A Losing Strategy

The U.S. Bishops' Campaign Against the Contraception Mandate

What are the U.S. Catholic bishops really arguing about with the Obama administration? Is it religious liberty, as they insist? Is it contraception and sterilization, as the headlines in my archdiocesan paper stress? Is it a desire, conscious or unconscious, to reassert their authority after the dog days of the sexual-abuse scandal? Is it simply anti-Obama prejudice? Maybe it’s all of the above, and then some: perhaps they just lack astute advisers. In any event, the daunting task of explaining the Catholic bishops to others and to oneself has come a cropper. They are digging a hole from which they may never emerge.

Of course, the Obama administration did itself no favors when it tried to define what was and was not a religious institution for the purposes of the exemption. That definition, written into an HHS regulation issued in early January, required that nonexempt religiously sponsored institutions provide their employees insurance coverage for contraception and sterilization. Only houses of worship and parish schools were exempt from providing such coverage; religiously sponsored colleges and universities, hospitals, and social-service agencies were not. In failing to provide an accommodation for religiously affiliated institutions, the administration did not run afoul of the First Amendment, but it did unite Catholics of all stripes in protest—at least temporarily.

That uproar got the administration’s attention, after which there has been much backpedaling. A new “Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking,” issued March 16, has the tone of “whatever you want, just tell us.” The new proposal does not rescind but minimizes the previous differentiation between exempt and nonexempt religious institutions, rejecting any implication that only some have a genuinely religious mission and emphasizing that any definition determined for purposes of contraceptive coverage will have no application or precedent for other federal policies. The proposal turns cartwheels to protect Catholic institutions, including the self-insured, from direct responsibility for providing contraceptive coverage—it has insurance companies or some other third party handle it.

Still, perhaps mistaking the initial Catholic protest for a standing army, the bishops continue to say no to Obama. Yes, they’ve left the door open for further negotiations—but just a crack. Unless they widen that opening, they will seize certain defeat from the jaws of near victory.

Who does the USCCB’s fervor and intransigence actually represent? Is it the view only of the bishops at the forefront of the public protest, while the many dutifully stand back in the name of consensus? How can so many otherwise prudent and experienced bishops remain silent? Why has the conference been so implacable, even going so far as to move the goal posts by demanding that any business owner be able to opt out on religious grounds? It’s difficult to see the merits of this expanding Constitutional argument. And politically it makes no sense: Why would anyone expect the Obama administration to remove contraception and sterilization from mandated health-care services (as the bishops and Rush Limbaugh seem to demand)? Constitutionally, the bishops’ claim that “the government has no place defining religion and religious ministry” doesn’t hold up. While U.S. legal tradition favors government restraint in this area, at some point the organs of democratic government must decide whether to grant, say, tax exemptions to the Church of Scientology or to the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

While the March 16 proposals continue to give women access to contraception and sterilization coverage, objecting religious institutions and the bishops are off the “material cooperation” hook because they won’t have to provide it directly. Yes, some problems remain. But isn’t this how policy-making goes in a pluralistic society?

Indeed, this could have ended in a victory for the bishops on a teaching most adult Catholics don’t accept, even if they defend their bishops’ right to insist on it. The bishops might have kept their army intact if the mandate had been about abortion (it isn’t, despite the USCCB’s repeated claim that some contraceptives are abortifacients). But the bishops march on, seemingly oblivious to the damage they are doing to their already diminished authority, as well as to their credibility on matters that need a vigorous and rational voice: immigration, unemployment, poverty, the threat of war with Iran, and assisted suicide (on the ballot in Massachusetts).

On the issues that the bishops seem to count as paramount—the legal right to contraception, abortion, and same-sex marriage—they have already lost the cultural argument, even with many Catholics. Seeking to reverse a cultural defeat through political muscle is a misbegotten strategy. Losing an argument is not a disgrace. But losing because you’re fighting in the wrong arena? That’s just dumb.

Related: Partisan Dangers, by the Editors
Simplifying Sex, by Jo McGowan

About the Author

Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal, writes frequently in these pages and blogs at dotCommonweal.



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The bishops were forced into this, Margaret.  They can't back down, because the principle, at this moment in Church time, is rock solid.  A hundred years from now the Church may have moved on, but we're not there yet, and pretending we are would be to let a callow kid president change our theology.  That would be ridiculous, not to mention unconscionable.

Of course, if the bishops stick to their guns, the American Church may have to considerably reduce its ability to help the socially disenfranchised, but it should not compromise its principles just  to be allowed to keep sucking at the public teat.


