Bjorn Philip Beer

Bjorn Philip Beer

Bjorn Philip Beer
Charlottesville, Virginia, USA
December 31
Weekend Writer, Software Executive, and Father in Charlottesville, Virginia. Graduate of Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. Frequent contributor to Earth Island Journal.

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MARCH 20, 2012 8:16AM

The Ire of Ingraham

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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 “aggravates the problems.”     

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 

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"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."

Amen, brother! What escapes "traditionalists", a term which is far more kind to them than they deserve, is that they have become nothing more than the New Pharisees, tho that may be an insult to the Pharisees, who were after all usually well-versed in the scriptures, something I can't say for most diehard "traditionalists" of my acquaintance.

And even those who do have knowledge of the scriptures, tend to be very selective about the verses they choose to cite. Beyond that, tho, most are guilty of the very sin Jesus repeatedly warned against, that of favoring the letter of the law over the spirit of the law. Thus, Jesus, at a time when it was quite dangerous to say such a thing (indeed it cost him his life) offered what I consider the ultimate wisdom on these matters:

"Man was not made for the law, but the law for Man."
Natural Law . . .
Never Mind . . .
Tom C. Speaks.
I can't express my beliefs well.
I do know Tom C. and I bump.
He no smell like hump Camel.
I may soon gulp a 'Fat Tire' beer.
Organized religions annoy folks.
I just like beer & bird singsongs.
Nature has One melodious choir.
I feel like tossing a baseball.
Tom C. can catch with Mitt.
Romney is so Little League.
I love a sound of a ball bat.
You two can 'hit' baseballs.
I catch nap and burp brew.
I snore & hop batters box.
You are not Mitt Romney
You catch with mitt
little leaguer catcher
tired of squatting, request
a beanbag chair
That's the politico today.
I just can't listen to them.
They make cuss `go bunt!
Hmm... Well, thank God that Fox News is not the Catholic Church. But regarding the latter, this is my defense of it (penned an hour ago).
Tom, yes, selective literalism is widely practiced!

Chris, thanks for your post. Although it doesn't change my point, I am very glad you brought up the statistical issue.

To your point: "Next, the article trots out the tired statistic that 98% of Catholic women use contraceptives. That would be a compelling argument if a) it was true, and b) morality was defined by the democratic process."

Much ink has been spilled about the 98% statistic. In fact, the study was of sexually active Catholic women. (see link below, which calls 98% into question as well) It's obvious we're not comparing Catholic senior citizens to Protestant senior citizens or atheists senior citizens. The study was of 15-45 year old women and clearly shows that their sexual practices regarding birth control are indistinguishable from the general public. In other words, the independent variable of "Catholic" has no effect on the dependent variable "birth control use."

Further, you miss the point in why I make this point. I am not arguing that morality ought to be defined by the mob. (I don't think I've ever encountered anyone who believes in such a crazy notion!). Rather, as all three of my articles have made the point, the whole contraceptive debate has nothing to do with the sexual practices of Catholic women here. The only reason why it is a "debate" is that 1) it is Republican primary season and 2) since Catholics in US don't take marching orders from the Vatican regarding birth control the condom and contraceptive policy in the developing world is a "proxy" battle for a war the Catholic Church is loosing here.

Trying to keep my article in the 800 word range, I can't explain each statistic. But clearly the statistic is about women of childbearing age. Post-menapausal and Pre-menarchal women would obviously not be included in a study about birth control.

You are right to call for clarification on the statistic, but even after your technical correction, the point stands: in this country, catholic women of childbearing age use birth control like any other woman in this county. In other countries, they aren't so lucky.

Here's a candid review of that stat:

Regarding the rest of your points about Peter, etc. I am aware of how the pope derives his authority. But, popes have been wrong before, even Peter is said to have denied JC 3 times. (many people knowledgeable of Catholic history would admit some popes have been wrong and could be wrong again.) I am 100% certain that 100 years from now we will look back and see that the current pope was wrong when he said that condoms cause more harm than good.

So, do I believe morality is derived from the mob? absolutely not. Do I believe morality is the solely derived from one authority? Do not forget the story of Jesus who repeatedly clashed with the orthodox authorities of his time.