March 12, 2012

So I walked out of church today.

So I walked out of church today. My complicated relationship with the Roman Catholic Church took a turn for the even-more-complicated when I finally got fed up with them turning Mass into yet another political rally over the contraception mandate. Today it was right in the homily, and I closed my book, grabbed my stuff, and walked out of the church, and didn't look back; I went down the street and joined the Episcopalians for their service*, already in progress.

I've been thinking about this for a while. I objected to it the first week the priest gave a little speech during the announcements at the end of the Mass; not an explanation of the moral teachings of the Church or an exhortation to follow them, but a "call your Congressman" type of speech about how terrible this mandate would be and how the bishops have declared that they will ignore it. The speech contained a few half-truths and falsehoods, but more importantly it omitted a number of significant details, and most importantly it did not admit a response. If it were an actual political rally we might be there because we already agreed; if it were a debate or a lecture we'd be able to call the speaker on his omissions. But they—meaning the RCC hierarchy—had slipped it clashingly in to the ritual of the Mass.

Not the first issue

The question I've been getting really hung up on is this: Why now? Why this issue, of all things? Many a time have I objected to something the RCC has done or said, but it's never grated on me so heavily nor pushed me away so fully. I remember one homily by Fr. Ernie at IHM in Galesburg where he ranted at length about the US being a Christian nation and accused anyone who claimed otherwise of being unpatriotic and un-American. I remember a homily during a private Mass at a cousin's anniversary celebration about how secular forces were threatening the marriages of the faithful by pushing for the state to allow gay marriage—and of course a lot of messaging outside of Mass on the same topic. I have complained before about electioneering via church bulletin inserts (in that case, on the topic of abortion, in the immediate run-up to the 2008 election). I have also complained before about the Pope's nasty little letter about gay priests. And of course, there's the entire abuse scandal, which is still playing out in some ways, with its systemic disregard for the health and well-being of children, which was singlehandedly responsible for driving away a large number of cradle Catholics.

So, why this? Why now? I have had ample reason in the past to be upset with the church (and, for the record, I have been upset with them). I've been pondering that question for weeks now, and trying to analyse the previous issues and my reactions to them.

Some of my previous complaints were about specific people. One priest, or deacon, or even bishop, would say something obnoxious in a homily or in a public statement. This is easy to brush off.

The issue of abuse is one on which I have given the RCC—as an institution—more of a pass than perhaps I should have; but I have long suspected that its substance was not unique to the American Catholic church, nor to the Catholic church, nor even to churches in general. Aside from the fact that there will always be bad people that do bad things, there is also the incredibly strong human instinct to trust someone that you know and to think the best of them even when you're pretty sure they did something bad. It's something we need to work on. But as the Catholic scandals broke in other countries, and more recently the Sandusky case at Penn State, where Joe Paterno had at least some knowledge of what was going on (but students protested in support of him anyway) and an even more recent case in a Florida church where a Baptist minister pled guilty to child sexual abuse (but the congregation voted to ban children from attendance rather than lost the pastor) have showed that this inclination is not one that we can easily dismiss, and not one that we can pin specifically on the RCC hierarchy. Certainly, the abuse scandal was a case where I could clearly delineate why it was different from the case at hand.

The pronouncements about homosexuals and homosexuality were offensive, so why didn't they drive me away? My best answer is still sort of fuzzy there; it has to do with seeing that the RCC was wrong on this issue but also knowing that it's been wrong about lots of things before—and eventually, it comes round. The timescale may be a long one, but an institution that has existed for two millennia gets, to some extent, the right to change relatively slowly. This issue does not represent a regression (or, depending on your scholarly sources, possibly it does, but if so, it's a very old regression; it certainly isn't a new development), and so there is reason to hope that they'll make the same shift that everyone else is making... eventually. It is, in any case, fairly clearly not the same as what's going on with this contraceptive mandate.

The one that's hardest to tease apart is the (ongoing) rallying over the issue of abortion. I have, in fact, complained about it before, and my complaint then was specifically that it was making the church play politics; I did see that it was an issue that the church had been involved in for a long time (the proscription against abortion for Christians actually dates all the way back to the 1st century AD), but my specific complaint and worry was that by inappropriately playing politics in church, they actually reduced their own moral authority, and appeared as subsidiaries (or worse, dupes) of the Republican Party.

And on reflection, that's a big part of my objection now. It's still not the same thing—in 2008, what I was seeing was individual priests adding inserts to the bulletins, which was both easier to chalk up to individual variation in the church and also not intrusive on the ritual of Mass itself.