You are correct. However, the issue is freedom of religion disguished around the doctrine of contraception, et al. While the bishops mount an army of defence, spend millions of dollars, all in the name of moral principle, they ignore the contradiction between the word (doctrine) and deed (pastoral practices), especially around issues of contraception.

Heoric virtue can be a commendable behavior if prudently reasoned. It is indeed heroic that the bishops are steadfastly holding to their sacred beliefs. At the same time, they do not practice the virtue of courgage or bravery when they remain silent at the pulpit, and in Church bulletins about the requirement to confess contraception as a sin, obtain absolution, before receiving the Eucharist....otherwise it is a sacrilige.

Every priest and bishop understand that most young marrired couples who stand in line each week to receive the Eucharist practice some form of contraception. They rarely, if ever, confess this as a sin. Yet, there is no reminder, or catechesis about the requirements of receiving the Eucharists that these same bishops issued as guidelines to all US diocese. Rarely do we hear anything about an informed conscience, how to form it, what is required if one disagrees with a church doctrine..etc. In fact, according to the late JP II, disagreement with Humanae Vitae was not a matter of conscience because in Vertitatis Spendor he asserted that what has been taught is what every Catholic conscience should know.

Could the silent pulpit be heroic virtue because silence will prevent many Catholics from leaving the Church along with their financial contributions? I think not. Virtue means to form a good habit. If so, the bishops will want to put the same amount of time, energy and resources into correcting the contradiction between doctrine and pastoral practices, and truly guide the people of God according to their moral principles that they steadfastly honor.


Michael, you're right.  But to preach sexual continence to all Catholics in this country in this day and age would be suicidal. Among Catholics, the bishops finesse it as best they can.  It's a sad dilemma.

Alas, Obama has put pressure on them from outside, pressure that they cannot finesse.  The cultural sea change that can and must be fuzzed over within the Catholic community cannot be fuzzed over when the threat is external.  Sexual continence is still Church teaching and a significant number of Catholics remain faithful to it.  To cave in on this to secular pressure from Washington would betray both the institutional Church and those Catholics who still practice what it teaches.

If the blogger who said that Washington is falling all over itself to please the bishops is right, we can expect a happy outcome.  I'm skeptical, though, that the President can please both bishops, on the right, and the progressives and sexual modernists, on the left.  And in the coming election, he can't afford to displease his base.

David Smith writes, " But to preach sexual continence to all Catholics in this country in this day and age would be suicidal."  Cowardice or hypocrisy?  The real reason they would not take such measures is that the collection plate would dry up.

Good grief.  The USCCB are making this into the case of the century, after virtually igoring similar mandates at the State level for 15 years.

What's being mandated?  That private insurance companies be required to enter into purely private contracts (not involving the employer) between themselves and individuals who want contraception riders to provide such riders at no added cost. Given that these riders are projected to pay for themselves, and given that there has been no outcry from the insurance companies to the contrary, this seems an entirely reasonable solution. And, in any event, these health insurance policies represent earned income for the employees in question, and not some sort of gift from the employer who provides them. 

Exactly who's conscience is being assaulted?  Who's religious freedom is being abridged?  Churches themselves are exempt.  Major employers involved (Catholic hospitals) have allegedly given their OK (Sr. Carol Keehan and the Catholic Health Association hospitals).

It still smells like an attempt by the Bishops to get scuttle Justice Department investigations into abuse cover ups and concealment of assets to escape the terms of settlement contracts.

- Larry Weisenthal/Huntington Beach CA



You are correct that the bishops are not finessing with Washington, but that is the point. They are taking a moral stand based on principle.

However, they are being deliberately and willfully silent, about the teaching of contraception. Silence is not fineseing. They will not preach what they proclaim as divine law, namely that contraception is intrinsically evil, a grave moral sin, and that Catholics must confess this sin, obtain absolution, before receiving the Eucharist. Full stop. They tend to cowardice and cave into the fear of a dramatic uproar from every parish and more pressure than they want to handle.

They point to the narrative, the doctrine, and say we have proclaimed the truth and encourage NFP-PC. Yet, in practice they remain silent about conscience and the requirements for the reception of the Eucharist, because they don't want dialogue, confrontation or the consequences that would follow. I find their behavior hypocritical and contradictory.


I can only marvel at the seeming sophistication of the earlier comments by David Smith and Michael Barberi. Reading their measured remarks I found myself a little adrift. The discussion began to feel like that of two movie critics, neither of whom could not possibly demonstrate the craft of a script writer or screen director - but nonetheless felt comfortable providing the most detailed criticism of someone else's work.

