Birth Control Debate: Why Catholic Bishops Have Lost Their Grip on U.S. Politics—and Their Flock

COMMENTARY

The Vatican’s timing was ironic. While Roman Catholic bishops in the U.S. were trying to revive their moral and political clout last week by battling President Obama over contraception coverage and religious liberty, a papally endorsed symposium was underway in Rome on how the Church has to change if it wants to prevent sexual abuse crises, the very tragedy that has shriveled the stature of Catholic prelates worldwide over the past decade, especially in the U.S. One monsignor at the Vatican gathering even suggested the hierarchy had been guilty of “omertà,” the Mafia code of silence, by protecting abusive priests.

The Roman forum was a reminder—and the birth control clash is turning out to be one as well — of just how much influence the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has lost in the 10 years since the abuse crisis erupted in America. It hopes that its protest of a new federal rule requiring religiously affiliated institutions like Catholic hospitals and universities to provide no-cost contraception in their health insurance coverage, even if church doctrine forbids birth control, will help restore the bishops’ relevance. They did win a partial victory last Friday when Obama, acknowledging the uproar, said those institutions would no longer have to pay for the contraception coverage themselves. But the President did not fully genuflect: The compromise will still oblige religious-based employers to offer the coverage, while their insurance providers foot the bill.

Although major Catholic groups like Catholic Charities and Catholic Health Services accepted that revision, the bishops are holding out for more. But their crusade to be exempted from the mandate is likely to fall short of its grail. If so, it’s because Obama read the Catholic flock better than its shepherds did.

Granted, the bishops, led by New York Archbishop and Cardinal-elect Timothy Dolan, did get the White House to acknowledge how high-handedly and ham-handedly it had managed the contraception debate—confirming along the way the public’s wariness of the so-called liberal elite—and convinced it to craft a deal that should have been policy in the first place. Yet in his refusal to cave completely to the religious liberty campaign, Obama has illustrated the reality that the bishops no longer speak for most U.S. Catholics—the nation’s largest religious denomination and a critical swing-voter group—on a host of moral issues, according to polls.

Not on abortion or the death penalty (a majority of Catholics believe those should remain legal); on divorce or homosexuality (most say those are acceptable); on women being ordained as priests and priests getting married (ditto); or on masturbation and pre-marital sex (ditto again, Your Excellencies).

And especially not on contraception. Ever since Pope Paul VI reaffirmed the Church’s senseless ban on birth control in 1968, few doctrines have been as vilified, ridiculed and outright ignored by Catholics – evidenced by a recent study showing that 98% of American Catholic women have used some form of contraception. It’s hard to believe, as the bishops would have it, that those women simply succumbed to society’s pressure to do the secular thing. They’ve decided, in keeping with their faith’s precept of exercising personal conscience, that family planning is the moral and societally responsible thing to do—for example, preventing unwanted pregnancies and therefore abortions. And it explains why a recent Public Religion Research Institute poll found most Catholics support the contraception coverage mandate even for Catholic-affiliated organizations. Presumably most endorse Friday’s compromise.

Far more Evangelical Protestants, according to the PRRI survey, back the bishops than Catholics do. But that hardly makes the bishops, when it comes to the more independent Catholic vote, the same force to be reckoned with that they were in the 20th century. That is, before 2002 and the horror stories of how prelates like Cardinal Bernard Law, then Boston’s archbishop, had serially shielded alleged pedophile priests. It’s true that some bishops, like Washington Archbishop Donald Wuerl, confronted rather than coddled accused priests. But when it became clear that so many of the men in miters cared more about safeguarding the clerical corporation than about protecting kids, episcopal “authority” vanished like so much incense smoke—and Catholics increasingly abandoned the 2,000-year-old notion that their church and their religion are the same thing.

That’s essentially what Catholics like me are asking for, especially from my colleagues in the media, during episodes like the contraception and religious liberty fracas: Stop equating what the bishops say with what we think, because we’re not the obedient, monolithic bloc that newspapers and cable news networks so tiresomely insist is in “jeopardy” for this or that party whenever they smell church-state friction. When a hardline U.S. bishop calls for withholding communion from a Catholic politician who supports legalized abortion, stop assuming all Catholics have the prelate’s back rather than the pol’s. When Catholic politicians draft legislation like the religious liberty bills popping up on Capitol Hill right now, stop accepting their assertion that the birth-control ban is “a major tenet” of Catholic faith, as Florida Senator Marco Rubio called it this month. For the vast majority of Catholics, it isn’t.

