The most listened-to woman in political talk radio, Laura Ingraham, recently aimed her crosshairs at me when she accused me of “Catholic-bashing.” In contrast to the picture Ingraham paints, I received a great number of thoughtful and emotional emails and comments from readers who were Catholic and supportive of the refreshing “what-would-Jesus-do” argument as it relates to contraceptive access in developing countries. On this issue, the flock seems to be more Christ-like than the shepherds of Catholic doctrine.
Without having any knowledge of my exposure to Catholic ideas and institutions, Ingraham accuses me of offering a “narrow view of Catholic teachings.” Ironically it is both my Protestant upbringing and my Catholic education at Georgetown University that compel me to see the orthodox doctrine on this particular issue as narrow in its moral imagination. My argument is clearly against the Catholic position on contraceptives from both a religious and scientific perspective. If the letter of Catholic orthodoxy happens to run contrary to the spirit of the moral message of Jesus Christ, it wouldn’t be the first time.
If religious moderates are guilty of anything, it is that we put the moral message of Jesus (who said a lot about radical, non-judgmental compassion) above church doctrines that may have arisen over the past 2,000 years. This applies especially to the Catholic position on birth control, which has more to do with a modern reaction to the women’s liberation movement and the 1960’s counter-culture than sound public health policy for people in dire need. (Recall that Pope Paul VI issued the encyclical Humanae Vitae in 1968, quite some time after the Sermon on the Mount and quite some time before HIV/AIDS.) Although there will always be some debate about what Jesus really meant since the earliest accounts of Jesus were written many decades after his death, we all can agree he was a courageous person who clashed with the religious orthodoxy of his day. However, if orthodox doctrines got in the way of his vision of radical compassion, I can only imagine he would chose compassion over canon.
Further, I have a tremendous amount of respect for the good things that people do when inspired by religion, just as I have a tremendous amount of disdain for the bad things people can also do when blinded by religion (or, in Ingraham’s case, when they defend their particular version of religion reflexively against any criticism - irrespective of its merits). This nuance seems hard for pundits and talk show hosts to grasp. As F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” My criticism of one policy is not a sign of “intolerance” towards the whole institution and the good things the Church does or could do; rather, it is a sign of reasoned criticism in a country where free thought is valued as much as free speech. Criticizing one facet of an institution (the anti-condom and anti-oral contraceptive position that has devastating effects the world over) does not make one a “basher” of Catholicism writ large. One doesn’t need to throw out baby Jesus with the holy water.
Ingraham raises a valid point that many Catholic organizations provide invaluable health services to Southern Africa, for example. Yet just because some criticize the Catholic doctrine on hormonal contraceptives and condoms doesn’t mean they are against outreach that treats the very symptoms of suffering that happen when people have sex without hormonal contraceptives or condoms. In fact, the reality in South Africa, a country with the largest number of people infected, is much different than the reality Ingraham depicts. The recent decrease in HIV/AIDS infection rates amongst young people is not due to a miraculous rise of Catholic chastity; rather, it is due to increased condom use amongst young people. The Human Sciences Research Council attributes the stabilization of the epidemic to increased condom usage and a “shift in power relations between males and females.” Since condoms and other contraceptives prevent human suffering more effectively than the abstinence-until-marriage approach, I can only imagine Jesus would pick the policy that eases the most suffering for the most people. Quite contrary to the spirit of radical compassion, Pope Benedict XVI informs us that the distribution of condoms
Further, Ingraham makes the point that the U.S. government also funds these Catholic efforts through grants. I am glad she brought this up, because Catholic lobbying in this country has done its part to strip contraceptives funding from relief programs in the Bush Administration in favor of abstinence-until-marriage programs. Anyone familiar with abstinence-only efforts is aware of their dubious efficacy. Worse, marriage also is no sacred talisman against AIDS spreading from spouse-to-spouse when the husband enjoys the often unprotected company of a prostitute in addition to the unprotected company of his wife. Providing these women with condoms and contraceptives doesn’t interfere with Church efforts to change male sexual practices; it simply does more to protect the women who may be victims of those practices. If even one woman can prevent herself from becoming infected by using female condom or convincing her spouse or partner to use a male condom (or perhaps by using this ingenious device in all-to-frequent cases of rape) a world of human suffering will be minimized.
So, when a religious organization so directly influences how we taxpayers spend our money and benefits from tax exempt status, that organization has stepped into the public sphere. We citizens have a right and obligation to call funding for abstinence-only-programs a waste of money if condoms and contraceptives are more effective. What Ingraham labels anti-Catholic bigotry is simply a civic attempt at full-cost-accounting of how our tax dollars are spent on the bizarre anti-contraceptive idea, a position that is not only harmful in its inefficacy, but also coincidentally antithetical to the moral message of Jesus as a moderate, modern Christian would see it. If you don’t like the criticism of the public sphere, you are welcome to give up the grant money and the tax exempt status you receive. When ideology-based disease prevention clashes with epidemiology-based disease prevention, tax exempt does not mean scrutiny exempt.
The bottom line is that I love the Christ-like work that religious institutions do in the developing world. Yet, it is not enough to treat just the symptoms. Timing of compassion is everything: we need to provide preventative measures that work before and during the sexual act, not just close our eyes and hope the sexual act doesn’t happen. Given Jesus’ association with prostitutes, I can only image the head-in-the-sand approach would have seemed a bit unrealistic to a hands-on sort of guy like Jesus.
Ingraham’s claim that my “anti-Catholic bigotry” represents an effort to stop American Catholics from funding Catholic healthcare efforts around the globe is simply bizarre. Many of us simply question the provision of public funds for an abstinence-only policy that is ineffectual in its ability to minimize human suffering compared to other reasonable means. Ingraham’s charge of bigotry against an organization falls short of its mark and reveals a rhetorical and logical sloppiness of a degree only matched by Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck. An argument against one of many thousands of beliefs of an institution is not an attack on all beliefs of that very institution.
Bjorn Philip Beer