Of course if the theology is settled once and for all, as each of these gentlemen takes for granted, then there isn't much left to talk about except matters of peripheral significance. Peripheral that is to the central issue - sex is one of the messy givens of life's existence on this planet - it will never submit to a prescriptive and foreordained (pun intended) rendering of use and misuse; it requires life-long on the job training; and the skills welcomed by a sixty something, will always differly vastly from those of an adolescent.

Talk of making a perfect confession depresses me. Faith-inspired reflection, on the actual events of one's life, is after all what that examination of conscience preceeding the Sacrament of Reconciliation (not Sin-Telling) is all about. Entering the confessional unprepared to examine things in one's life that might want to be reframed would seen to undo the signifying of the telling itself - lots of room for imperfection in that short chain of events.

No, the naked, six hundred pound gorilla in the room is the reality that the Bishops have devolved into the same monolithic adversarialism exhibited by the Republican Caucuses in Congress. These "my way or the highway" "self-ordained leaders" are simply old-fashioned totalitarian dictators - we've seen them often in the Catholic Church over the Centuries. Their periodic power grabs go back milleniums before American Democracy.

Pointing to minor political bumps on the current Administration's road of governance - as if on a par with the mendacity of some Churchman and their political allies - has given this meaningless saga far more journalistic legs than it deserves. It seems clear that some are quite content to graze smuggly in the shadow of their bishops - how regretable.

That some supposedly earnest Catholics in the 21st Century would advocate that the American Church forego its social justice mission so that Bishops can keep from soiling their ornate and expensive surplices is mindless and might give cause for prayerful self-reflection along the Way to Reconciliation.

I think there are a couple of important aspects of the issue glaringly missing from this article.

The first is that, from a policy standpoint, the accommodation does not exist.  The original HHS mandate is the one that is going to go into effect.  The accommodation announced by the Administration is only under consideration for future revisions to the mandate.  The accommodation is not policy and is not guaranteed to be policy in the future.  This means, as of now, the Administration will still be requiring religious institutions to pay for the coverage. 

Second, we can argue about whether hormonal birth control has the potential to act as an abortifacient.  Their literatuce says that it does (it says that it prevents implantation, that an abortifacient), but the science is less clear.  But the reality is that the mandate includes coverage for emergency contraception which *does* act as an abortifacient.  So, the mandate requires that Cathoilc institutions fund abortion, plain and simple.

Third, I find the blanket assertion that the mandate doesn't violate the First Amendment or Religious Liberty to be astounding.  It requires people and institutions of faith to act against their faith.  How is that not a violation of religious liberty?  Appeals to a pluralistic soceity don't cut it here.  It is true that there are plenty of examples where religious liberty has been legitimately circumscribed.  But these are always done by balancing rights.  A right can only be circumscribed by a superior right.  So, right to life of a gravely ill child trumps the right of her parents to religious freedom.  The only way to say that this mandate does not violate religious liberty is to say that the right to have someone else pay for your contraception is a superior right to religious liberty.

As to why the bishops are taking a stand here, I think it is pretty clear.  They see the writing on the wall.  The Church has responded to a multitude of other federal and state regulations through reconfiguring the structure of institutions and quiet capitulation.  But it just keeps advancing.  If we do not draw a line, the intrusion on our religious liberty is just going to continue.  This issue is so clear cut, it makes it an easy line to draw.  Despite the way the Republicans want to cast it as a Conserative issue, and the way the Administration wants to cast it as a women's heath issue - how mandating converage for something classified as a Class 1 carcinigen by the WHO is a women's health issue makes no sense for the life of me - and the way the culture warriors want to cast this as a sex issue, this is a religious liberty issue.

I think the writers of Commonweal need to take something to heart.  If the mandate is not defeated, then the precedent is set, the government has the authority.  You might trust those in power now and the way that they would use it.  But what about the next administration?  How would a President Perry use this authority to dictate to faiths? or a President Santorum?  Any time you grant an authority to government, you have to consider not how your side would use it, but how the other side would use it.