And for that matter, stop forgetting that in the 2008 election, 54% of Catholic voters ignored their bishops and backed a pro-choice presidential candidate like Obama. I certainly don’t point that out as some kind of endorsement of Obama in 2012. I’m simply noting that pundits and politicians need smarter criteria for gauging the Catholic vote—just as advisers in Obama’s White House shouldn’t have been so clueless about religious issues when they first decreed the contraception mandate. If the tragedy of the 2002 abuse crisis reminds us of anything, it’s that religion does matter in politics. Just ask the church leaders who are still paying a political price for their religious code of silence.

Complete Article HERE!

Catholic church stance on contraception policy speaks to subordination of women

COMMENTARY

The squabble over whether Catholic social service institutions, universities and hospitals must offer insurance covering contraception under the new health plan contains a subplot with roots deep in history.

It’s the relationship between women and organized religion — a relationship that, over the centuries, has been hostile to the aspirations of women for a larger role in the family, the world and religion itself.
A little history is needed here.

Women — as well as men — have, through the ages, experienced the same spiritual stirrings that give rise to faith and firm religious beliefs. But organized religion, with its churches, synagogues, mosques, feasts and rituals, has, from the beginning, been exclusively the creation of men.

Moreover, the bureaucracies that have grown up to run these religions — and to promulgate their codes of moral right and wrong — have, from the beginning, been the work of men. Women had little or no say in this overarching influence in their lives.

Here’s one conservative religious view of woman’s role as expressed by A.H. Strong, president of the Rochester Theological Seminary, in a mid-19th century essay: “She is subject to man,” he wrote. “She is to be helper, not principal. Man has preference in creation, woman is made of man and to supply the felt needs of man.” (How nice for man.)

Even in the modern world, women occupy a subordinate role. Some fundamentalist or ultra-orthodox sects even prohibit women from worshiping in the same room with men. In some Islamic lands, women can’t leave home unless accompanied by a male relative, a rule enforced by “religious police.”
Organized religion, in short, has been a clerical stag party.

It is against this historical background that the tussle between what religious conservatives see as a First Amendment right and many women see as a health issue will be played out over contraceptive coverage.

The marginalization of women is just one characteristic of most major religions. The other, in one degree or another, is authoritarianism. They are not democratic institutions.

Their leaders don’t care much for doctrinal dissent. And they have a point. Why should they give any heed to dissent if they believe they’re following the divine will, that they’re doing God’s work? How can they be wrong?

In centuries past, dissent was punished by imprisonment, torture, even death. The Gnostics, who broke from Catholicism in its early days, were persecuted for several heresies, including a belief that women were, in God’s great plan, the equal of men. (Whatever gave them that idea?)

Some extreme Islamic sects still stone women to death even today, especially for adultery. (Men get a pass on this one.) Similar punishments are meted out by some Hindu extreme fundamentalists.

Something about women having sex for the sheer joy of it seems to unhinge the ultrareligious mind, even here in the West where things are better for women but not exactly benign.

Which brings us to the dust-up over requiring religious organizations to pay for contraception despite their doctrinal objection.

Opposition to contraception in this scientific age seems medieval. Maybe so, but it’s a matter of religious freedom and belief, the Catholic bishops insist. It’s also a political issue for the church.

The Catholic church must oppose contraception if it’s to keep faith with its true believers, especially women who have lived by that rule for generations despite the hardship it often imposed. This is the church’s most devoted constituency — its base, so to speak.

Trouble is, even Catholic leaders know a majority of Catholic women today violate the contraception ban. They’ve seen the polls. And they must appreciate that widespread scorning of this rule can ultimately undermine clerical credibility on other religious matters, especially with the church’s younger, more questioning adherents. But the bishops are trapped in church history.

The Obama administration’s handling of the issue was incredibly clumsy and insensitive. Therefore, it owed bishops a way out, which it tried to do with an about-face Friday on its contraception insurance edict. For their part, the bishops, like conservative clergy in all religions, have got to get off the dime and begin bringing women into the dialogue about dogma.

This is a clash that never should have happened. Then again, considering how organized religion has historically ignored or marginalized women, maybe it had to happen.

Complete Article HERE!

Jacqueline G. Wexler, Ex-Nun Who Took On Church, Dies at 85

Jacqueline G. Wexler, a former Roman Catholic nun who fought the Vatican’s authority and won, then found herself on the other side of the barricades when she became president of Hunter College in 1970, facing student demonstrators storming her office, died on Thursday in Orlando, Fla. She was 85.
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Her death was confirmed by her daughter, Wendy Wexler Branton.

