By Tom Bethell
The contraception mandate and the furor surrounding it tell us just how much the culture is at odds with the Catholic Church today. Whereas other Christian communions have surrendered — Episcopalians, for example, who signed on to every detail of the sexual revolution, find themselves a dwindling force in American life — the war on Catholic doctrine has redoubled.
The phrase “culture war” as applied to the United States seems to have begun with Patrick J. Buchanan. It is a sign of our times that he was blamed for launching a war by noticing we were under attack. Those interested in the decline of the Church in America over the past fifty years should read his latest book, Suicide of a Superpower,particularly the chapter titled “The Crisis of Catholicism.”
In opening the Second Vatican Council, Pope John XXIII said, “We feel we must disagree with those prophets of gloom, who are always forecasting disaster, as though the end of the world were at hand.” Maybe not the end of the world, but fifty years on it’s clear that the period after Vatican II has been a disaster for the Church. The 58,000 U.S. Catholic priests in 1965 are down to 41,000 today. The 1,575 ordinations are down to 467 today. All this while the U.S. population grew by 60 percent. Mass attendance, then three in four Catholics, has fallen to one in four today.
The U.S. bishops, as the Church leaders in the fight against the contraception mandate, are hamstrung by a Church in decline. They are especially burdened by a legacy of failure — poor decisions and uncertain leadership — left behind by their immediate predecessors and, more often, of their own doing.
The Rev. Thomas Reese, S.J., a dissenting theologian, said of the present moment that “the bishops have lost a lot of their clout.” The oft-quoted Reese is right about that.
This February my wife and I went to the Catholic Information Center in Washington, D.C., to learn more about the contraception mandate. The place was packed. Richard Doerflinger, the key speaker, has for years been with the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). There was a palpable sense of frustration, not just about the mandate but about the weakness of the U.S. bishops. For decades the bishops’ conference supported liberal social policies while trying to maintain a pro-life stance. Now, the feeling was, maybe they had failed. Doerflinger conceded at one point that the bishops may have been remiss in instructing us about Catholic doctrine.
The mandate would require religious employers to pay for insurance coverage of birth control and abortifacients. Planned Parenthood and NARAL maintain that increased access to contraception will reduce abortion. But no study has shown that. One drug covered by the mandate is a close analogue to the abortion pill RU-486. Both can induce abortion weeks into pregnancy.
No one knows how all this will play out, politically. Suffice it to say that the Obama administration’s Department of Health and Human Services, led by the nominally Catholic Kathleen Sebelius, thought it politically expedient to placate “women’s groups” by scorning Catholic teaching.
The mandate came as a wake-up call to many Catholics. “Choice” was not on the menu. Catholic women were said to want contraceptives just as much as others. (But the Guttmacher Institute’s claim that 98 percent of Catholic women have used birth control has been disputed by the Washington Post’s “fact-checker” column.) As for conservative Catholics, Obama’s people reckoned that they vote Republican anyway. So the bishops, as representatives of official Church teaching, could be defied.
Francis Cardinal George of Chicago, USCCB president from 2007-2010, commented, “This is the first time in the history of the United States that a presidential administration has purposely tried to interfere in the internal working of the Catholic Church, playing one group off against another for political gain.”
Sebelius is even more aggressive than Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House of Representatives for four years. Both attended Trinity University in D.C., a nominally Catholic institution. Like so many others, Trinity accommodates the culture of the day. When Pelosi became House Speaker, the late pro-abortion priest Robert Drinan, S.J., celebrated along with her at Trinity. Catholic writer James Hitchcock called Drinan “perhaps the single most reliable supporter of abortion ‘rights’ during his years in Congress.”
A problem for bishops responding to the mandate is that major Catholic universities — Georgetown, Fordham, and DePaul, for example — already cover contraception in their insurance plans. “While the bishops argued that covering birth control was immoral, some of the faith’s flagship schools were quietly doing just that, with impunity,” one journalist pointed out.
Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society, was quoted as saying that the decades-long laxity of the Catholic bishops is “the elephant in the room.” How are we to account for this? Why have dissenters not been disciplined?