I'm always amazed to read comments that suggest that if the secular health and family services complex does not exempt Catholic institutions from following mandates and regulations that require them to indirectly (or even directly) participate in programs that countenance policies that go against Church teachings, that they are going to take their ball and go home when it comes to running hospitals, universities, or family services programs. While the bishops feel that curbing their ability to follow through on conscience issues like artificial birth control or letting same sex couples adopt children is an infringement on the full religious rights of said Catholic institutions, to threaten to pull the plug on other vital services that those institutions provide to the public is in my view unconscionable. While the teachings on birth control and homosexuality (to cite just two areas of contention right now) would ideally be respected by the state, if they aren't, the bishops are just going to let our much more fundamental Christian responsibilities to minister to the poor, the sick, the imprisoned be overwhelmed by what I would call minor infringements in these other areas? So the poor will suffer and any esteem our Church still has in this country will be forfeit because the bishops can't get everything they want from a state that represents a pluralistic society in its policies? How could they even think of this threat and look themselves in the face afterwards?

Excellent colloquy.  But the argument on behalf of moral principle is fatally eclipsed in my view by the blatant revelation of personal animus embodied in a comments such as, "callow kid president."  (I'd be curious to know how Mr. Smith might have characterized JFK, or whether callowness might not more properly be applied to the behavior of this president's warmongering predecessor, a fellow who took evident pride in refusing to admit error or alter a presidential decision.)  No, this argument partisan politics masquerading as a dedication to moral principle.  It might even be latent racism.  It certainly is elsewhere on the right, with the exception of the word latent.  

For pure reason I give you Mr. Weisenthal above.  But of course you can't win an argument with facts when fighting on somebody's home turf of emotion.




How exactly is Obama forcing the bishops to do anything?  With regard to the HHS mandate that insurance companies cover contraceptives, dioceses, churches and schools were, from the very beginning, exempt.  Clearly, the Obama administration took it for granted that churches that object to contraception on principle should be exempt from the mandate.  No government official tried to assert the opposite; there is no evidence at all that this "callow kid President" or anybody else intended to attack the bishops' religious liberty.  Again, on the contrary, they were declared exempt!

I bring up the obvious only because an alien reading what the bishops have been saying -- i.e., all the harsh rhetoric about an attack on religious liberty and "principle," the references to Obama as Nazi-like in his "demands," etc. -- might easily conclude just the opposite, i.e., that the bishops themselves and all the churches were being forced to participate in some grave and horrific sin.

The compromise worked out with regard to non-diocesan organizations such as Catholic hospitals, universities and social agencies whereby insurance companies and non-Catholic (i.e., non-objecting) employees can deal directly for contraceptive coverage, leaving the institutions themselves off the hook, as it were, no matter what you think of it, is hardly the work of a government seeking to deny people their constitutional rights.  If anything, it shows a government sensitive to the rights of everybody involved, including the majority of employees of such organizations who are not Catholic.   While the leaders of these organizations have reacted mostly positively to the compromise, the bishops' hostility seems to know no bounds. 

To claim it's the principle of the thing seems a real stretch.  What principle?  Religious liberty?  Whose?  And how so?

Add to all this rhetoric about "principle" the fact that most women (over 50% according to studies) who use hormonal contraceptives aren't using them for contraception anyway, and you may see why so many women resent the bishops making such a fuss over insurance coverage to begin with.  Hormonal contraceptives, the most often medically prescribed form of contraception, the kind that can run up large bills over the course of a year without insurance coverage, are used now to treat virtually all conditions that used to be called "female trouble," from endometriosis and ovarian cysts to cancer prevention after ovarian and uterine malignancies.  To consider the alleged right *not* to cover such medications such an important matter of principle, and to so cavalierly toss around the unproven allegation that these pills are abortifacients to boot, seems at the very least insenitive to women. 

After the monumental insensitivity they showed toward the laity in their handling of child-abusing priests, you'd think they'd think twice before making such a fuss over what is essentially a woman's issue.  Again, this is not about anybody interfering with their rights; they're exempt. If anybody stands to lose something here, it's women, not dioceses, not churches....but women who have the misfortune to work for bishops or any of the organizations they are successful in getting declared exempt.

Mr. Mullen:

I am happy that you have marveled over my comments, as I yours. Perhaps, my remarks were not clear enough. If so, I take full responsibility for it.

1. I don't believe that the Obama mandate will stand. In fact, I believe the Supreme Court will strick down the individual mandate making ObamaCare somewhat superfluous. The contraceptive mandate is flawed for a number of reasons, the least of which is religious liberty, but also the forcing of third party administrators of self-funded health plans to provide contraceptive coverage at no cost to the plan sponor or employee, with no ability to receive finanical renumertion for such costs and services. This will be surely be challenged in a Court of Law.

