Thursday, February 16, 2012

Contra Wills.

I've been trying to work through the legal, spiritual, economic, and personal upheavals since the HHS mandate was announced. Then came the minutes of hope--the President will make an announcement--followed by a return to the slump (even Sr. Keehan is still sad).

Then there have been the personal battles begun. Friends, relatives, and even the hygenist notice you're Catholic, recall hearing something about the bishops, and the floodgates open.

There are also the Links Wars on Facebook. I post something I found logically sound, charitable, and compelling. My third cousin-once-removed's ex-girlfriend from the Maldives then comments, telling me and my world that I'm clearly a repressed Jew who hates ovaries and wants her to live in the slums with her 20 children. Then I notice an old friend has posted Gary Wills. And I wonder whether I should change the baby's diaper or respond. I change the diaper.

But my heart just aches and cries for the next hour. I swear I'll never check Facebook again.

So, while the girls are down for a nap and the Big Girl is copying Bach's "Minuet in G Major" (the awesome one that starts with an arpeggio-thingy), I head back to Gary Wills. If this is the sort of thing that the "other sides" see as compelling and logically sound, then perhaps I need to really read it.

The first rule of defending your position is this: You must be able to articulate the attack on its own grounds.

Here's my best attempt at Wills' argument.

He starts out with, "By a revolting combination of con men and fanatics..."

Ooh. Ouch. Well, that was a nice, objective way to engage Americans across diverse backgrounds. The "con-men" he identifies as the Republican candidates (they are exploiting this controversy to gain political points--no surprise there) and the "fanatics" are the "stupid..." bishops of the Catholic Church. So, we have "con-men," "fanatics," and "stupidity."

He does have some real objections under the rhetoric--he obviously just wanted to first make it as hard as possible for any sincere believing Catholic to listen to his argument. I think it's worth looking at, because his op-ed follows the trajectory of almost every in-person argument (I mean, exchange of opinions) I've had so far.

Wills: "The bishops’ opposition to contraception is not an argument for a “conscience exemption.” It is a way of imposing Catholic requirements on non-Catholics. This is religious dictatorship, not religious freedom."

First, his first sentence is right: the bishops' opposition to contraception is not a part of their argument at all. Reading the statements by spokesman William Lori, bishop of Bridgeport, or any bishop for that matter, I cannot find a single argument defending the Catholic (and Orthodox) teaching on human sexuality. In fact, he (and many others) have identified this teaching in the category as the Jewish Kosher laws. He assumes that his interlocutors will not, in fact, be remotely interested in any arguments--Scriptural, Magesterial, or natural law--for or against Humanae Vitae.

The last two claims, however, are false. The appeals of the bishops for an exemption clause is not an attempt to force any non-Catholic to stop using birth control. If you Google "Medicaid birth control coverage by state," you discover (via the Kaiser Foundation) that in almost every state, every FDA-approved form of prescription contraceptives are available to Medicaid patients. You will also find that your local Women's Center, Planned Parenthood, and countless on-line non-profits are ready to assist you in purchasing--not just condoms--but your contraceptive of choice. At my last OB-GYN appointment, I was offered the phone numbers for three separate "clinics" that would assist me in my family-planning choices.

There is nothing in the bishops' request for an exemption that would substantially change any of these services. Religious dictatorship? Because a group (an infinitesmially small group, Wills claims) does not want to pay for something they believe is evil? He doth protest too much--and it makes no sense.

But on he plods: "Contraception is not even a religious matter. Nowhere in Scripture or the Creed is it forbidden. Catholic authorities themselves say it is a matter of “natural law,” over which natural reason is the arbiter—and natural reason, even for Catholics, has long rejected the idea that contraception is evil."

One might say the same about the Kosher laws, the hijab, and Christian Scientist medical practices. Mr. Wills' interpretation of Scripture and the role of natural law in Catholic Tradition is his own business. I certainly agree that--to unaided human reason--the condemnation of contraceptive sex is, at best, puzzling. But the point is this: Mr. Wills has claimed that natural reason is the arbiter of what is right. The question of human politics is: What happens when men of good will arrive at different conclusions by the exercise of their reason? Two humans reasoning about one issue rarely reach an agreement: What then, Mr. Wills? Do we force a dictatorship on one another? We've seen that before.

All the bishops want is the freedom to follow their own convictions--to which they have as much a right as Wills.

Mr. Wills: “What matters here is that contraception is legal, ordinary, and accepted even by most Catholics. To say that others must accept what Catholics themselves do not is bad enough.To say that President Obama is “trying to destroy the Catholic Church” if he does not accept it is much, much worse."

Well, no. That's not what matters here. Religious convictions rarely hold a majority.

The First Amendment is not about protecting the free exercise of what almost everyone does. It's about protecting the free exercise of those few who otherwise would be crushed by the majority. That's why we have a Bill of Rights--so that when slaves, African Americans, Jewish Americans, women, and other minorities are denied these rights, they can appeal to our founding agreements as a nation.

Then Mr. Wills really holds out the olive branch: "Yet a man who believes that contraception is evil is an aberrant from the American norm, like the polygamist or the faith healer."

Yes. I am an aberrant. Does that mean I am unworthy of the protections of the First Amendment? (For an introduction to HHS mandate's relationship to the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, see Rivkin and Whelan). So there have been bishops who were total jerks and criminals. Does that mean the entire Catholic population has forfeited its right to free exercise?