A forgotten episode from the 1960s sheds some light. In his 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI set forth reasons for the Church’s opposition to contraception. The archbishop of Washington at the time was a doctrinal conservative named Patrick O’Boyle who had just been made a cardinal. Nineteen priests in the archdiocese, encouraged by dissenting theologians, issued a “Statement of Conscience” publicly rejecting Humanae Vitae. “Conscience” took precedence over doctrine (we would see that again more recently). The dissenting D.C. clerics were promptly disciplined by O’Boyle. Some had their priestly faculties suspended.
The priests appealed to Rome. Three years later the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy decreed that O’Boyle should lift canonical penalties against those priests who informed the cardinal privately that they agreed that the Church’s teaching on “the objective evil of contraception” was “an authentic expression of the Magisterium.”
But the congregation also said that the priests, who had dissented publicly, need not retract their dissent publicly. A biography of O’Boyle suggests that the decision not to require a public retraction was made by Paul VI himself. He had come in for heavy criticism for his encyclical — for trying to stem the tide against recreational (or perhaps un-creational) sex. He never wrote another encyclical.
Catholic writer and papal biographer George Weigel calls this episode the “Truce of 1968.” It taught “theologians, priests, and other Church professionals that dissent from authoritative teaching was, essentially, cost-free.” Bishops inclined to defend Catholic teaching learned “that they should think twice about doing so, if controversy were likely to follow.” Rome, fearing schism, “was nervous about public action against dissent.” A generation of Catholic bishops “came to think of themselves less as authoritative teachers than as moderators of an ongoing dialogue whose primary responsibility was to keep everyone in the conversation and in play.”
At the same time, Weigel says, the laity learned that “virtually everything in the Church was questionable: doctrine, morals, the priesthood, the episcopate, the lot.” Weigel explains:
The impulse toward Cafeteria Catholicism got a decisive boost from the Truce of 1968: if the bishops and the Holy See were not going to defend seriously the Church’s teaching on this matter, then picking and choosing in a supermarket of doctrinal and moral possibilities seemed not simply all right but actually admirable — an exercise in maturity, as was often suggested at the time.
We might say, then, that the culture war began as a civil war inside the Church. And it could continue that way, despite the bishops’ lurch toward unity in February.
In 2008 Kansas City Archbishop Joseph Naumann publicly admonished Sebelius and asked her not to present herself for communion. In 2009 Archbishop Raymond Burke did the same, in accordance with canon 915 of Canon Law, which decrees that those who “obstinately persist in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to Holy Communion.” When a Washington Post reporter asked Sebelius if she continued receiving anyway, she replied, “I would really prefer not to discuss that with you.”
Burke was transferred to Rome in 2008 and made a cardinal in 2010. So it seems that his strong leadership was rewarded with a promotion.
It’s possible, nonetheless, that Rome remains uneasy when U.S. bishops enforce doctrine too strictly. The test will come with the recently appointed Timothy Cardinal Dolan of New York, now president of the USCCB. He has not yet applied canon 915 to dissenting Catholic politicians in New York.
Washington’s Donald Cardinal Wuerl was asked why he had not denied communion to pro-abortion Catholic pols at the papal Mass in 2008. He said that Catholic officials “are not asked to deposit the moral and ethical convictions of the Church at the door of Congress, or at the state assembly where they serve.” He also found a way to absolve himself of responsibility. Any discipline should be left to the offending politician’s home bishop, he said. In Pelosi’s case, that was Archbishop George Niederauer of San Francisco.
Niederauer did pluck up the courage to speak to Pelosi in private. But he took no action. Prominent Catholic politicians in his jurisdiction who give public scandal were considered beyond his reach. Everything was left to conscience, and in that Niederauer and Pelosi were in accord. Illogically, she justified the murder of the unborn by saying that “women should have the opportunity to exercise their free will.”
Niederauer did say, in a subsequent column in his archdiocesan newspaper, that “it is entirely incompatible with Catholic teaching to conclude that our freedom of will justifies choices that are radically contrary to the Gospel.” So why not excommunicate her? As L.A. Catholic pointed out, “It would change the whole U.S. political equation if an American bishop excommunicated a pro-abortion Catholic politician.” That was in 2010 and we are still waiting.
