Since the Health and Human Services Department announced its controversial mandate just over two weeks ago, the thrust of most arguments against it have focused on its being an unprecedented attack on religious liberty and freedom of conscience, which it most certainly is.
Some people, however, have been insisting too much that the real issue at stake is not about contraception, as if to say, frankly, that’s a thorny issue we’d rather not have to deal with right now.
It certainly is a thorny issue and, in fact, it really is the central problem Catholics going to have to face, whether they want to or not. Denying that it is the central problem underestimates the deeper threat that the HHS mandate poses to our Christian culture, not just to our individual rights and religious liberty.
The current administration is using contraception as a wedge to widen the gap between Catholics over this issue, and it thinks it may have won the battle already. To understand why this is the case, we need to revisit the Church’s struggle with contraception taboo over the past 50 years.
Culture of dissent
In 1960, the birth-control pill first appeared. With such easy access to birth control, Catholics around the world lobbied for the Magisterium to reconsider its long-standing position on the immorality of the use of artificial contraception.
Pope John XXIII established a commission of 6 European non-theologians to study the issue in 1963. Pope Paul VI broadened the commission to 72 members from all continents, including theologians, bishops and cardinals.
In 1966, the commission came to the majority decision that artificial contraception was not intrinsically evil and that Catholic couples should be allowed to decide for themselves about the methods – artificial or natural – to be employed: as long as they exercised “responsible fruitfulness.”
Only 7 of the 72 members objected to the majority decision. These issued a minority report, reasserting the reasons why the Church has consistently stated that artificial contraception is intrinsically and gravely evil. They added, however, that natural family planning methods are not intrinsically evil.
On July 29, 1968, Paul VI issued the encyclical Humane Vitae, which surprised the Catholic world. Against the majority decision of his own commission, Paul VI reaffirmed the Catholic teaching that artificial contraception was intrinsically evil, because it separates the unitive and procreative dimensions of the marital act.
In the United States, Humanae Vitae was met by wide-spread dissent, especially among Catholic intellectuals, priests and theologians. For example, in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, all the priests of the diocese were asked to gather together and almost violently forced, under pain of ridicule, to sign a collective 600-word “Statement of Dissent” against the Pope’s decision.
Only one priest of the Archdiocese refused to sign the statement, namely, Fr. James Stafford, who later went on to become Archbishop of Denver, and then the Head of the Apostolic Penitentiary in Rome. Only one.
What amazes me in all this, is that despite possible confusions caused by media speculations that the Church would change it’s mind; despite the forecasted tumult this would cause in the moral consciences of ordinary Catholic couples all around the world, but guided by the Holy Spirit, the Pope issued perhaps the most prophetic encyclical of the 20th century.
You see, the morality of artificial contraception is arguably the most important cultural issue of today. When you separate the reproductive end of the sexual act from the unitive end, you debase the meaning of sexuality, robbing it of the transcendent meaning of life-giving love (in imitation of the God’s Trinitarian love). You debase the meaning of marriage as a life-giving communion of persons, which gives rise to devastating consequences for a culture’s understanding of family, society and the dignity of the human person.
Another warning from our Pope
Just two weeks ago, while addressing bishops from Washington DC and around the nation’s capital who were making their ad limina visit in Rome, Pope Benedict gave an unusually strong, and perhaps prophetic, message.
The Pope warned that powerful cultural currents are wearing away the foundations of American culture, which was originally based on religious faith and ethical principles derived from natural law.
Part and parcel of this new cultural current is to make the voice of the Catholic Church in American public debate illegitimate, or at least irrelevant.
The Pope urged the US bishops:
The preparation of committed lay leaders and the presentation of a convincing articulation of the Christian vision of man and society remain a primary task of the Church in your country; as essential components of the new evangelization, these concerns must shape the vision and goals of catechetical programs at every level.
The day after the Papal address, on Jan 20, President Obama’s Health Minister Kathleen Sebelius, who professes to be Catholic, issued the statement saying that almost all health insurance plans must cover contraception, including some abortion-inducing drugs, and sterilization. The only exemption would be those religious organizations that object, and that hire and serve only employees of their religion. Catholic universities, hospitals, Catholic charities in general would have to buy-in to health-insurance plans that cover these immoral services.
The US Bishops, who had already expressed their concerns to the government in no uncertain terms over the past half year, took immediate action and have been issuing pastoral letters and drumming up a letter-writing campaign saying: This mandate offends religious freedom, especially of Catholics to exercise our faith.
The question that immediately comes to my mind is: How can a political-savvy president like President Obama, in an election year, risk offending Catholics who make up at least 25% of the national vote, and 85% of which report that their faith is important to them?
And the answer is that the Catholic culture in the US is out of step with the Magisterium and with the Pope. Last April, a Guttmacher Institute survey reported 98 percent of sexually active Catholic women in the US use artificial contraception.
In other words, the culture of dissent against Humanae Vitae in the US continues. It’s no wonder the Obama administration doesn’t fear the voice of the Catholic bishops. He is banking on the fact that 97% of Catholics – on the ground – are on his side with regard to this issue question.
Towards a new cultural awakening
The renewal of culture is not done top down, but bottom up. It is built brick-by-brick, conscience-by-conscience, heart-by-heart. It involves culturing ourselves first, and then spreading Christian and Catholic values person-to-person in a tenacious way.
The Pro-Life Movement has gained a lot ground in America over the past 39 years. There were 500,000 marchers in Washington 2 weeks ago. Is it unthinkable that the Pro-Family, Pro-Marriage, anti-contraceptive movement can also gain ground in American culture?