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Whatever else the recent blowup over the ACA contraception mandate might have shown, it's that Americans need a better epistemology. The news story has interested me on many levels and will probably pop up in blog posts from time to time. But one philosophical idea kept seeming to float to the forefront, at least in my mind as I read the different news stories. Namely, that the people participating in this debate seemed to be using concepts in very different ways. They weren't even consistent within the different sides.

This becomes clearer if you think about different groups. There was a lot of talk in left-leaning circles about "the 98%" – a statistic that 98% of sexually active Catholic women had used contraception at least once, and that a high number (I think in the neighborhood of 70-80%) used it regularly or were currently using it. The implication was that this meant Catholicism no longer had a major problem with birth control. I previously argued that religious institutions like the RCC don't operate like unions or PACs, where all you need for a position change is a new consensus view. The RCC, like all religious institutions represents its tradition, not the current view of all its members; and the members get to vote by agreeing to be a part of it or not.

So it's in the church's best interest to make its positions relevant to its members, through education and dialogue. I may not agree with the position (in point of fact I don't), but it's not my opinion – or any Catholic parishioner (which I'm not), or the majority opinion of those parishioners – that decides here. Here, what it means to be a Catholic is controlled by those people charged with interpreting and guarding Catholic tradition. The bishops and the rest of the Catholic hierarchy.

The liberals have it wrong here. I say this as a liberal! But on this particular point, they're off base.

Interestingly, they're also wrong on a related issue but for exactly the opposite reason. This one came up in the context of hearings on this same mandate. There was a bit of a brouhaha over the fact that there weren't any women on the first panel that appeared before the committee, and specifically that one witness who had been denied contraception by her Catholic employer that she needed for non-reproductive reasons wasn't allowed to testify. The charge of "Where were the women?" was pronounced immediately by Nancy Pelosi and soon went viral. I wasn't convinced even at first, because this particular hearing was over whether the mandate posed a challenge to religious freedom, and the woman they wanted to testify didn't have any comment on that particular issue. Do I wish the various religious groups had highlighted some of their female leaders (which do exist)? Yes, if only to drive home the point that religion is not all male-dominated, and that the lashback was tempered by an awareness of the reality women live. But the proposed witness was none of these things, and so I didn't feel excluded on those grounds.

It's what came next where things got really interesting. See, as it turns out there was a woman on the second panel that testified before the hearing (two in fact), but they didn't testify in favor of the mandate. So the idea that no women had testified was revamped a bit to say no women had testified for women. This irked me in the same way that the line that anti-abortion access laws are somehow a war against women. I don't like those laws, I find them insulting in their insinuation that women's decisions couldn't possibly be well-reasoned and I think some of them (like the recent narrow miss down in Virginia) are awful assaults on women and turn the doctor-patient relation on its head.

But I don't think attacks on them are a war on women, because lots of women do resent having reproduction labeled as an illness. Women tend to be among the most ardent pro-lifers, and they probably see abortion as an assault not only on a child but also on their way of life. I don't agree with them, but it is disenfranchising to them to suggest that unless you hold a certain view, you are not speaking for women or you're not a real women. Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann are women, and as much as I hate what they stand for on nearly every issue, they represent the viewpoints of many women.

The difference here is that "women" are not an institution like a church is. So here, you can't say you are protecting the institution of womanhood. If you were talking about a specific institution organized along gender lines (NOW, for instance) then, yes, we have a right to say that such-and-such a legislation is anti-NOW or against the interests of NOW. But the larger issue that a legislation is anti-woman? That only makes sense if you think of women as a monolithic group. We aren't that, and again the Democratic party is on the wrong end of it to suggest we are.

I've made my feelings on this mandate clear in recent posts, but that doesn't mean I can't recognize sloppy sentiments when I see them. Ironically, the left-leaning blogosphere is contradicting itself when saying on the one hand the RCC must take every member's position into account with no regard for history when determining the RCC's position, and then on the other hand that "women's issues" should only be decided by the "right" kind of women. Ironic that they get it wrong in both cases, really.  


( 16 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 26th, 2012 12:37 pm (UTC)
by those people charged with interpreting and guarding Catholic tradition. The bishops and the rest of the Catholic hierarchy.

