Thursday, November 12, 2009

James Carroll: Extreme Bishops and Responsibility for Stupak-Pitts..

James Carroll has a post up at the Daily Beast that addresses what he calls the Catholic church's "sabotaging its broader moral mission."

What happens when a mainstream institution is taken over by its fringe? One answer plays itself out in the Republican Party, where lunatic rhetoric now defines politics. Another shows itself in the Catholic Church, whose leadership has fallen into the trap of single-issue moralism. That the aggressively lobbying Catholic bishops were prepared to kill the health-care reform bill in the House last week over abortion shows how far they have come from the broad tradition of Catholic social teaching that sees the common good as involving multiple values. Negotiation and compromise are essential to solidarity. When values conflict, as they inevitably do in legislation, ethical reasoning assumes a delicate balance, weighing one issue against another. Abortion represents one such moral question that carries special gravity for Catholics. Despite the bishops’ assertions, however, there are others—notably, a universal right to quality health care, which the bishops have supported for years, but which they were prepared last week to throw overboard rather than accept a compromise that would have covered abortions by patient co-payments instead of government funds.

Amen on the assertion that the Republican party has given in to what the DailyKos community calls it's "rump." I'm not sure that the structure of a political party, however, can be applied to the Catholic church. The world body of Catholicism has always had a strict group of rule makers and for the most part, parishioners have been the rule breakers. Myriad Catholics oppose and refuse to live by the dictates of the Pope or bishops. Groups like Catholics for Choice have long exemplified the disconnect between Catholic teaching and Catholic lifestyle. And though I haven't sought out the statistics, I hear that Catholics in America are predominantly pro-choice; I bet most are definitely pro-contraception.

Another thing Carroll misses is that the USCCB and other Catholic groups have been supportive of health care reform. And for the reasons he says they have throw out the window: care of the ill, uninsured, poor, and elderly. Yet the moral conviction of the Catholic leaders, what Carroll calls the "complex and nuanced approach to moral questions," is based on a hierarchical set of values, of which "killing of the unborn" and the elderly is the keystone; the "slippery slope" of moral, societal degradation starts with abortion, not economic injustice or poverty. End or limit abortion and euthanasia to the best of your abilities and you are addressing other societal ills. Carroll wrongly concludes:

We hear little or nothing from Catholic leaders on such questions because, just as extreme voices have made American politics toxic, so extreme voices have poisoned the teaching authority of the church. Slash-and-burn single-mindedness is fanatic. Hence the excluding absolutism on the abortion question. Hence the dangerous exacerbation of the worst trends in American public life.

Asking the USCCB to focus attention on other issues, like the economy, not only overlooks the enthusiasm the abortion issue generates but also misses the point of hierarchical moral priorities. Fund abortion or "euthanasia" and you are opening the door for other societal depravities.

Unlike others who have weighed in on what "right" the USCCB has to meddle in health care reform, Carroll welcomes them - just as the Democrats have welcomed them as part of the party's emphasis on faith-based initiatives, broadening the party's tent, and appealing to moderates. He only notes that they should be focusing on other things.

In the Catholic - and evangelical - world view, hierarchy is supposed to be extreme, law-laying, and dictatorial. The job of church leaders is to set the rules and we parishioners are tasked with following them. (They don't call church doctrine and sermons "teachings" for nothing.) It's a partriarchal approach to the world that has been around since, well, forever.

This patriarchal structure of traditionally male leaders laying down the law for the rest of us is even the default from which our justice system works. Women are traditionally heavily sanctioned by such systems, treated to second-class status by male structures that profess to know what is best for them. Note the case of the Maine woman ordered by a judge to be on bed rest and confined to a hospital. In fact, looking recently at hospital mergers and the imposition of provider refusals (or "conscience clauses") over patients' rights, I see the medical industry is set to a "pro-life" default as well, with the implicit approval of our "justice for all" government.

The failure to protect women's reproductive rights in health care reform doesn't fall to a predictable, traditional, partriarchal church body, but to those in our government who failed to acknowledge that, while the church (and I'll include the evangelical church along with the Catholic here) may work to protect the "least of these," giving them deference in issues of policy-making will always mean sanctioning women's rights.

For more on this, don't miss the fantastic Sarah Posner who is blogging it well at ReligionDispatches.

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