In the months leading up to the presidential election, the American bishops’ conference clearly made a strong, tactical move. It is counterproductive in the present climate, they posited, to dwell on the questions concerning the liceity of contraceptive use, but far more productive to focus our energy on the crucial right to religious liberty for each citizen.
The bishops insist:
“This is not about access to contraception, which is ubiquitous and inexpensive, even when it is not provided by the Church’s hand and with the Church’s funds;” [and] “This is not about the Bishops’ somehow ‘banning contraception,’ when the U.S. Supreme Court took that issue off the table two generations ago. Indeed, this is not about the Church wanting to force anybody to do anything; it is instead about the federal government forcing the Church — consisting of its faithful and all but a few of its institutions — to act against Church teachings.”
Every bishop concurred, with each Ordinary making a personal statement about that eroding liberty in response to the Obama administration’s threats. Media inquiries about the Church’s position on birth control were deftly redirected to the underlying right to live according to one’s conscience.
It is a prudent approach on many levels, since the electorate is certainly divided on the moral issues surrounding the topic, and there is no doubt that all of us will be affected if the state ever deems that some religious tenets are inimical to its goals. Indeed, we’re perilously close to that scenario now.
That said, I was profoundly sad to hear Governor Mitt Romney say the following in Tuesday’s presidential debate at Hofstra University:
“I just know that I don’t think bureaucrats in Washington should tell someone whether they can use contraceptives or not, and I don’t believe employers should tell someone whether they have contraceptive care or not. Every woman in America should have access to contraceptives and the president’s statement on my policy is completely and totally wrong.”
Does this signal the end of our nation as a moral force in the world? And is that question perhaps hysterical or overwrought?
The Person vs. the Individual
America is no longer a Christian nation, despite its casual and occasional nod to the Judeo-Christian values. The preeminence of Biblical Christianity that flowed from its Protestant majority — as well as its strong Catholic minority — has waned over the years, so that at this juncture of history, each citizen is feted as the arbiter of his own world view. The question of personhood—and its requisite duties and obligations—has given way to the rights of the individual, and the good of the whole is no longer subject to debate beyond the questions of economic prosperity and bodily integrity.
A Marxist/Randian view has eclipsed a competing Catholic outlook, so that material considerations are paramount, and “individuality” is privileged over personhood. Whether the state should control the individual or the individual should command the state is still debated, but neither side will submit to natural law or to a “higher power”—because each has agreed that only those things which can be quantified and stripped of moral judgments may be discussed in public.
To that end, both the socialist-leaning president and the free-market-leaning challenger fell over themselves to assure women that there would always be access to an item that has done more to contribute to our moral decline than anything else. For fifty years, the growing dependence on artificial means to separate sexual intimacy from fertility has likewise made it possible to separate sexual intimacy from marital exclusivity—shredding both families and the purity of our young in the process.
The Material Girl and Her Limits
In 1968, Pope Paul VI wrote Humanae Vitae, which included four prophecies. He said that widespread acceptance of contraception would lead to conjugal infidelity, the “general lowering of morality,” the degradation of women who would become “mere instruments of selfish enjoyment” for men instead of the cherished partners they were meant to be, and ultimately a massive imposition of contraception by unscrupulous governments. Could any predictions have been closer to the truth of our present generation?
Beyond the widespread degradation of the person in so many realms of the media, and the demise of the traditional family that all statistics reveal, we now have a government that wishes to step into the breach, expanding existing welfare programs, promising the unmarried as well as the married that they will always have access to birth control, and generally accommodating promiscuity as the new normal—as though a welfare state can make up for a healthy family.
Given that no one can “impose” his personal religious views on another, and that morality must remain in the private sphere, how can we prevail on the culture to honor conjugal love without explaining that God’s plan for the person requires chastity and self-control? I do agree with the bishops that we must defend religious liberty so that we have the freedom to make this truth known, but such a rear guard action at this point—without making a strong and spirited defense of authentic conjugal love—may be too little and too late to influence family policies in the only way that will restore a healthy culture.
Governor Romney’s bold effort to secure “the woman’s vote” in this way is not in anyone’s best interest. It is not going to help the economy which depends on strong families, and cannot restore the essential truth about personhood as the bedrock of any strong nation. Four more years of President Obama’s extremism in the name of false freedom combined with his war on religious liberty will shred what is left of the prophetic voice in our midst, but Governor Romney’s inability to make a moral case for the integrity of marital love will only put off the inevitable for a short while longer.
In the end, if we cannot defend the nature of our divine likeness under the present political construct, then the construct itself will collapse.