Contraception and Signs of Contradiction: Part I

Catholic Bishops, drawing evidently on the same prudential wisdom that led to decades of silent impasse and families of one or two children becoming the norm in their churches, attempted to make the federal mandate regarding contraception, sterilization, and abortafacients a question of simple religious liberty.  Patrick Deneen and others have pointed out the lack of wisdom in attempting to frame the argument in the terms of liberal democracy, precisely because the spirit of liberalism is ultimately, if subtly, totalitarian in character.  The positive freedom to have equal access to something almost inevitably trumps the negative freedom not to violate one’s conscience.

But is it not rather the case that the Bishops had no choice but to argue for their Church’s religious freedom simply because most Catholics already accept as a fact of life and even as a moral good the practices of contraception that have become widespread in America over the last several decades?  Did they not, importantly, already have a case study in the fragility of their hold on the Catholic laity?

For, the liturgical and devotional changes wrought by the Second Vatican Council just a few years before Paul VI’s promulgation of Humane Vitae (1968) revealed how fragile Catholic culture and practice in America really was.  Thinking they needed only to modernize to make Catholicism the American religion, drawing Protestants into its fold, the Bishops changed with confident authority the daily lives of their long-standing and previously docile flock.  But the effect was swift, drastic, and unanticipated.  The seminaries emptied; so, also, if more slowly, did the pews.  An outward structure of massive strength and size turned out to be less like the dome of St. Peter’s and more like a fabergé egg.

What resulted from the changes of the Council was not a Church reborn, dynamic with the new life and priesthood of the laity, or a Church aggrandized, gaining in ubiquity through modernization, ecumenical outreach, and the reconversion of “our separated Protestant brothers and sisters.”  Rather, churches were trashed, liturgies bowdlerized, and those not already deeply entrenched in the habits of devotion saw that the Church seemed to offer little that was not available elsewhere in the West’s secular, therapeutic culture; what little it did have to offer rang with just that slight and unattractive dissonance of the anachronistic—unattractive in consequence, and certainly not an entirely other way of being in the world.  Not, not certainly, a sign of contradiction in an age of unbelief, greed, acquisitiveness, and libertinism.

The Bishops had learned their lesson.  The pews may still be half-full today, but they would be mostly empty tomorrow if the Church were to couch its objection to the Obama mandate in terms that draw attention to the particularities of Catholic moral teaching rather than appeal to the liberal truisms of American religious liberty.

Perhaps providentially, the candidacy of Sen. Rick Santorum—through some sly journalists’ questions apropos of nothing and Santorum’s own compulsion to chomp at any rhetorical bait—did not allow this framing of the Obama mandate as a question of religious liberty entirely to take hold.  The Church was able to make its argument on liberal grounds and gain something of a hearing in that regard.  But the presence of Santorum and all he made visible—by his very presence, not to mention his outspoken and not always fortunate language—made it evident that something more, and something other, was at stake.

Page 2 of 4 | Previous page | Next page