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Obama Contra Ecclesia by John Barnes

Obama Contra Ecclesia

by John Barnes
February 23, 2012

As the federal government draws ever nearer to the precipice of insolvency, the ability of the powers-that-be to purchase political support in an election year becomes increasingly difficult. Instead, our rulers look to the “freebies” — policy moves that, while far-reaching, cost the public treasury little (at least directly or immediately). This is just as true at the state level as it is the federal. In my home state of Washington, past overspending and a sour economy have left ruling Democrats a state budget situation no one envies. Too many pigs and not enough teats, as Lincoln would say. Instead of energizing their base by expanding entitlement spending or pouring more money into the failing K-12 system, Democrats made redefining marriage their primary legislative goal for 2012.

Likewise, President Obama decided that access to contraception, abortifacients, and sterilization is the most pressing problem facing the country right now. His administration announced earlier this year that all employers will be forced to provide insurance coverage for the aforementioned “health” services, free of charge. The exemption for religious groups is so narrow that most institutions who find such things morally objectionable will still have to comply.These moves also serve as a distraction. Note that contraception, not Obama’s abysmal budget proposal (which is chock full of accounting gimmicks and would bring the country even closer to financial collapse), dominates the national political debate currently. Back here in Washington, the headlines and fanfare surrounding state benediction of homosexual coupling kept folks’ attention away from the reality that the Democrats have no real answers to structural spending problems, underfunded public employee pensions, crumbling transportation infrastructure, a lagging economy, etc.

Given the Catholic Church’s steadfast opposition to the services it will be forced to pay for, the bishops are at the forefront of outcry against Obama’s mandate. Every single bishop has, in some way, voiced opposition. Certainly it’s refreshing to see such outcry, though as they say in marketing, it all depends on your target audience. If the bishops are aiming their statements at their flocks, the more revealing tally would be the number of Catholics who don’t much care what the bishops have to say about anything of moral gravity, particularly below the waist.

If, on the other hand, the bishops’ statements are aimed at putting political pressure on Obama, the outlook isn’t much more promising. Obama is many things, but uncalculating isn’t one of them. He’s gambling the mandate won’t cost him significant political support, and with good reason. The polling cross-tabs are on his side for now, as Gallup found recently. Pace Pat Buchanan, but his fantasy of the bishops declaring to Obama that every pastor will read a denunciation from the pulpit two weeks before the election is wishful thinking at best (however, those for whom climate change is the most pressing issue can take heart — the bishops have asked for collective action on that). A friend raised a valid point:

I have to admit that it strikes me as very odd that a rule mandating Catholic institutions, through their health insurers, offer free contraceptives to their employees is what would spark a row between the U.S. bishops and the Obama Administration. The reason I find it odd is because the coverage that the Department of Health and Human Services is seeking to require is already provided by many of the affected Catholic institutions. … This brings up the uncomfortable question about why, when we are remonstrating so vigorously against the mandate, are so many Catholic institutions given a free pass by the bishops?

Early on in this brouhaha, I took flack for suggesting that Obama’s mandate most likely won’t result in a massive exodus of Catholics from Pharaoh’s city. More than a few good folks reminded me that “it’s about conscience, not contraception.” Yes and no.

True, the fundamental issues at hand are conscience protection and the free exercise of religion. But I’m not convinced that’s how most U.S. Catholics will view this in the long run. Humans have a penchant for focusing on symptoms rather than the disease, and contemporary culture is disastrously myopic in all directions. Our only interest in the future is looting it to bribe the present, while our grasp of history and heritage lessens with every high school commencement. We don’t even look at today with sufficient depth to grasp the seriousness of the issues before us. Insofar as the average Catholic considers Obama’s mandate, I suspect it will be from the standpoint of what he’s forcing rather than his right to force it. Since large numbers of Catholics use contraception and sterilization, it’s difficult to imagine this becoming a watershed issue.

Moreover, Catholics, like a lot of Americans, have grown frighteningly comfortable with a very powerful state. The last few years provide examples of unprecedented government overreach — Obama’s mandate that every citizen purchase health insurance, his law allowing the government to indefinitely detain citizens without trial, or the Transportation Security Administration’s free hand (no pun intended) to fondle and x-ray us in airports. Will a population largely accustomed to an intrusive state find yet another coercive intrusion problematic in and of itself?

Admittedly, my conclusions are colored by my experience as a Catholic immersed in politics and public policy in the Pacific Northwest. Not without reason do we call this the pagan Northwest. The culture is uniquely secular, a fact I wasn’t able to appreciate until I lived elsewhere in the country. Washington and Oregon are, after all, the only two states where your Hippocratic-bound physician can legally help you commit suicide. But the secularism doesn’t stop at the vestibule. The mandate hoopla has been going on for a while now and I’ve heard disturbingly little from my parish. My pastor discussed it briefly and vaguely at one point, referring us to an insert in the bulletin. We have a saying in media relations: Friday is where press releases go to die. Likewise in the Catholic Church, bulletins are where announcements go to die. Credit is due to the new archbishop, who has utilized Catholic radio and the archdiocesan newspaper to inform and fire-up the flock with a fervor seldom seen from Washington’s episcopate, but in reality these mediums don’t reach many ears or eyes. And coming back to my original point, my archbishop’s message is falling upon a people not likely to be moved en masse on this issue. This was also a problem when the bishops here tried to motivate Catholics to fight redefining marriage. The measure sailed through the state legislature, and all the while I didn’t hear a peep from my parish.