While still a nun and battling the church on many issues, Ms. Wexler drew nationwide attention as a bellwether of the liberal reforms of the Second Vatican Council. She fought successfully against church control of Webster College, the small Catholic women’s college near St. Louis that she headed in the 1960s. She advocated greater participation by women in church leadership and criticized the church’s ban on birth control.

Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, the Catholic televangelist, referred to her as a “Benedict Arnold” in 1967, the year she won autonomy for Webster and simultaneously renounced her vows. Dick Cavett had her as a guest on his late-night TV talk show.

Ms. Wexler’s appointment in 1970 as president of Hunter, one of 11 colleges in the City University of New York system, coincided with a turbulent year in its history. Students, roiled by a combination of antiwar politics and local tensions caused by rising fees and a new university-wide open admissions policy, held demonstrations that shut down the campus repeatedly that spring.

Protesters blocked building entrances and elevators, forcing others to use emergency doors and stairways. Ms. Wexler, refusing at first to call the police, waded into angry crowds to talk, only to be shouted down. Barricaded in her office several times, she finally called the police.

A reporter for The New York Times was in the president’s office one afternoon that April when the phones rang, bringing news that students had blocked elevators and entrances for the second time that month.

“Here we go again,” Ms. Wexler said.

Outside her window, protesters chanted in rhyme, accusing her of colluding with “pigs,” the epithet they used for the police.

Ms. Wexler said that if anything had prepared her for the turmoil, it was having been a lightning rod for condemnation by conservatives in the church.

“Zealotry is the enemy,” she said, adding: “The far right called you every name, from daughter to Beelzebub on, and you learned to take it.”

She was born Jean Grennan on Aug. 2, 1926, the youngest of four children of Edward and Florence Grennan, who owned a small farm in Sterling, Ill. She later took the name Jacqueline in honor of an older brother, Jack, who died of a brain tumor at 21.

After graduating from Webster College, she entered the order of the Sisters of Loretto in 1949, and taught high school math and English in St. Louis and El Paso, Tex. She received her master’s in English from the University of Notre Dame in 1957, and returned to Webster in 1959 as an instructor and administrator.

Sister J., as she was known, was named president of Webster in 1965. She began initiatives aimed at raising educational standards and halting declining enrollment, then common among Catholic women’s colleges.

Sister J. made institutional separation from the church her first priority. “The very nature of higher education is opposed to juridical control by the church,” she said at the time.

She also led the transition to co-education, built new facilities, and started a social-justice program that sent students to work in the poorest neighborhoods of St. Louis, attracting the attention of the Kennedy administration.

She was appointed to the president’s advisory panel on research and development in education and to the original steering committee that developed Project Head Start, the federal program for low-income children.

After several years of well-publicized jousting with Sister J., the Vatican, in 1967, granted the Sisters of Loretto permission to put Webster under the control of an independent, secular board of trustees. It was one of the first Catholic colleges to cut its ties to the church. Asked for his reaction, Archbishop Sheen replied to a reporter: “No comment. I am more interested in Nathan Hales than Benedict Arnolds.”

In 1969, the former Sister Jacqueline married Paul Wexler, a record company executive, and adopted his two children, Wayne and Wendy. Besides Ms. Wexler Branton, Ms. Wexler is survived by her husband and son, as well as four grandchildren, two great-grandchildren and two sisters.

Ms. Wexler was known as a calming presence at Hunter. She led it through the rocky early 1970s and helped make it the city university’s premier center for health care education. Before stepping down in 1979, she brought Bellevue Hospital’s nursing school into the college, expanded health care training, raised money to start a gerontology program in the school of social work and inaugurated a women’s studies program.

From 1982 until 1990, she was president of the National Conference of Christians and Jews.

After receiving an honorary degree from her alma mater, now Webster University, in 2007, Ms. Wexler, then 81, was given a tour of the campus by the president accompanied by a reporter for The St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Many buildings had been added since she left. She was eager to see them all, the newspaper said, and seemed to grow impatient when the elevator in one building was slow to arrive.

Whether out of eagerness or habit forged in the crucible of 1970, Ms. Wexler proceeded to the stairs.

“Let’s walk,” she said. “I wore comfortable shoes.”

Complete Article HERE!

Homosexuality among church leaders discussed at Jesuit university event

In late October, on the day an out-of-season snowstorm some have called “epic” and “historic” broke nearly 200-year-old weather records and almost shut down parts of the Northeast, something else happened that was perhaps unprecedented: A Catholic university hosted a daylong formal discussion on the topic of homosexuality within communities of nuns and priests.