So, why now? Why this? The bulletin inserts now are letters from bishops and central diocesan offices, coordinated nationally. The message is related to a message the RCC has long maintained about contraception, but the response to healthcare mandates is a new one. When a group you've already suspected of selling out to a political party starts doing nationally-coordinated rallying, helpful to that party, in an election year, on an issue they have not roused themselves about before, it's really hard not to conclude that they have, in fact, sold out to a political party.

Disingenuous, or just duped?

My conclusion was that what made this issue my breaking point was the fact that this one, finally, I couldn't see as an honest effort, a sincere misstep in pursuit of principled goals. Either the endeavour was insincere from the start, or else the USCCB was flat-out duped by the Republicans who want a good election-year wedge issue and a hit-job on Obama's healthcare initiative (what little of it even got passed in the first place). It almost doesn't matter which of the two is the case, and of course it could be both. (Especially on an individual level.) And I'm happy to consider any given person involved to have been effectively duped, because it doesn't really matter which is the case, although I suspect that most would be as angry at me for the accusation of dupe as for essentially lying to us (or, more precisely, in its technical sense, bullshitting us).

Interestingly, and most crucially, this is quite distinct from them being wrong (which they also are).

This issue is not one we've heard any fight about before; in particular, when 28 different states passed similar mandates, we didn't hear about it, and we didn't hear about any churches or affiliated entities throwing a tantrum about how they wouldn't pay even if the courts ruled against them. (There were lawsuits filed, of course, but that's legitimate if you thought the laws were unconstitutional.)

The bishops give just enough acknowledgement to this fact to make you think they're being honest. But in a USCCB-distributed memo (one of several inserts into our bulletin a few weeks ago), they say: "HHS chose the narrowest state-level religious exemption... [which] exists in only 3 states (New York, California, and Oregon)." From what I can tell, Arizona has the same narrow exemption, but they neglect to mention that there are also 8 states with no exemption: CO, GA, IA, MT, NH, VT, WA, and WI. (Another 7 have exemptions that are still narrower than what the USCCB is now demanding federally.)

A further development in the "disingenuous at best" category is that although the provision is in regards to contraception—both hormonal, meaning birth control pills, and surgical, meaning sterilisation—the bishops and those speaking for them have consistently construed this to include "abortifacient drugs", as in, "plans [that] must cover sterilization, abortifacients, and contraception". In speech (though I've not seen it committed to paper), this often gets put first and gets abbreviated, so that the provision will be requiring Catholics to pay for abortions (and some other stuff).

The whole issue is then put forth as one of freedom of religion—of the employer. The issue of the employee's freedom of religion does not seem to be that important to them, despite the fact that it is the employee, Catholic or not, that needs to make the decision of conscience to use, or not use, birth control. But it's crystal clear that the USCCB has not simply overlooked this issue: in their urgent memorandum they specifically point out that the exemption "excluded those that served or employed people who were not members of their religious community," and that this "failed to cover the vast majority of faith-based organizations." Underlining theirs. In the same breath that they make a freedom-of-religion claim, they actively point out that this is primarily about denying that freedom to their employees, who might (presumably) exercise it.

It's a lot that's coming together here. Any one thing? I'd have my suspicions and I'd complain, again, but at some point it becomes impossible to believe that intelligent men (and in other contexts I'd say "intelligent people", but here, of course, they really are all men) would come up with this from scratch without seeing how duplicitous it was. Which would mean that either they saw the duplicity (hence are being disingenuous), or didn't come up with it and hadn't thought it all the way through (hence duped).

On the merits

This is already long and I don't want to turn it into an essay about the merits of the actual plan—because that's already been talked to death elsewhere. I think it important, however, to cover one important fact that lays bare the awfulness of the bishops' agenda.

The USCCB is on record as objecting to the very idea that hormonal birth control is even health care, claiming that it "is an elective intervention that stops the healthy functioning of healthy women's reproductive systems." In a similar vein, one frequently sees objections to the idea of pregnancy as a "medical condition". As such, how could the pill be considered preventive health care?

First, we can dispense with the idea that pregnancy itself isn't a medical condition. It's not a disease, but in the modern developed world nearly every pregnancy comes under the supervision of a doctor, and even those who prefer "natural" birth are typically careful to line up a backup plan. Because a pregnancy leads to, at best, a somewhat risky ordeal involving a lot of pain and a fair amount of blood; and it can, unpredictably and without warning, at any time, turn into a mortally dangerous medical emergency. As such, empowering women with a measure of control, should they choose to take it, over whether they enter this condition in the first place, is clearly within the general rubric of "healthcare", and "preventive healthcare" at that.