Other considerations are in play. One is the reluctance of the USCCB, staffed mostly by liberals, to say anything that might damage ties between Catholics and Democratic pols. Chris Manion of The Wanderer pointed out an overlooked financial consideration:
Years of perpetuating Cardinal Bernardin’s cozy relationship with the pro-abortion “social justice” crowd on Capitol Hill put today’s bishops in a bind: either keep the money flowing by keeping silent, or risk “alienating” the corrupt pro-aborts (and their funding) by preaching Humanae Vitae and applying Canon Law to rampant scandal and crimes against the Eucharist.
In 2006 Washington’s archbishop at the time, Theodore Cardinal McCarrick, had absolved himself by attributing the bishops’ strategy of weakness to something that Avery Cardinal Dulles once said. The Church, said Cardinal Dulles,
incurs a danger of alienating judges, legislators and public administrators whose good will is needed for other good programs, such as the support of Catholic education and the care of the poor. For all these reasons, the Church is reluctant to discipline politicians in a public way, even when it is clear that their positions are morally indefensible.
Similarly, Cardinal George told Robert Royal that he could not crack down too hard in his own archdiocese because he had to raise over a hundred million dollars to keep the Catholic schools afloat.
Jason Berry’s new book, Render Unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church,tells many unedifying but credible stories about the role played by money in different contexts: the selling of Church property in the U.S. to pay for legal settlements resulting from sexual abuse; and financial corruption in Rome, focusing particularly on Angelo Cardinal Sodano, Pope John Paul II’s secretary of state. Berry is a liberal, sometimes published by the National Catholic Reporter. But his reporting is excellent and I recommend his book to anyone interested in the financial (and spiritual) corruption in the Church today.
John Paul II’s evident lack of interest in governing the Church didn’t help. He deserves to be called “the Great” for his role in ending the cold war, but he seemed inattentive to the laxity of the world’s bishops (bishops he himself appointed) and the lack of moral and doctrinal discipline that plagued the Church. I asked Jason Berry what he thought about this. His reply:
When the U.S. cases [of clerical sexual abuse] began erupting in 1992, John Paul II was passive. That never really changed. His inertia, his myopia, his unwillingness to face reality was more than inattentiveness; it was neglect. How did a man who showed such courage in the geopolitical sphere shrink from his responsibility to get rid of so many damaged priests and bishops?
By 1989, when the Soviet Empire collapsed, he saw the church as vindicated. Then, just a few years later, these priest cases began crossing his desk. He could not fathom a fearless introspection of the clerical culture. I’ve been critical of the bishops for failure to remove pedophiles; but they got no help from John Paul. He made a huge mistake in his support for Cardinal Sodano, in vaunting [Legion of Christ founder] Marcial Maciel for so long, and in turning a blind eye to the abuse crisis for many years. So many of the men he put into the hierarchy did incredible damage. Look at Groer in Vienna, Law in Boston, and Hoyos in Medellin.
Bankruptcies in eight dioceses may have taught American bishops the lesson that, although it was convenient to minimize sexual abuse, and to cover it up where possible, the civil law is not so indulgent. (Bankruptcies have been declared in Milwaukee, Tucson, Wilmington, Spokane, Portland, San Diego, Davenport, and Fairbanks.)
Overall, the position of the U.S. hierarchy today seems to be this: We agree with the Pope about Church doctrine, but when prominent Catholic politicians defy us, there’s not much we can do about it. Enforcement in the form of excommunication is not an option. That might jeopardize our schools, our social-justice programs, and particularly our access to government money in the form of grants to Catholic Charities.
According to The New York Times, “Catholic Charities affiliates received a total of nearly $2.9 billion a year from the government in 2010, about 62 percent of its annual revenue of $4.67 billion. Only 3 percent came from churches in the diocese (the rest came from in-kind contributions, investments, program fees and community donations).”
As the settlements to sex-abuse victims continue, and as parish property is sold off to cover the payouts, the Church’s dependence on government dollars and government goodwill is likely to increase. Here, Obama will be happy to cooperate, because his control over the Church will only increase with the Church’s dependence on government money.