2. Confession, or the sacrament of reconciliation, has not changed since the Council of Trent. It continues to be an act-centered theology. Penitants are required to examine their consciences in light of church doctrine and confess any act that is in violation of these teachings. The USCCB issued guidelines concerning the reception of the Eucharist and made clear that acts of contraception were clearly intrinsically evil. No mention of the judgment of an informed conscience, I may add. Therefore, the theology of such teachings are closed from the Roman Curia's point of view, but these teachings are not closed to most Catholics. 

3. My point was not a direct, but an indirect and most important point because it involved moral principles both of word and deed. Thus, my example of contradiction. 

4. Lastly, I do agree with your explication of the Church's adolescence argument that "it is my way, or the highway" or I will take my toys and go elsewhere and leave my other responsbilities behind despite the suffering that would ensue. Indeed, as the bishops make their Way to Reconciliation, they will not likely recognize how their behavior individually and as a group, are in some ways contradicatory and inconsistent.

Meanwhile this chattering over sexual matters will continue to drive away the young and women in our flocks who are struggling with their fertility while our economy is in the tank. All over Europe, people have become comfortable with a non invasive theology of the bedroom that simply ignores preaching about the real and often mostly imagined issues. No one seems to advocate that a woman have 20 pregnancies during her child-bearing years. It is hard to believe anyone really suscribes to the theology that any preventative process of birth control is sinful. It is only on the margins (iud, morning after pill, etc) that deeper questions persist and there is inadequate science to know for sure. Continuing to insist on their absolutes, the bishops have come very close to making themselves just plain irrelevant. Perversely, as much as it seems to be an unfair hit on Obama and the Democrats, it may lead to an overwhelming electoral victory against the far right and superciliousness. Freedom of conscience may become the central issue.

Mr. Barberi,

I would concede quite readily that your remarks are, in their entirety, clear - that is not my issue. However, your notion of Reconciliation continues to baffle me - if the answers are all clearly laid out in Doctrine where does the conscience come in? Perhaps its because as Ms. Bailey pointed out the use of hormonal supplements with contraceptive outcomes also serve many other - presumably licit - curative and health maintenance purposes.

Scott Peck observed that mental health in modern life appears to depend upon nurturing a Tolerance for Ambiguity. It is the deficient capacity for such Tolerance among the bishops, particularly when they act monolithically, that horrifies many laypersons who are both broadly well-educated and accomplished across an extraordinary range of Creation's beauties to behold.

Most of these contemporary Christians deal with moral and ethical ambiguity - in light of faith that is continually re-examined - much more frequently than the weekly Sacramental observances. The world moves a good deal faster than in pre-modern times; inputs to sound judgment are often a blur and yet choices must be made. The simplistic appeal to guides of black and white do a disservice to those who would like to hear more honest reflection from their churchmen (and dare I say women).

If most Catholic's understanding of Creation were no more advanced than science, or even exegesis, at the time of Trent then I'd long ago been burned at the stake and we wouldn't be bantering. I of course am greatful that today issues of heresy are approached a little less didactically (not to the preference of all of course).

If God created a universe with both ignorance and ambiguity isn't it about time that we let go of the myth that "what's right, and what's wrong" is to had consumming a single fruit from Eden's Tree of Narcissism? A good place to start might be rolling back the heinous restrictions on the religous freedom of American Nuns who lead the way in that fundamental Christian domain of environmental and social justice.

Even though I don't agree with the views of "wineinthewater" I appreciate his(?) best case justification of the moral arguments of the bishops.  I hope that his theological integrity underlies their position, but I doubt it.

The bishops are managing many institutions in a time of social change when the flock has become diverse.  They need federal and state dollars to support their institutions. However as is common, those $ change the ethos and even ethics of the institution.  This is not just true of health care as someone suggested, but also in services to the poor and needy.

Is it possible that the bishops imagine that they are playing to their base, the people who will agree with the theological rationale presented by wineinthewater, such as the Knights of Columbus.  Is it possible that the bishops' position is not about winning a battle with the Obama administration only, but increasing strength of support from those they perceive as their base.  Maybe they are trying to recreate the image of an immigrant church under attack from secularists, such as Pres. Obama, in order to increase their power and backing.

This is how I see the current stridency of Bishop Lori...not an argument about morality or ethics but a strategy to strengthen the institution.  If he succeeds, he will get a promotion.  Unfortunately, Margaret O'Brien Steinfeld and most of the respondents here don't seem to see this aspect of these events.