As is the case elsewhere, the Washington State Catholic Conference appears more concerned with lobbying to maintain and expand social assistance programs than fend off assaults on the Church and the culture. So while many Church leaders are tip-toeing around “sensitive” issues for fear of offending the more squeamish of the flock, the Church’s lobbyists and social service functionaries are climbing farther in bed with a government that wants to silence and neuter it.

What’s more, few of my pewmates are talking about the marriage issue or Obama’s mandate. Most local Catholics I know, and most Catholics I’ve met who supported Obama in 2008, are more concerned with the struggles of everyday life than they are about issues of conscience protection or the legal definition of marriage, which can seem removed or academic. Much more tangible to them are basic questions of survival — how am I going to feed my family if the shop closes, how will I keep my home, pay the doctor bills, what am I going to do when unemployment benefits run out next month, or what am I going to do since the invisible hand wiped out my 401(k)?

Is my homeland a microcosm of the rest of the nation? For your sakes, and for more than a few reasons, I pray not. Solzhenitsyn reminded us that the line between good and evil runs not between polities but right down the middle of every human heart. The secularism, apathy and poor formation rampant here are problems elsewhere, but scenes such as a Wisconsin congregation giving its bishop a standing ovation upon news of his vociferous opposition to Obama’s mandate are encouraging. Still, I suspect that is the exception rather than the rule.

Another important question worth pondering: What role Will Obama’s ultimate opponent play in peeling away his Catholic supporters soured by the mandate? Mitt Romney’s feet-in-mouth comments that indicate an apparent aloofness to the plight of the poor don’t exactly endear him to left-leaning Catholics for whom social justice (read: wealth redistribution) is a priority. Likewise, Rick Santorum’s enthusiasm for overseas military adventures and “enhanced interrogation” techniques are just a couple features of a candidacy self-described “progressive” Catholics find downright frightening. As for Gingrich, well, let’s just say I don’t imbibe enough to consider him viable. Whichever Ringling Brother emerges from the GOP nominating circus, it’s difficult to see any of them being a major draw for Catholics who feel spurned by the president.

While I believe it was dangerously naive to think Obama’s mandate (or something like it) wasn’t coming down the pike, this isn’t about finger-pointing or “I told you so.” This isn’t even a prediction — attempting to predict the future in politics is more futile than trying to contain the Kennedy’s pelvic proclivities. Besides, in graduate school a professor warned us that historians are the worst prophets. This is about making sure we confront a terrible reality: The culture of death is playing to win. Even Catholic Obamaphile Michael Sean Winters, a darling of the “religious left,” is starting to realize this:

I confess I no longer understand Obama. He did not go to the mat to end the Bush tax cuts for the super-rich. He did not go to the mat for comprehensive immigration reform. He did not go to the mat to close Guantanamo Bay. He did not go to the mat for Card Check. He did not go to the mat for a public option in the health care reform. But, he went to the mat over the principle that a Catholic college or charity or hospital is not really religious.

We’ve grown too comfortable with the quiet atrocities decimating western Christendom. Francis Cardinal George, a prominent member of the U.S. episcopate, remarked recently, “I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square.” From our comfortable, convenient lives, it’s easy to forget that if you peel back the thin veneer of civilization, a seething cauldron of ugliness and anger stirs underneath. I experienced this firsthand as a Dominican brother with several thousand folks in the West Coast Walk for Like a few years back. Never before had I heard such vitriol thrown at me as when the pro-abortion demonstrators caught sight of my habit. Obama’s mandate is but a dressed-up, sanitized, bureaucratically sanctioned extension of that brutal reality.

Can Catholics — and all Americans committed to religious liberty and rights of conscience — unite and win this fight? Let us pray so. Blessed Pope John XXIII reminded us that, in spite of the gathering darkness, Christ has not abandoned the world he redeemed. But we fool ourselves if we think this a purely political battle and therefore place our hope in salvation by political action. If Catholics put a fraction of the time and resources into building a genuine culture of life that many have put into politics and lobbying, I suspect we wouldn’t be in such a pickle today. Politics, law, and government are the products of culture, yet too many “conservative” folks have it the other way around, and think we can transform and renew our civilization by passing laws and electing the right leaders. They — and, at times, all of us — forget one of history’s chief lessons: The kingdom will not change until the people do.

Clearly, there’s much work to be done.

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