Up to a point. In theory, the opinion of the faithful is supposed to have a role in the formulation of the church's position in council, but the issue of contraception was specifically banned from consideration at Vatican II. Someone who's following Newman's take on the question of infallibility/ dogma/ the teaching of the church would argue, I think reasonably, that this means that the church can't be said to have properly made up its mind on the subject, because it hasn't been given the chance to make up it's mind as a whole. (There are, of course, Catholics who would disagree strongly with this analysis of the situation, but it's not cut and dried and liberal Catholics have a stronger position than one might think).
Feb. 26th, 2012 07:34 pm (UTC)
That's an interesting approach. I would have thought that in a church with a strong hierarchy (as opposed to, say, the Southern Baptists, where the individual congregations and even members are supposed to make up their minds on dogma, at least in theory), once the hierarchy pronounces a certain judgment that has to be what the church as an institution believes is true. Which may be very different from what individual Catholics hold to be true as individuals.

That said, I haven't read Newman at all. I'd like to know more about how he defended that position before I dismiss it out of hand. As I said, it's very interesting.
Feb. 26th, 2012 03:40 pm (UTC)
I'm sorry, but no.
Just to say: I find it offensive that this entire controversy has been accepted as an issue of religious freedom because Issa and the reactionary right wing say that it is.

I see it as a case of playing two political minority groups - the Roman Catholic church hierarchy + reactionary Catholic perspectives and women outside of the "pro-life" (or rather, pro-birth) stance - to undermine workable health care for all of us. Both pro-choice and pro-religious liberty groups use the same atomizing libertarian ideology to talk about access to health care - which should be a universally guaranteed right - in terms of individual right to practice religion or individual right to control one's own individual (but no one else's) body. This kind of foundation is, in my assessment, incapable of framing health concerns in a workable, social and public fashion. It functions instead to keep us focused on issues of personal choice and freedom, is Christianizing illegtimately (where are the rabbis, pray tell? How about the right of Jews or other religious groups, or atheists, to realize their religious freedom? It is impossible not to notice how particular this issue of "religious freedom" is - and that is what we should be calling out, especially as Christians), and as a by-product of all this, it can initiate another destructive round of bash the bad Catholic church for being authoritarian.

Which it is, unfortunately, but saying "liberals have it wrong" because the Church is a tradition, and in that tradition, hierarchy determines doctrine and not the laity or some majority thereof - is also wrong. The Church hierarchy have succeeded in demoralizing and alienating a lot of us - and we have left our practice, though not necessarily our creed. Our abandonment of practice and ceding of ground to the reactionaries, however, does not mean that one can simply read off the actual power structure an uncontested normative power structure - it means a lot of us are demoralized by the total failure of hierarchical leadership and the lack of a dignified share of ecclesiastical control for laity where it counts. So yes - the Church hierarchy has in fact the apparatus of power. But also in fact, that hierarchical control is not uncontested - it's just that the majority of us contest it by abandoning practice because we don't have the stomach for that fight after the failure of '60s radicalism.

That being said, I would appreciate it, on behalf of my very militantly pro-laity Catholic cousins, on behalf of my friends and other family who want an active authoritative role for the laity in the Church, if criticism of liberals did not simply accept at face value the hierarchy's claim to embody "the tradition." Because to say the liberals have it wrong because you take at face value the hierarchy's claim that it *is* the tradition, is to imply to me and to my family and friends that those of my family and friends who are fighting do not exist as Catholics, that they are not really Catholic, that they are wrong as Catholics to fight because they are not the tradition - and I will not accept that that is true, because it is not. Respectfully, as a weak, non-practicing Roman Catholic, I would rather be shamed by the liberals on this issue with their admittedly often religiously tone-deaf ideology, than be defended liberally with acceptance of the hierarchy's reading of the RCC authority structure. Politically and morally, the liberals have it right to the degree that they want Catholics to fight as Catholics. They have it disrespectfully wrong to the degree that they may use Catholic statistics without involving actual Catholics in this fight - but I'd say that's the lesser sin in this case.

Edited at 2012-02-26 03:43 pm (UTC)
Feb. 26th, 2012 08:06 pm (UTC)
Re: I'm sorry, but no.
I think you misunderstood me. I agree with you, this issue isn't about religious liberty. And I would also agree with you that the bishops don't represent the sum total of the Catholic tradition. (Which didn't come through clearly in the blog post; I'm sorry about that.)