Then Wills gets into his second argument: "The Phony Contraception Argument." You can read it for yourself. Basically, he repeats his claim that there is no Scriptural, historical, or natural law argument to support the Church's constant teaching. Then he argues that the only basis left to explain our aberrant views of sex is our historical hatred of the body as "unclean." (Incidentally, "unclean" does not, in traditional Judeo-Christian thought, connote sinfulness or unworthiness. It actually denotes a purposeful emptiness that is filled only by holiness--the unclean woman is holy, the unclean animal is holy, the unclean act is holy--set apart for God. It was only with the destruction of the rituals of purification that "unclean" came to mean "unredeemable.")

That's fine. I'm sorry he feels that way, but I'm still not going to pay for his bacon. If I'm such a rare aberration, how does my desire to bow out of the HHS plan in any way affect women's access to birth control? Wills' opening argument is defeated by his closing:

Then he launches into an attack on the authority of "the Church": "Catholics who do not accept the phony argument over contraception are said to be “going against the teachings of their church.” That is nonsense. They are their church. The Second Vatican Council defines the church as “the people of God.” "

I think this argument is meant to liberate me from any authority other than my own puny brain and the legal demands of the HHS mandate. "You're not going against the Church! You are the Church, and the Church said so herself! Ergo, there's no one to go against!" (I'm going to ignore the obvious fallacy: You can ignore the authority of your church, because your church has authoritatively spoken: you may ignore our authority. Sweet. Nothering matters ever.)

Then he points out that, prior to the publication of Humanae Vitae, lots of Catholics wanted the pope to reverse the Church's teaching on contraception. But he didn't! "When Paul reaffirmed the ban on birth control in Humanae Vitae (1968) there was massive rejection of it. Some left the church. Some just ignored it. Paradoxically, the document formed to convey the idea that papal teaching is inerrant just convinced most people that it can be loony.... When Pius IX condemned democracy and modern science in his Syllabus of Errors (1864), the Catholic historian Lord Acton said that Catholics were too sensible to go crazy every time a pope does. The reaction to Humanae Vitae proves that."

But Wills left out a significant part of the narrative: "Some left the church. Some just ignored it." And some? Some embraced the teaching whole-heartedly, uniting themselves with the unbroken tradition of all the people in history who have displayed a "deep historical disrelish for sex itself" (to quote an earlier passage). That "some" is a part of the Catholic Church in the United States--an aberration, perhaps, but still a cohesive sub-culture in our country. (See photo at right: "Look! Our pope told us to hate sex!")

Then I'm not sure what Wills does--he attacks Rick Santorum as a fanatic (again), citing Santorum's adherence to Humanae Vitae's teaching as his primary evidence. That's fine. I'm not asking Wills to vote for Santorum. But I sure as hell defend Santorum's right to run, and my neighbors' right to vote for him, and Wills' right to lambast him. The last bit isn't worth engaging--because Wills has failed to articulate his opponents' viewpoint. He has not addressed the First Amendment, the legal statutes related to it, or the question of our freedom for lunacy. I'm willing to be called a lunatic, but not to be told by the government that I have to conform to Wills' form of sanity.

And that was all very therapeutic for a few minutes. But there's still my family, my friends, and that third-cousin's ex. We're all so convinced of our rightness, and we're all willing to throw each other under the emotional bus to be right. Perhaps a glass of Merlot will help. Or a stiff bout of English tea.

Or Lent, and a good, heavy bout of fasting from Facebook.


Faith E. Hough said...

I admire your ability to engage in calm debate over this issue. I find that I have to often filter the opponents' views through others, like my husband, or I just get seething mad. Sometimes I still get seething mad.
I hope I have ten kids someday so when people make rude comments I can tell them, "What can I say? My church told me to hate sex."

mums said...

Most excellent, my dear. You turned your anger to good use. As for Mr. Wills, he preached -- with vitriol -- to his choir, "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing".

Melanie B said...

Oh Erika, I know what you mean. I posted a link and then a friend wrote a long comment and I don't have the energy, mental or spiritual to reply. He's not religious at all, in fact he's a former pagan, so the idea of conscience informing one's actions is just a foreign language. I respect him and know that he respects me. I'd love to help him understand but I fear the gulf is just too wide. Especially to try to cross it via Facebook comments.

Laura said...

Thanks for articulating the Catholic point of view so well. It really seems so simple that it's about our right to practice our Catholic faith. I hope and pray that this nonsense ends soon--people are getting worked up in a flurry of confusion on this issue.

April said...

I fast from Facebook every Lent. I've been toying with whether or not to do it this year - precisely because of this issue. I want to escape it - but should I. Do I need to learn to take the criticism - without breaking down in sobs because everyone who reads my Facebook page seems to hate beauty AND my Church? Or do I need to just wash floors, freeze food and get ready to welcome our first baby - and offer it all up with prayers for them? There is a balance there that I feel far too tired to work out.

Vijaya said...

I could feel your fury in this post, and yet you did not resort to name calling or vitriol. What I notice is that in the secular media, Catholics are often portrayed as backward numbskulls, crazy and stupid. I'd rather be all those things to follow Christ.

Catholics will beget more Catholics and the atheists will contracept themselves out of existence so I don't worry too much.

My Feminine Mind said...

Thank you for writing this.

Lydia said...