Mr. Mullins:

You and I are on the same page and I am equally baffled by your remarks. I never said that the current theology of reconciliation was free from error or should not be revised. Nor did I say I agreed with it as formulated. You read my comments, but failed to understand. I only spoke of what the Church teaches. Catholic theology sees conscience as the subjective norm of morality. Conscience is defined as the last practical "judgment of reason which at the appropriate moment enjoins [a person] to do good and to avoid evil"....one should "never" go against their informed conscience as Gaudiaum et specs makes clear.

On the other hand, JP II in Vertitatas Spendor proclaimed that what the Church teaches, especially about contraception, is what every Catholic conscience ought to know. Accordingly, the magisterium is the guide, the sole arbitrator and the absolute moral truth, without remainder. Where is the freedom of an informed conscience in this theology?

JP II believed many of his clergy, and most theologians and Catholic laity were infected with some type of evil of the secular world that distorted their reason. Absurd? You make the call.

It is also clear that Catholics deal with moral dilemma and conflict, caused in part by the Church's teachings on sexual ethics, by constant prayer, receipt of the sacraments, respect for the magisterium, the guidance of their religious counselors, and their informed consciouses. There is not enough teaching on forming a conscience correctly or how one is to go about dealing with a disagreement in conscience with a church doctrine. Why? Because the Church has an exaggerated fear that Catholics may misunderstand, and tend to individualism and relativism. So, they stick to normative ethics and moral absolutes despite the sufferings, moral dlemma and conflict that some teachings cause.  It is clear from history, that all teachings not received were reformed. There is a theology of reception, but it will take a very long time for the Church to reform its ecclesiology and specific doctrines.

There was always, and will continue to be a theology of morality, what is right and wrong, good and evil. The truth never changes, but our understanding of the truth, as history has demonstrated, is progressive. This does not mean Catholics should pick and choose their doctrines to suit their individual needs and circumstances, but it does mean that we must never go against our informed consciences, even if we make a mistake.

I hope this gives you a better insight into what I write so you will not be so baffled. As mentioned, I think we agree on more things than what you imply.

Mr. Barberi,

Thanks for the details of clarification. As the product of a Jesuit education (some 45 years ago to be sure) I believe I'm following both the content and the form of your reports. At Rockhurst I learned how to learn and have never lost my enthusiasm for it - I'm still doing my best to read with care and reason with both respect for the acquired and curiosity about the unanticipated.

Perhaps my most exciting discoveries those years since college have been in the domain of neuroscience. The bio-physics of neurons ultimately provides the physical substrate from which our awareness of matters ethical and moral emerge. I wish I could say that the architecture of traditional Catholic moral theology appears consilient with the "natural law" evident in massively parallel, massively social, rarely above habitual, human behavior in groups.

I'm not there yet - my basic problem is what to do with orthodoxy - not received wisdom that is readily confirmable mind you, but the insistence that there are aspects of knowing ("what every Catholic conscience ought to know") that are so fixed as to be immune from confusion in the press of ordinary and sometime extra-ordianry circumstances.

And further, that being so fixed, these "truths" are salient - not just to the individual's conscience but amidst a group (passersby at the scene of an emergent instance of street crime or child abuse) as to promptly inform a Christ-like response.

You noted: "Why? Because the Church has an exaggerated fear that Catholics may misunderstand, and tend to individualism and relativism. So, they stick to normative ethics and moral absolutes despite the sufferings, moral dlemma and conflict that some teachings cause."

The state of orthodoxy in exaggerated fear of ambiguous facts (and fuzzy truths) is called Group Think - its a form of collective dysfunction. The notion of "political base" as its come to be used all too commonly in America is a fig leaf adorning Group Think - it is and always has been a tool of tyranny - find the most excitable, tell them what to be afraid of (that only you understand) and direct them at your enemies.

I'm satsified in my life studies thus far that strict hierarchies are an aberrant form of governance in the vast majority of instances. In practice they are the most individualistic and secular of all institutional arrangements - its just that only the 0.1% "individuals" at the top are the beneficiaries of this arrangement. In this day and age military doctrine readily acknowledge the Mission need to operate in both the distributed control mode for effectiveness and more hierarchically for logistic efficiency; the Catholic hierarchy from Rome downward seems in full retreat from this "received wisdom."  

The enduring truths about shared moral action have nothing to do with secularism, or pluralism, progressivism, or individualism per se - those about "what works." Matters of organization around mission execution either work effectively, or mission achievement is reduced. Its always worth noting the Christ's Mission was not to organize anything, but to change hearts and minds to a more humane way of acting in a constantly challenging world. He didn't do it with one to one's at HQ between Himself and the apostles.

