizations and abortifacient drugs to their employees, it is, in effect, seeking to conscript the Church into the service of the culture of death as a condition of our participation in society. It is no side issue. It is no glancing blow. It is a stake aimed at the very heart of Catholic life.
If we are serious about our mission and identity as Catholics, we must stand against this evil much more forcefully than we have up to now. The time is very short.