Folks don’t normally talk about contraception in polite company, they just quietly use it. But during the 2012 election campaign, a sleazy but brilliantly conceived dog-and-pony show made contraceptives a sudden centerpiece of the liberal campaign agenda. The message was simple: “Contraception is good (you’re using it, aren’t you?), but some nasty old rich men (you know who!) want to take it away from you; well, stick with us and we’ll make sure they don’t. In fact, we’ll give you all the contraceptives you want for free, forever.”
In 2012, for the first time in history, an American election was won on the basis of sex – guaranteeing to all the fundamental constitutional right to the boundless pursuit of pleasure paid for with other people’s money.
Into this infertile swamp tiptoed the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. They are fighting something called the “HHS Contraceptive Mandate.” They are doing so on legal grounds, specifically the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom. Numerous Catholic institutions and other entities and individuals have challenged the mandate as well.
Given the tenor of the last election, far more Americans are likely to recognize, the Contraceptive Commandment (“Universal! Free! “) than the HHS Contraceptive Mandate.
The reason, I believe, is simple. A wide swath of Americans use contraception. A majority of Americans, including a majority of Catholics, either believe that contraception is moral, or, if they don’t – well, they’ve gotten over it.
Most of these folks undoubtedly believe that they support religious liberty as well. Indeed, many Catholics insist that they are actually exercising their religious liberty when they use contraception, because they are “following their conscience.”
That is, if they think about it at all.
Social scientist Mary Eberstadt takes a different tack. In her brilliant Adam and Eve After the Pill, she advocates a serious discussion of contraception – “the fundamental social fact of our time” – and a sober assessment of its profound and damaging consequences. America’s cultural elites have studiously ignored these fundamental facts, says Eberstadt, due to what she calls “cognitive dissonance” – good old willful ignorance. Folks are just too busy enjoying the pleasures of unfruitful sex to contemplate their behavior on rational grounds.
Pope Benedict has called our age the “Dictatorship of Relativism,” and offers honest rational discussion as the antidote. Well, we certainly can’t expect dictators to encourage us all to contemplate the principle of cause and effect – after all, it might cause their little political playhouse of cards to come tumbling down. That’s where the Pill comes in: it is the closest thing to Aldous Huxley’s “Soma” that our dilapidated age has ever embraced.
But wait, didn’t I mention Pope Benedict? Didn’t I mention the bishops? Holy Mother Church opposes contraception, doesn’t she, for rational reasons? How is it that the conversation about contraception seems to be so one-sided, then?
The Catholic Church is the Bride of Christ – Christ, Kristo Pantokrator, the omnipotent Ruler of all things. Christ is the logos, the Word – the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 1:1, 14:6), the Light of the World (John 8:12). His Church preserves and preaches the purity of His truth through her teaching authority, known as the Magisterium.
That mighty truth embraces and governs all of reality – and yet, America’s Catholic bishops admit that, when it comes to the Church’s teaching on sexual morality, they have put their light under a basket.
Timothy Cardinal Dolan, Archbishop of New York and the President of the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference, gave a revealing interview on the HHS Mandate to the Wall Street Journal last year. “We’ve grown hoarse saying this is not about contraception, this is about religious freedom,” he told the Journal. And then, without being asked, he suddenly detoured into the moral realm with what old Washington hands would call a “gaffe”: a stating of the unvarnished truth so blunt that it is never again repeated.
Unbidden, Archbishop Dolan brought up the Church’s teaching on contraception, and flatly stated that the bishops haven’t taught it “since the 1960s.”
The “flash point,” the archbishop says, “was Humanae Vitae,” Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical reasserting the church’s teachings on sex, marriage and reproduction, including its opposition to artificial contraception. It “brought such a tsunami of dissent, departure, disapproval of the church, that I think most of us—and I’m using the first-person plural intentionally, including myself—kind of subconsciously said, ‘Whoa. We’d better never talk about that, because it’s just too hot to handle.’ We forfeited the chance to be a coherent moral voice when it comes to one of the more burning issues of the day.” (WSJ March 31, 2012)
The archbishop went on to say that, after the clerical abuse and cover-up scandals broke into the open, the bishops gave up: they have lost all credibility with the faithful and with the public, so they have buried the light of Humanae Vitae under a bushel basket – possibly a cover-up scandal of considerable magnitude in its own right.
And that’s why the bishops insist that “it’s not about contraception.”
Well, then, what’s it all about?
Caesar will decide.
Our bishops have staked their claim – with a fortitude that is almost unprecedented – on a constitutional principle, in cases that are now before the courts. As far as the moral case, they have remained remarkably silent, even after Cardinal Dolan’s candid admission.
So “it’s still not about contraception.”
What, then, should they expect from the courts?
“We are under a Constitution, but the Constitution is what the judges say it is, and the judiciary is the safeguard of our liberty and of our property under the Constitution.” So opined Charles Evans Hughes in 1907. Hughes later became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. By 1958, Chief Justice Earl Warren could confidently declare it a “settled doctrine” that not the Constitution, but the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Constitution, is the “supreme law of the land.” (Cooper v. Aaron [358 US 1 (1958)].
Should Cardinal Dolan put his faith in five justices of the Supreme Court? Or should he trust – and exercise – the authority of Holy Mother Church, the Magisterium, and the natural law?
He might well advise the powerful what freedom of religion means, but he should by no means subject the Church to the perverse notion that it is the right of the government to decide for the Church what religious freedom means.
The Campaign For Humanae Vitae
The bishops might have lost their credibility, but Christ hasn’t. Using the unerring authority conferred upon him by the virtue of his office, Pope Paul VI promulgated the encyclical Humanae Vitae 45 years ago this week, on July 25, 1968.
In this marvelous document, he explains the beauty not only of marriage, but of man’s nature, including his sexual nature, as created in the image of God. “Male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27).
The pope begged the entire church – bishops, laity, teachers, clerics, doctors, and professionals – to teach the beautiful truths of man’s fruitful sexual nature and to embrace them in practice. If we fail, he warned, “man, growing used to the employment of anti-conceptive practices, may finally lose respect for the woman and, no longer caring for her physical and psychological equilibrium, may come to the point of considering her as a mere instrument of selfish enjoyment, and no longer as his respected and beloved companion.”
Hook-up culture, anyone?
Dr. Charles E Rice, longtime professor of constitutional law at the University of Notre Dame, echoed these warnings decades ago as he saw the “contraceptive mentality” take hold in our culture. Pope Paul was a prophet, says Dr. Rice, who goes on to observe that contraception has been a major factor in the massive wave of abortion, euthanasia, pornography, promiscuity, divorce, and homosexual activity that now virtually represent America’s decadent popular culture.
Cardinal Dolan observed that Humanae Vitae is needed now more than ever, especially by the young. That’s why the Bellarmine Forum launched the Campaign for Humanae Vitae a year ago this week. Since then, thousands of people from over 40 countries have signed our petition assuring our bishops of our prayers, support, and encouragement in their teaching of Humanae Vitae. Readers can add their signatures at the Forum’s website, bellarmineforum.org.
In these troubled times for our country, our bishops need our prayers, and America needs Humanae Vitae.