The present hierarchy of the Catholic Church in America is surely "playing to its base" and in the process of doing so it must ignore vast amounts of knowledge, both ethnographic and research-based, about the nature of humanity. Those Red Hat acts of ommission - replaced with an ever tightening grip on orthodox certainty - are what explain the absence of useful preaching.

As for how much we agree - I'm open to understanding that we share more than I've recognized. It would help to see what if anything you find personally objectionable in the recent decisions - say about the ability of the leadership of American Orders of Nuns, acting in professional communion, to discern Catholic social practice without having conference speakers vetted by a Cardinal.

Thank you Margaret and thank you, William Mullins.  The institutional church continues to implode - for political reasons as well as the heirarchy's fear of women.

 The LCWR is in good company.  Jesus was persecuted by "blind guides," too. 


Mr. Mullins:

The intervention of the hierarchy into the LCWR is an important example of the problem with church ecclesiology and the magisterium of JP II, and now Benedict XVI. JP II had no tolerance for anyone who disagreed with any church doctrine (this is a kind interpretation). Bishops were removed from office and responsiblities given to an auxillary bishop; theologians who criticized or taught non-tradition moral theology had their license to teach Catholic theology revoked; priests who spoke their mind and questioned a doctrine or teaching were excluded from important positions in the Church, such as being appointed bishop....the list goes on.

The most recent example was the infamous Pheonix case where the USCCB and the Roman Curia did not interfere with the decision of the bishop of Pheonix who excommunicated a respected nun, the director of the ethics committe of St. Joseph's Hospital, because she approved the decision to terminate a pregnancy where this pregnancy was threatening the life of the mother. The fetus in this case could not survive under any circumstances, thus the decision to save one life instead of allowing the mother and the fetus to die was the issue. The outstanding moral analysis report by Theresa Lysaught of Marquette University, concluded this action was "indirect" not direct abortion and permissble. Despite the suport for the report's conclusions by prominent orthodox magisterial theologians, namely Germain Grisez and Martin Rhonheimer, it was dismissed.

The above examples demonstrate that the hierarchy intervenes when they believe their power and authority and church doctrines are threatened. Silencing, censoring and strong arming the LCWR to "get in line" because they are exercising their responsibilies as they are enlightened by the Holy Spirit and the Gospel of Christ is dispicable and another example of the problem with a top-down, male celibate, patriarchial, classicism-minded, non-learning magisterium. 

As for your belief that the Roman Curia and the hierarchy suffer from "Group Think", a better explanation is contained in the excellent book "Moral Imagination and Management Decision Making" by Patricia Werhane. 

Sometimes people or institutions do not recognize a moral problem in a given set of circumstances. The Nestle Corporation did not recognize a problem in the marketing of its infant formula in developing African countries. Ford managers did not perceive an issue with Pinto explosions. The issue in these cases was that neither Nestle or Ford disengaged themselves from the situation, from the possible moral problems using moral imagination, and to test and evaluate the potential consequences of their actions and possible solutions. A certain set of beliefs or a narrative can become so dominant that we begin to believe that narrative without verifying its truth or challenging the mental models that create the narrative. When one narrative becomes widely accepted it can affect one's judgment or an institutional judgement and the ways one deals with other facts even to the extent of excluding them from consideration. For example, many bishops and cardinals in the sexual abuse scandal committed unconscionable acts of commission and omission including cover-up and assigning the same priest who habitually exploited children to other parishes. Even after the WHO condemned Nestle for its marketing activities in Africa, Nestle failed to change their procedures for some years, claiming innocence of any wrongdoing. These two cases demonstrate that moral considerations were set aside in place of other considerations considered of higher value. Little moral imagination was displayed in these cases.

Mr. Barberi,

I'm happy now to realized that we agree when it comes to the matter of disagreement not being a sin as is maintained in those "high" places you mention.

But, I guess we'll just have to admit that where you look to traditional formulations of how mind works (i.e. collective misjudgment of moral significance as described by Ms Werhane), I turn to the cloudier business of brain function. My intention is not to embrace the "greedy reduction" of some biological determinists; rather it is to try and examine the ethical and moral significance of individual and group cognitive limits.