What I was reacting against is this argument I see made time and again by liberals dealing with this issue: to find out the "Catholic" position you should simply take a headcount of how many Catholics approve the use of birth control (measured by whether they personally chose to do it) and that determines the Catholic position on whether using birth control is immoral. That's a quite different case than the one are pointing to: that Catholic tradition is actually quite varied - as are most religions'! - and that people can fight over the tradition and shape it even if they aren't wearing the pointy hats.

I find this point offensive and troubling because I grew up in a religious tradition that went too much the other direction. I've heard some crazy things professed in the name of Christianity and the Bible by Protestants (evangelicals mainly but even there mainline brethren on occasion). For example, I have heard several Christians - though a minority - say that the melting of the polar ice caps isn't a real problem because God has promised he won't ever destroy the planet with a flood again. I find this dangerous and crazy theology, to say nothing of bad theology. But its sister view, that God will not allow the earth to become uninhabitable until history plays out, is more widespread and IMO equally wrongheaded. I would hate to think that if 51% or even 98% of Protestant Christians accepted either of those views, that would make it the authentic view of Protestantism.

None of that means you can't have a debate of a different kind. Protestants have church discipline councils, not entirely unlike the Catholic church hierarchy though not nearly as organized and influential, and I would hate to think that if the Methodist council agreed God would not allow global warming to destroy the earth, that would be the end of the story for my denomination. And I don't mind people asking what bearing Catholic dogma represents if it isn't representing the views of actual Catholics. But that's not the discussion that's happening. Every time liberals bring up the 98% statistic, they seem to be saying that the church position is determined by popular vote, which just seems wrongheaded and dangerous to me.
Feb. 27th, 2012 03:21 am (UTC)
Re: I'm sorry, but no.
Hi Marta -

The RCC, like all religious institutions represents its tradition, not the current view of all its members; and the members get to vote by agreeing to be a part of it or not.

This is the sentence that basically pushes me to respond as I do. I'm not seeing an unclear expression, I'm seeing one that's pretty clear. It's just that I cannot see a way of interpreting that other than by saying that if I want to be RCC, I can only do that by accepting that tradition as it is currently formulated by the religious institution - specifically, by the bishops who "represent" us. The tie you made here between the bishops and the tradition was simply too strong, and the position assigned to the laity is simply too congruent with the bishopric's self- understanding of its institutional position in relation to lay Catholics.

Going on to the critique of liberals' critique of Catholicism, though, I think the problem here is that the interpretation of what is Catholic is political, and we expect it to be... not that. We can politicize the RCC one way by saying saying that the Catholic position is represented by how many Catholics violate the reproductive decrees of bishops; we can politicize it another by saying that Catholicism is determined by "the tradition," as represented by the clerical hierarchy, not a popular vote. However, unless the latter critique is attached to some kind of actionable agenda in this context, in order to make that latter position something we can actually use against the power elite of this country, and that's both significantly different from either of the major positions in the debate already, I see the critique of liberalism as defaulting us to a political non-obstacle.

That I think makes it far more useful to the forces of reaction than to the forces in favor of a more humane hermeneutic and society, and that I just can't take, given that the Church hierarchy is already committed to dragging its members down with them into a reactionary tailspin. The best defense of the plurality of the RCC as a tradition is not contesting the liberal view of the representative function of the Church hierarchy, it's spurring the many Catholics who don't accept Church teaching on birth control to find some way to act on their non-acceptance.

I say this because I think there's a reasonable case to be made that one can articulate all the decrees one wants and say they constitute the institutional identity, but what a majority of believers *are actually doing* can be as valid a way of determining what is "Catholic" (or Jewish, or Methodist, or American, or atheist, or whatever) as the self-articulated self-understanding of an institutional representative, or a minority body. There are contexts when it is appropriate to argue in that way about identity. Critique is often that appropriate context - when one tries to shake a group or a person out of complacent self-definition, or out of bad faith self-definition.

Now as I said, to the degree that secularizing democratic liberals simply appropriate that split among clerical hierarchy and a large number of lay people without urging the latter to make their failure to comply politically relevant by explaining why it is appropriate as a Catholic to disagree with the hierarchy, then yes, there's a problem; but I contend it's still the lesser sin than Catholics failing to counter in action their Church hierarchy.
Feb. 26th, 2012 04:34 pm (UTC)
I wish the mandate was for "well care" not "preventative care"
Just because pregnancy is "normal" doesn't mean it's without medical repercussions. Which is where "don't call pregnancy an illness" goes towards.

