We voted. Now the church votes. | Bleader

We voted. Now the church votes.

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Cardinals take part in a prayer at St. Peters basilica at the Vatican.
  • VINCENZO PINTO/Getty Images
  • Cardinals take part in a prayer at St. Peter's basilica at the Vatican.
A couple of passages jumped out at me as I read "U.S. Catholics in Poll See a Church Out of Touch," a front-page story in Thursday's New York Times.

The poll was taken by the Times and CBS News. There was this:

Majorities said they wanted to see the next pope maintain the church’s opposition to abortion and the death penalty, even though they themselves were not opposed to them. Three-quarters of Catholics supported abortion under at least some circumstances, and three-fifths favored the death penalty.

Which reflects what is to me something attractive in human nature: its appreciation of absolutes—in their place. If the church didn’t keep reminding us that abortion and the death penalty were evil, perhaps all us relativists would stop justifying them as sometimes the lesser evil, and instead begin endorsing them as some sort of good.

War, too.

And this:

The American bishops also appear to have lost ground among their own flock in their campaign to fight the White House rule that requires employers to provide insurance coverage for contraceptives—a campaign the bishops say is about religious freedom.

One year ago, two-thirds of Catholics polled said that religiously affiliated employers, like hospitals or universities, should be allowed to opt out of covering birth control for their female employees because of religious or moral objections. In the most recent poll, only about half of Catholics said they agreed.

The issue has become a political litmus test, with Catholic bishops and religious conservatives saying that their religious freedom is being threatened by President Obama's policies. But when asked what the debate is about, only 40 percent of Catholics polled said "religious freedom," while 50 percent said "women’s health and their rights"—an indication that Mr. Obama’s framing of the issue is holding sway even among many Catholics.

At times like ours, when the College of Cardinals is about to elect a new pope, the Catholic Church is much in the news, and non-Catholics such as me follow spellbound. I didn’t realize how close the church once came to abandoning its position on birth control until I read an essay by Garry Wills in the latest New York Review of Books.

Back in the 60s Pope Paul VI "appointed a commission of loyal and learned clerics and lay Catholics" to study the subject and advise him. Wills continues, "When it became clear that the commission was going to admit that 'natural law' arguments against contraception were groundless, the powerful head of the Holy Office, Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, injected new conservative bishops into the commission." And though even the revised commission didn’t change its view on contraception, Ottaviani persuaded Paul that the question was open and he should maintain precedent.

In the Catholic Church, precedent often presides cloaked as papal infallibility. In 1930 Pius XI had written an encyclical that pronounced the use of contraceptives a mortal sin (though it did say the enjoyment of sex was permissible). Wills tells us Ottaviani made the following case to Paul VI: "Catholics had borne the economic burden of famously large families or the guilt of living in sin by using contraceptives. Was the pope now going to say that a pope had misled them, that they were not really going to hell or did not have to have that eleventh child? That would destroy the papal claim to certain knowledge of God’s will in matters of basic morality."

Paul VI didn't want that. So in 1968 he gave his church a new encyclical, Humanae Vitae, that reimposed Pius XI's prohibition on new generations of Catholics who—in this country, certainly—have increasingly ignored it. Wills notes in a footnote: "In the most extensive survey ever undertaken of Catholics under thirty, funded by the Lilly Endowment in the 1990s, so few accepted 'church teaching' on contraception that pollsters could not register the number; it was proving so low as to fall within the margin of error. It was statistically nonexistent."

"Under 30 then," I thought when I read that. "Under 40 or 50 now."

Catholics do not, by such overwhelming numbers, support a formal reversal of their church's position. But the Times article reports that seven of ten Catholics surveyed want the next pope to "allow the use of artificial methods of birth control."

Who speaks for the church—popes and bishops by their pronouncements, or the laity by their behavior? Wills would/does say the laity. (He calls his new book Why Priests?) A year ago American bishops assailed President Obama over a federal requirement that employers offer employees medical plans that covered birth control. "We cannot—we will not—comply with this unjust law. People of faith cannot be made second class citizens because of their religious beliefs," Cardinal George said in a letter to parishioners. Wills was scornful. He wrote, "This is religious dictatorship, not religious freedom. 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."

Of course, reasonable people disagree. One of them is Charles Rice, professor emeritus of the Notre Dame law school, arguing last July in Crisis magazine that contraception "implies that there is such a thing as a human life not worth living—the life of the child whose existence the contraceptors choose to prevent." The problem with American bishops, in Rice's view, is that they've "miserably failed to educate Catholics and others" on Humanae Vitae and "generations of parishioners . . . are still paying the price." He went on to say, "If the State is above conscience so as to be able to compel one to violate the law of God, then the State is God. Obama can get away with such an edict only because the American people have lost their recognition of God's law as a rule of life."

Conservative Chicago newspaper columnists I read faithfully have not gone that far. They concede most Catholic women use contraceptives, and don't say it's out of ignorance. Even so, they square the circle. Dennis Byrne, who appears weekly in the Tribune, wrote a year ago when the contraceptive-coverage debate flared up that Catholics "recognize a blindly incoherent government assault on their community of priests and parishes when they see one," and so do "independent and thoughtful secularists that hold the Bill of Rights dear." Wrote Byrne, "Come November, Obama better hope that Americans have a short memory."

And the Sun-Times's Steve Huntley argued that "it's true that a majority of Catholic women may practice contraception despite church doctrine [but] that's not the issue. The Politico news site quoted aides as saying Obama acted out of his personal conviction and long-held belief that all health plans should provide birth control to women. Think about that: A politician is substituting his conscience over the conscience of a religious organization, its ordained leaders and its readings of its sacred scriptures. Talk about imperial presidency!"

And in the view of the Tribune's John Kass, the monster slithering toward Bethlehem was a "bureaucracy that by nature can consider neither soul nor sin, but only power and politics presented as reason." Kass went on, "Do Americans want access to contraceptives, and do some want abortion-inducing drugs? Of course, some do, and arguments have been made in support of such policy.

"But should Catholic hospitals be forced by the federal government to provide such abortion-inducing drugs and other birth control in violation of faith? Most Americans cringe at such a prospect. We see abusive federal power battering the church and we wonder, rightfully: What's next?"

February 2012, looked back at through the rear-view mirror of these pundits, was a time of national menace that can be compared to the October missile crisis of 1962. The continued existence of America as we know it hung in the balance. Yet the American people survived to go to the polls nine months later and reelect the president who'd put their way of life in such peril. Most Catholics voted for Obama.

And now a handful of men wearing scarlet will choose the next leader of the world’s billion Catholics. Elections are clarifying.

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