Such limits on the precision or accuracy of personal judgment, it appears to my reading, are clearly implicated by the general architecture of gene-based and experience conditioned mind. I see no choice but for theologians to come to grips with the science (I sort of given up on many Churchmen doing so). The binary resolution of whether the fetus died under direct or indirect intention is meaningless if its brain wasn't viable to begin with.

Insisting on such precision in the resolution of ethical predicaments (i.e. situations that don't unfold at the traditional speed of theological reasoning) seems a defacto denial of the temporal dimension of Creation. The science suggests that other mammals hold memories, but experience only the "remembered present" - each new instant's perceptions motivates action but with no momentary (i.e. with the sense of momentum) awareness of any previous or future instant.

Humans have moments, we have emotions, we anticipate by reflective analysis of past time sequences - precisely because we know there is time. With the knowledge of time comes awareness of spans over which actions we initiate or omit accumulate consequences. Christ suggested, generally with parables - not concisely presriptive antidotes - the shape of a life lived faithfully.

I for one find nothing threatening in the discovery that the evolution of human cognition brings with it incredible complexity - it merely points to the importance of our conversing and reasoning togther when it comes to meeting these predicaments. Holding on to orthodoxy at all costs is the bane of Western Catholicism. We don't have to go along with it just because a few, with too much power under an obsolete paradigm insist upon it.

Bill (if I may):

The role of science is critically important to our understanding of humanity and sexuality. For example, in ancient times to as early as the 16th century, coitus interruptus was considered quasi homicide because the male seed was thought to encompass the whole of a being; the woman's only contribution to procreation was her vessel where the seed would grow into a human being. This erroneous scientific fact obviously influenced the root of contraception as in Genesis 38 and the Onan story. A critical intepretation of the Bible, exegesis, was only permitted by Pius XII in the late 1940s. By that time, the narrative about contraception was so entrenched it was impossible to give it any critical revision.

The Vatican assserts incorrectly that periodic continence (PC) guards against the utilitarian attitude (treating ones spouse as a sex object) and concupiscience. Yet, cognitive manipulation or reimagination, a form of the virtue of chastity-temperance, is a more direct and effective means to guard against these illicit dispositions and actions. Conjugal abstinence per se does guard against any these so-called evils. Our growing knowledge and critical thinking challenges the claim that the only licit means to brith regulation is PC. What is left to defend this teaching is the speculation that NFP-PC is God's procreative plan. If this is true, why did God wait until the 1930s to tell us?...and wait another 20 years to tell Pius XII in 1951 that it was morally permissible to restrict sexual intercourse in marriage to infertle times? No one knows God's procreative plan, and speculation and symbolism is a weak moral theory. 

When it comes to morals, what is right and wrong, good and evil actions, the analysis must integrate all the disciples inclusive of, but not limited to: the sciences, philosophical and theological anthropology, ontology, moral theology and ethics, and contemporary theories of truth. The argument "from authority" as in the magisterium, by itself is considered the weakest argument.  

the supreme court will strike down obamacare as unconstitutional on religious freedom grounds.the contraception canard favored by the media,dividing catholics will have been in vain.

michael: the magisterium has access to all of the "ologies" you cite,yet came to a different conclusion.i am obedient to the church,i have seen what science can do not what it should do.

Bill Curry:

It was the papal magisterium without remainder, not the magisterium, that has come to many of the conclusions about sexual ethics, especially in the 20th and 21st centuries. When it comes to sexual ethics, there is a profound division in our Church today and a crisis in truth. This chasm is significant and not an issue of faith per se, but of reason in our striving to understand the moral truth. There are legitimate philosophical and theological moral arguments that are in tension with the moral absolutes proclaimed as God's procreative plan. Unfortunately, no one knows God's procreative plan. The church offers no adequate and intelligible answer to the many complex cases we have before us in today's world. What they offer is unreasonable insensibility. If you study the debates for the past 44 years, you will understand that this problem is not as simple as saying, on one side we have the dissenters and the unfaithful, and on the other side we have the assenters and the faithful. 

I condemn no one and respect people's opinion based on their faith and informed consciences. However, I never said science was what we should do, I said that the sciences are one input to our understanding of the world, humanity, sexuality and morals. I am not sugesting the naturalistic fallacy, that what is, is what ought to be. I was responding to some contemporary theories of psychology and human behavior that another Bill mentioned.


David Smith must stay awake to always get in the first punch. He leads with " to let a callow kid president change our theology.' If these jabs are all that the bishops and David have in their quiver, the Obama landslide is certain. Michelle in 2016, for eight more years should use up what time is left for these reactionary corps to be around.. .  Patience people..   

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