And the Catholic hierarchy idea of pregnant women -- where the bishops (not the hospitals) -- going on a rant about the abortion that saved a woman's life, I forget the state, was the same as saying: if a woman's body can't sustain a pregnancy, then better she's culled. The word usage of "pastoral care" and "flock" is one of "human husbandry".

"Where are the women?" was, I believe, a licit question because the is hiding their misogyny & classism behind their religion. If you follow the money, I believe that the healthcare act is funded by a tax that applies mostly to the rich. Despite the fact that they're corporate welfare cheats and take from the system they don't want to pay their fair share. Besides, the more burdens the state can put on the poor means it's easier to profit from them & they're too vulnerable to fight back.

And I'm writing about politics rather than discussing your point, ... but I'm afraid trying to take their position "seriously" is politically dangerous because that means participating in their distraction. They aren't arguing in good faith (pun intended).

Feb. 26th, 2012 09:41 pm (UTC)
Re: I wish the mandate was for "well care" not "preventative care"
I don't disagree with a lot of what you're saying. There is misogyny and classism hiding behind the way a lot of people use religious dogma in fights like this. But the way to handle that issue is to, you know, address the issue. The whole question of what proportion of Catholic women accepted this doctrine in their lives was a distraction, and a dangerous one. And the claim that a woman testifying before the committee on an issue unrelated to the central point, are there religious freedom problems with the law, is also a dangerous distraction. It seems to say that is that witness had been allowed to testify, that the issues of sexism in religion would have been addressed.

Put it another way: the problem with the committee wasn't that it didn't look at the impact this law had on women's health. The problem was that it didn't address the central question, is this law forcing one group's moral or religious ideas on people who don't accept it? The gender of the people testifying is really irrelevant to that point.

(As I explained to Dwim above, I don't think this is a religious freedom issue. But acting like the "truth" of Catholic or any other group doctrine is decided by popular vote doesn't really prove that fact.)
Feb. 27th, 2012 02:15 am (UTC)
The question of validity, approached obliquily
Since this is politics, not religion or philosophy ... the woman who was not allowed to testify *absolutely* had testimony related to the central point.

Someone who agrees with the talking point that Washington does have a "War Against Religion" is hard to convince otherwise. It's a tactical decision to focus on "Catholics in general don't believe that" rather than "this is religious overreach" because it's easier to PROVE "Catholics in general don't agree with the bishops/pope about birth control".

Instead of "it's persecution!" "No it isn't!" "Yes it is!" that can't be won, the oblique attack of "that isn't popularly accepted doctrine" is a stronger tactice to question the validity of not only whether the bishops can claim there is religious persecution when their congregations aren't being harmed. In addition, it's calling into question the whole non-democratic nature of what the bishops are claiming their religion is.

Someone who would stand would the bigotry without any self-reflection if the argument is Yes! No! Yes! might find reason to question the politics if the unfairness is approached obliquely.

I'm reminded of a discussion on a totally different topic where someone was trying to win the arguement by stating "USA stole the land from Mexico" -- and the other side just laughed and replied what did that have to do with the question of land tenure of farmers that were on the same land for generations? Some questions are illegitimate on their face.
Feb. 26th, 2012 06:46 pm (UTC)
I'm with Dwim in saying that I think it's problematic to accept the claim of the Catholic hierarchy to speak for "the Church"; the hierarchy is male, celibate (theoretically), and a tiny minority numbers-wise. They may speak for the rules of the church, but that doesn't mean they speak for the members as a group. Ordinary Catholics need to be given their voice as well.

Reproduction is not an illness... but having a child can kill you. This is why is is extremely important to have women who understand this point, and why therefore contraception is so important, to be allowed to speak to that point. No, women are not a monolithic group, but to deny the varied perspectives - to only allow women who are anti-contraception coverage - to speak is wrong too.
Feb. 26th, 2012 10:37 pm (UTC)
I think it's problematic to accept the claim of the Catholic hierarchy to speak for "the Church"; the hierarchy is male, celibate (theoretically), and a tiny minority numbers-wise. They may speak for the rules of the church, but that doesn't mean they speak for the members as a group.