But even in the imaginary world where nobody wanted to take the pill for its contraceptive function, it can be (and is!) prescribed for a variety of non-pregnancy-related conditions, including dysmenorrhea, polycystic ovarian syndrome, and even certain kinds of bad acne. (Indeed, its original use was in treating menstrual problems; contraception was a side-effect!) Literally millions of women use the pill for its non-contraceptive functions.

This is not a secret to the bishops, but they do not even deign to mention it, in any publication I have yet seen. This is presumably—more disingenuousness—because it would significantly weaken their claim. Rather, they are willing to take the millions of women who use the pill non-contraceptively and throw them under the bus, because they want to decisively hinder access to contraception, for Catholics and non-Catholics both.

Above the rules

The bishops' arguments are broadly in furtherance of the claim that the rules should not apply to them. Here's where the distinction between "disingenuous" and "dupe" really matters; because that claim leads immediately to a total dismantling of any centrally regulated healthcare system. If a church-based employer can make a conscience-based objection to covering a hormone pill, then clearly any employer can, because their leadership have consciences too. (Well, presumably.) And if an employer can object to a hormone pill, there's any number of other things they could object to, too.

I'll be the first to admit that we have a dumb system here, putting each employer in charge of purchasing their employees' healthcare plans. It is a sickness upon our economy that hurts worker mobility, market competitiveness, and healthcare cost and availability. But if we're going to do this thing, and if we're going to even pretend that this is anything other than a mechanism to enforce a modern sort of serfdom, then our regulations have to guarantee that employees of different employers are getting the same basic healthcare product—whatever we agree that product to be. If you want to lobby to remove contraception from that list, try. (Good luck with that; it won't be very popular.)

But you don't get to say that you're above the law just because you don't want your money going to something you morally disagree with. News flash: this is part of living in a non-anarchic state. When you pay a tax (and make no mistake, that's what this is), sometimes some of that money goes to things you disagree with. You do get to complain, and you even get to protest; but you don't get to just say you won't pay it. (Well, you do get to say you won't pay it, as long as you eventually pay; this is why I suspect the bishops are bluffing. That, and the fact that they're already paying in more than twenty states. But I digress.)


So I walked out. This post had already been brewing in my head for several weeks now, since the first time it was brought up during announcements, originally simply as an explanation of why the church was wrong this time (in the vein of my previous posts, linked above). The second time the mandate came up, I frowned disapprovingly, and I thought about it some more.

Here was a case where the bishops' conference was going out of their way to nationally coordinate an attempt to embarrass Obama in an election year. On an issue that they hadn't cared about nearly this much when a third of the states already passed it into law. Yet another issue that disproportionately affects women, and for which more than a million women would be little more than collateral damage in this power play. An issue on which something like 87% of Catholic women actively disagree with the hierarchy. In a context where many of those affected weren't even Catholic. And all under the banner of freedom of conscience, disregarding the freedoms of the individual women, whose consciences are presumably either too weak or just irrelevant.

But it still hadn't led me to any conscious decision to leave. The church was wrong, of course—again—but that hadn't driven me out before. And I was irritated at the bishops for mixing religion and politics—but that, too, I'd weathered before. It was a sudden decision, and a very unexpected "last straw" moment as well; I had naďvely thought we were done with the issue, and certainly wasn't expecting to hear about it in the homily. I had brought my old hymnal to Mass to continue a curious conversation about an unusual chord in one of the Lenten songs, and was not at all planning to leave early. But then the deacon's homily took a sharp left turn, from urban legends into the government's contraceptive mandate, and I found myself snapping the book shut, picking up jacket, hat, and bag, and walking out. I think I said "I'm done," but I'm not entirely sure. I assume the deacon kept talking, although I don't remember that clearly; and when I say I didn't look back, I don't mean that metaphorically. I didn't look back at the pew, I didn't look back at the sanctuary, and I didn't look back at the church.

I'll miss the familiar music, I'm sure. I'll definitely miss Fr Manny's chants of surpassing beauty—his was a voice for which the Gregorian chant was designed. I would have said I'd miss the comfortable familiarity of the ritual, but they'd already thrown that away (and as far as that goes, the Episcopalian Rite I is about as familiar as the revised RCC Mass, with Rite II being more like the Catholic Mass than the Catholic Mass anymore). But as much as I'm Catholic and always will be, I'm finally fed up with the shortsightedness and increased politicisation of the church leadership.

So, I'm done.

* I originally wrote "Mass" here. But that's really not what Episcopalians call it.

"How about social conservatives make their argument without bringing God into it? By all means, let faith inform one's values, but let reason inform one's public arguments." --Kathleen Parker

Posted by blahedo at 12:31am on 12 Mar 2012
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