The Culture War & the Catholic Church

By Bethell, Tom | New Oxford Review, April 2012 | Go to article overview

The Culture War & the Catholic Church


Bethell, Tom, New Oxford Review


The contraception mandate and the furor surrounding it tell usjust how much the culture is at odds with the Catholic Church today. Whereas other Christian communions have surrendered - Episcopalians, for example, who signed on to every detail of the sexual revolution, find themselves a dwindling force in American life - the war on Catholic doctrine has redoubled.

The phrase "culture war" as applied to the United States seems to have begun with Patrick J. Buchanan. It is a sign of our ti mes that he was blamed for launching a war by noticing we were under attack. Those i nterested in the decline of the Church in America over the past fifty years should read his latest book, Suicide of a Superpower, particularly the chapter titled "The Crisis of Catholicism."

In opening the Second Vatican Council, Pope John XXI 1 1 said, "We feel we must disagree with those prophets of gloom, who are always forecasting disaster, as though the end of the world were at hand." Maybe not the end of the world, but fifty years on it's clear that the period after Vatican 1 1 has been a disaster for the Church. The 58,000 U.S. Catholic priests in 1 965 are down to 41 ,000 today. The 1 ,575 ordinations are down to 467 today. All this while the U.S. population grew by 60 percent. Mass attendance, then three in four Catholics, has fallen to one in four today.

The U.S. bishops, as the Church leaders in the fight against the contraception mandate, are hamstrung by a Church in decline. They are especially burdened by a legacy of failure - poor decisions and uncertain leadership - left behind by their immediate predecessors and, more often, of their own doing.

The Rev. Thomas Reese, SJ., a dissenting theologian, said of the present moment that "the bishops have lost a lot of their clout." The oft-quoted Reese is right about that.

This February my wife and I went to the Catholic Information Center in Washington, D.C., to learn more about the contraception mandate. The place was packed. Richard Doerf linger, the key speaker, has for years been with the Secretariat for Pro- Life Activities at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). There was a palpable sense of frustration, notjust about the mandate but about the weakness of the U.S. bishops. For decades the bishops' conference supported liberal social policies while trying to maintain a pro-life stance. Now, the feeling was, maybe they had failed. Doerf I i nger conceded atone point that the bishops may have been remiss in instructing us about Catholic doctrine.

The mandate would require religious employers to pay for insurance coverage of birth control and abortifacients. Planned Parenthood and NARAL maintain that increased access to contraception will reduce abortion. But no study has shown that. One drug covered by the mandate is a close analogue to the abortion pill RU-486. Both can induce abortion weeks into pregnancy.

No one knows how all this will play out, politically. Suffice it to say that the Obama administration's Department of Health and Human Services, led by the nominally Catholic Kathleen Sebelius, thought it political Iy exped ient to placate "women's groups" by scorn i ng Catholic teaching.

The mandate came as a wake-up call to many Catholics. "Choice" was not on the menu. Catholic women were said to want contraceptivesjust as much as others. (ButtheGuttmacher Institute's claim that 98 percent of Catholic women have used birth control has been disputed by the Washington Post s "fact-checker" column.) As for conservative Catholics, Obama's people reckoned that they vote Republican anyway. So the bishops, as representatives of official Church teaching, could be defied.

Francis Cardinal George of Chicago, USCCB president from 2007-2010, commented, "This is the first ti me in the history of the United States that a presidential administration has purposely tried to interfere in the internal working of the Catholic Church, playing one group off against another for political gain. …

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