Two weeks earlier, in January, I went to the March for Life, held on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade. Conspicuous on Pennsylvania Avenue was a billboard-sized display of aborted babies. Billed as the Genocide Awareness Project, it is supported by the Center for Bioethical Reform. They are putting up these displays on college campuses around the country, and here we really do see — no gruesome pun intended — the cutting edge of the culture war.
Part of the display was a 2002 quote from Barack Obama while he was in the Illinois legislature. He vowed to oppose the Born Alive Infant Protection Act because “it would create one more burden on women, and I can’t support that.”
The displays are instructive, especially for young people, some of whom don’t know what abortion entails. They also arouse great fury among some who see dismembered infants so graphically displayed. A woman drove by, stopped her car, rolled down her window, and indignantly said that children shouldn’t be allowed to see such horrible images.
Leslie Sneddon, a regional director for the Center for Bioethical Reform, was standing there as that happened. She told me: “Our experience has shown that people who are angry are usually angry at themselves for not realizing what it is they support. Some may have participated in an abortion and are angry because they are now confronted with the reality.”
Something similar happened with respect to the contraception mandate. One Sunday, a statement from Cardinal Wuerl was read from the pulpit in archdiocesan parishes, opposing the mandate. A similar message was read in dioceses all over the country. In one parish here, as soon as the message was understood to be about contraception, some congregants walked out.
What are we to make of people who walk out rather than hear something unwelcome? There’s a famous precedent. In the Acts of the Apostles, before his martyrdom, St. Stephen delivered a sermon “full of faith and power” to a synagogue whose members became enraged. He was turned over to the chief priests, who “stopped their ears.” Their minions then rushed at Stephen and stoned him to death. Saul, later Paul, was “consenting unto his death.”
My brother-in-law, a Catholic priest in North Dakota, says that if you preach Catholic doctrine on contraception, some parishioners will walk out. Not wanting to hear the teaching of a Church one has joined is illogical, to put it mildly. Perhaps some among us want to be able to say at the Last Judgment, “I never heard that…. My priest never mentioned that…. The Bishop never said anything about that….”
What will the future bring? Influential rebels against the Magisterium, such as the late Joseph Cardinal Bernadin of Chicago, have been slowly replaced by senior archbishops who accept the Church’s teaching. Many, however, are still tempted to believe that diplomacy is the supreme virtue. But they are also waking up to the enormity of the culture war. It is something that the Church has not faced in America before. The younger bishops are a huge improvement over their predecessors, and the orthodoxy of young priests seems almost a miraculous turn of events.
Finally, the good news is that Pope Benedict XVI sees what is going on. In January he reminded the U.S. bishops that Catholic politicians must “offer public witness to their faith,” especially regarding “God’s gift of life.” He also recognized the “genuine difficulties which the Church encounters at the present moment.” Since then, every one of the nation’s bishops has come out publicly against Obama’s contraception mandate.
In interviews with the Pope while he was Cardinal Ratzinger, published in Salt of the Earth, Peter Seewald mentioned John Paul II’s expectation for the new millennium: “We shall see that the tears of this century,” the late Pontiff said, “have prepared the ground for a new springtime of the human spirit.”
Ratzinger responded that John Paul’s “whole ecumenical effort stands in this historical-philosophical perspective.” That was in 1996. Ratzinger’s view was quite different. He expected the Church to become “more a minority Church; she will live in small vital circles of really convinced believers who live the faith.” Which was how the Church began, of course.
In the face of rising opposition, will the Church blossom, as John Paul predicted, or will she contract, as Benedict expects? Let us not forget what Jesus said, in one of His most remarkable sayings: “When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith left on the earth?”
Tom Bethell, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, is author, most recently of Eric Hoffer: The Longshoreman Philosopher(Hoover Institution Press, 2012). The foregoing article, “The Culture War & the Catholic Church,” was originally published in the New Oxford Review (April 2012), pp. 18-24, and is reproduced here by kind permission of New Oxford Review, 1069 Kains Ave., Berkeley, CA 94706.