This right here is precisely why it's so important to get our concepts straight. Is the church supposed to be representing the opinions of everyone who calls themselves a Catholic? If you're prepared to accept that logic, then you should also be prepared to say that if all the churches in the DC rally decided to attend the upcoming Reason Rally, that the Reason Rally would be a Christian event because the majority of the people in attendance would be Christians. There seems something deeply wrong with that line of thought to me. Institutions and organizations have their own kind of structure, and people then have the choice which of those institutions to affiliate with.

On the other hand, if the church doesn't have to represent its members' viewpoints, then it's wrong to let that institution stand in for representing so many million citizens when we're discussing policy. Either religious institutions represent their members' actual views, or they don't. I do have major problems with saying that a group that demographically is in the minority can represent the full experience of Catholicism; but the way to fix that is to bring in people who are working with the same tradition but are influenced by other demographics (for instance, women or gay people or married people with families showing that Catholic doctrines can be read in a different way) - not to just point to the fact that the majority of the Catholic women don't live out their practice in their life.
Feb. 26th, 2012 10:48 pm (UTC)
No, "the Church" does NOT have to represent the opinions of all Catholics - and for precisely that reason, its official statements should be IGNORED COMPLETELY when it comes to public policy. It simply DOES NOT MATTER what a religious institution says about a secular, governmental decision. Separation of church and state, all the way.
Feb. 26th, 2012 06:49 pm (UTC)
Oh, and I do not see how all these attempts to control women's reproduction *from the outside*, i.e. to have others make their decisions - EVEN IF SOME OF THOSE OTHERS ARE ALSO WOMEN - can be construed as anything other than a "war on women", an attempt to return women to second-class status. EVERY woman must speak for herself and make her own choices. Palin and Bachmann's ideas are not mine, but the difference is not just the outcome, it is the respect we have or lack for other women. I respect their right to their own beliefs and decisions, but they do not respect mine or that of any other woman who is pro-choice.
Feb. 29th, 2012 07:52 am (UTC)
Palin and Bachmann and their ilk are fighting in a war against OTHER women. Of course whatever they do is OK. See also: Mrs. Santorum and her "stillbirth," which would be called an "abortion" if a Democrat had the exact same kind of emergency procedure that she did.
Feb. 29th, 2012 10:38 pm (UTC)
Too true. Or a poor woman, or a woman of color...
Feb. 27th, 2012 03:22 am (UTC)
The thing is, the "religious freedom" argument is increasingly one that's predominantly used by the powerful against the less powerful, in order to keep the less powerful in that state.

There is no serious threat of any kind to Christianity in the United States. There never has been, and it's hard to foresee how there ever could be in the next century. But that is the rhetoric that the people leading this attack on birth control are using--and that attack in itself has to be understood in the context of a much larger attack on any kind of health care funding that is in any way shared by a large pool of people instead of "every man for himself."

One of the most offensive elements of this whole debate is that employers do not, and should not, have the rights to dictate what kinds of medical care their employees receive. That is unreasonably intrusive - and if you frame this in terms of women's health care, which includes various treatments of the reproductive organs, this means an employer has the right to scrutinize and make judgments about female workers' bodies in a way they do not presume to for male workers.

For example: I was on the Pill from ages 19 to 32. It was prescribed for me as a treatment for endometriosis, and it was a very good one - cut the pain in half, lessened my overly-heavy flow, shrank my internal scar tissue, and regulated my hormones so that I didn't produce nearly as much excess bad stuff as I would have without it. Without it, I would have been in a lot more agonizing pain every month, I probably would have required a lot more surgical procedures than the one I had, and would be in a much worse position with regards to adhesions and scarring and benign but painful growths than I am now.

Did I ever want to have to sit down and tell my fucking boss why three different doctors told me I needed the Pill? Was it any of his goddamn business? Is it any employer's business what's going on with any employee's internal organs?

To a non-Christian, it's irrelevant whatever any members of any Christian domination think of anything. That's insider trading or fantasy football or Pepsi vs. Coke; intrafaith debates about BC are interesting on a spectator level, but mean exactly buggerall in terms of my own life, at least how I would choose to live it if I weren't dependent on the existence of a certain level of economic justice. Economic justice means at least the potential of something resembling a vaguely level playing field...or at least one with gently rolling hills, not Death Valley vs. Annapurna.

You won't get that in a world where wealthy and powerful people are using "freedom of religion" as a rallying cry to defend their right to refuse to "comfort the sick" whom they deem unworthy.
Feb. 29th, 2012 10:40 pm (UTC)
WORD to this.
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