I am going to preface this post by saying that I was raised in the traditions of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, so anyone who asserts that I am attacking Roman Catholics can kiss my royal Irish arse. To paraphrase the greatest Catholic lay theologian of the 20th Century, "You don't write a post like this because you hate the Catholic faithful, you write a post like this because you love them and you're fed up of seeing them mistreated." For much of my life, I was a typically devout Roman Catholic, then I made to transition to Shane MacGowan Catholicism. For the record, I now consider myself, for lack of a better term, an apatheist- the cognitive dissonance required to remain in the fold just got to be too much in the wake of the pedophilia scandal, and the election of the current Pope, who presided over much of the cover-up. Having a dualistic deity which is omniscient, omnipotent, and merciful just doesn't square with the typical portrayal of said deity to be a tyrannical father or ultra-jealous husband. For the record, the last time my bulky frame darkened the doorway at St. Barnabas' was the time that Senator John McCain(!) spoke at a pro-immigration reform rally (!!)... yeah, that really happened, folks. Alright, I think I established my sine fide bona fides, so without further preamble, here's my take on the contraception controversy...
The Roman Catholic Church's current stance on artificial contraception was encoded in the 1968 Papal encyclical Humanae Vitae, which reinforced the Church's position on contraception stated in the 1930 encyclical Casti Connubii. Even in the context of marriage, artificial birth control is to be avoided, according to this encyclical.
Even though the Church hierarchy was dead set against contraception, there was a little bit of wiggle room... I was taught in Catholic school that (and I quote, because I vividly remember this bit) "A well-informed conscience is the highest moral authority." As liberal theologian Fr. Richard McBrien (quoted in this article, which is required reading for all pro-contraception Catholics), put it:
If, after appropriate study, reflection and prayer, a person is convinced that his or her conscience is correct, in spite of a conflict with the moral teachings of the church, they not only may but must follow the dictates of their conscience rather than the teachings of the church.
Most lay Catholics seem to have tacitly adhered to this "out", most Catholics support the funding of birth control coverage. The majority of Catholics consider their sexuality and their religion to be nonoverlapping magisteria.
Traditionally, the Roman Catholic Church has embraced syncretism- Catholic theology is rooted in Aristotle's philosophy as much as it is in Biblical morality, the Communion of Saints includes many thinly-veiled pagan figures. More recently, the Church has embraced disparate worldviews, accommodating such disparate figures as ultra-right-winger Father Charles Coughlin and unabashed leftist Dorothy Day. There were enough lefty Catholics, even among the clergy, that even nice Jewish pop singers paid tribute to them. A Catholicism that could embrace such a multiplicity of views could be an umbrella for a congregation with differing views on contraception.
For the past four decades, though, the Church has taken a lurch to the right... as much as it pains me to say it, this Church-Lurch took place under this guy, who is still viewed with affection by the vast majority of Roman Catholics, because of his heroic backstory hiding from the Nazis, hanging out with poets, writing plays- hell, he was even a handsome guy, as far as popes go (confession time, for a year and a half, I went out with a woman who could have passed for his granddaughter- just picture this guy as a pretty 25 year old, with long brown hair and a spectacular rack, and that same good-natured Krakow moon-face... but I digress). Even as he was portrayed as fighting Communism in Eastern Europe, he was a dyed-in-the-wool authoritarian who resisted reform and presided over a Vatican hostile to leftist movements within the Church. Yeah, in my lifetime, the catholic church became sharply less encompassing, until the U.S. Catholic hierarchy looks like a branch of the conservative wing of the Republican Party.
The current Catholic hierarchy is composed of priggish men who seem like they'd be more at home in Calvin's Geneva than Fellini's Rome. They seem to have forgotten the earthier side of Roman Catholic culture, they are all Lent, no Carnival. The Anglo-Catholic writer Hillaire Belloc wrote:
Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine,
There’s always laughter and good red wine.
At least I’ve always found it so.
This is the Catholicism of the typical Catholic layperson, the Catholicism that's not about holding an aspirin between one's knees, but is all about carrying a giant wang down the street. The average Catholic strikes a balance between Fat Tuesday and Ash Wednesday (any bets as to whether Newt or Rick will be sporting the larger cross of ashes on his forehead this Wednesday?), between the sacred and the profane. Even though the Church has taken an almost Calvinistic approach to matters of sexual morality, loyalty to tradition keeps most Catholics, even though they diverge from Church teachings to a great extent, in the fold. For many Catholics, Catholicism has been a badge of honor in the face of oppression- as an old Irish poem dating back to a time when the English passed laws against the practice of the Catholic faith, translated from Gaelic by Brendan Behan, put it:
Never mind the English clergy
Their philosophy, religion or faith
For the foundation stone of their Temple
Was the bollocks of Henry the 8th.
Even the lapsed Catholics tended to find a stubborn pride in the faith- hell, even America's most infamous homosexual considers himself a "cultural Catholic".
The issue now, with the president's plan to have insurance companies pay for contraception coverage for employees of Catholic institutions, has been couched by right-wingers as a religious freedom issue. They tend to gloss over the first clause of the First Amendment, though:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
No establishment of religion... the amendment is not to protect the clergy's right to impose religious policies on any individual, it is to protect individuals from such clerical ordinances. As many, including myself, see it, since Catholic organizations receive funding from the government, they have ceded the right to impose restrictions on their employees. The religious freedom argument goes out the window when a lawyer for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops says that even secular businesses owned by lay Catholics should be able to deny contraception coverage:
He cited the problem that would create for "good Catholic business people who can’t in good conscience cooperate with this... If I quit this job and opened a Taco Bell, I’d be covered by the mandate"
Go ahead, make the case that a person's boss should have even more power over one's life- that's a winning argument in today's social climate!
Now, to close this already long-winded post, I'm presenting a suggestion to Catholics who support the President's plan to make insurance companies provide no-cost contraceptive care to employees of institutions affiliated with religious groups. Ash Wednesday is the one day of the year when the Catholic laity is most visible (we always joked about A&P Catholics, who typically only showed up in church on Ash Wednesday and Palm Sunday... bonus trivia: the ashes are burnt palms from the preceding year). Oddly enough, Ash Wednesday, that most Catholic of days, is not a holy day of obligation. You read that right, blowing off church on Ash Wednesday is not a sin at all, and by the way, by practicing contraception, you are guilty of the sin of ovarice (by all means, spread this neologism, but please credit the Bastard). Yeah, show the bishops that you are the loyal opposition... if you really want to freak them out, show up on the cathedral steps with the the Venus symbol on your forehead instead of a cross.
If you're reading this, please, please, please pass the word along- show your opposition to the hierarchy by forgoing Ash Wednesday. If your parish priest asks you why you weren't at church receiving ashes, be up front about it. It's time that the bishops learned how the bulk of the laity live their lives, time for them to acknowledge that the average Catholic has to live in the here and now, and that mundane concerns often trump celestial ones.
Ultimately, liberal reforms would be good for the Church, as even solidly Catholic societies are pushing back against an uncaring Vatican. As penultimate note, blast this song at full volume, Leslie Dowdall gorgeously sums up the gist of this post in under six glorious minutes.
Finally, part of me thinks that my sainted grandmother must be spinning in her grave, but the more sensible portion of my mind is convinced that she'd have my back one-hundred percent.