For the 100 or so theologians, members of the clergy, women religious, students and others who braved the heavy snow Oct. 29 to attend “The Care of Souls: Sexual Diversity, Celibacy, and Ministry” conference at Jesuit-run Fairfield University, the day was packed densely with history, stories and plenty of questions.

It was the final event of a four-part series of talks titled “More Than a Monologue: Sexual Diversity and the Catholic Church.” The series aimed at expanding the conversation on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues within the Catholic church.

“Unfortunately, any speech about Catholicism, sexuality and clerical power is so vexed, so scandalous, that I can’t begin the meditation without underlining three more cautions against misunderstanding,” said the first speaker, Mark Jordan, a professor of divinity at Harvard University Divinity School.
“First, I’ll be talking about the configuration of power in relation to sexuality within ecclesial systems, not about all of the individual lives under those systems. It is, of course, possible to lead a Christian life of unstinting love, of vivid witness, of embodied grace under the present system of Roman power,” Jordan said.

“Second caution: I want to talk about this clerical power as homoerotic. By this I don’t mean to imply anything about the sexual acts, real or fantasized, of those who participate in this power,” he said. “This form of clerical power seems to me the object, and the instrument, of sharp longing, of desire.

“Third and final caution: I speak of the configuration of homoerotic power in the Roman Catholic clergy at particular times and places. There are partial repetitions across church history, I think, and there are striking structural similarities across church cultures in a given time. But if we know anything about the Catholic church, it is that it is not one thing. It is a complex network of thousands of different communities.”

Before beginning his discussion about power and the Catholic church, Jordan traced the church’s history of thought in relation to homosexuality over the past few decades, a history that would serve as backdrop and context for the speeches that followed.

Loretto Sr. Jeannine Gramick of New Ways Ministry in Maryland talked about the organization’s role in discussing homosexuality within the Catholic church, beginning in the 1970s, and particularly about its work in support of lesbian nuns.

After reflecting on the past 40 years of history and discussion, Gramick said she has seen three central issues emerge: celibacy, sexual identity and “coming out.”

In the first 20 years, in the 1970s and 1980s, the overriding question that surfaced for women religious was “sexual identity,” Gramick said. “People wondered about — how do you know you’re lesbian?” In the 20 years that followed, she added, “the overriding question seems to be [about] coming out.”

Throughout this time, however, Gramick said much of the emphasis was placed on the question of celibacy. But the important question to ask, she continued, is, “How do lesbian sisters — and by extension how do heterosexual sisters — live out their celibacy in healthy ways?”

Following Gramick’s detailed analysis, speaker Jamie Manson, who is an instructor in religious studies at Fairfield University and a columnist for the National Catholic Reporter, began with humor:

“I am firmly convinced had I been born, rather than in the 1970s, in the 1940s, I today would be a lesbian nun,” Manson said. “And I would not have become a nun simply just to avoid having to face married life with a man; I would have answered that because I have a call of intense witness to the Gospel — I still have that — but being able to avoid marriage wouldn’t have hurt, either.”

Manson said there is a difference between the experience of gay and lesbian Catholics.

“For lesbians the experience of being Catholic affects more than their sexual orientation; it relates to the anatomy itself. By banning women from serving as priests, the hierarchy says — in this great cosmic hubris — that God simply cannot work sacramentally through the body of a woman. For most lesbians, and many straight women, this leads to feelings of isolation and disempowerment,” Manson said. “I cannot stress enough how corrosive it is to the spirit to have never seen a woman’s bodily form wear a stole, stand behind an altar, raise the bread and wine, place her hands in the waters of the baptismal font, step through the center door of the confessional.”

If you are a lesbian, Manson continued, “you’re in double jeopardy with the church. You’re alienated because of your body and also because of the way your body relates in response to desire and love in erotic relationships.”

The conference, which wrapped up with a panel discussion about future exploration of this topic, also featured remarks by Elizabeth Dreyer, religious studies professor at Fairfield; Fr. Donald Cozzens, writer in residence at John Carroll University; and Gerard Jacobitz, religious studies professor at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.

In closing, Paul Lakeland, professor of Catholic Studies at Fairfield and one of the organizers of the conference series, said he was pleased with the outcome of the program, and the cooperation between the four host schools. (Previous conferences were held at Fordham University in New York, Union Theological Seminary in New York and Yale Divinity School in New Haven, Conn.)

“A lot of gay and lesbian and straight, and Catholics and non-Catholics, but especially Catholics, got together on four weekends and talked about issues that the church would really — the institutional church — would really rather they didn’t, and the sky didn’t fall in,” Lakeland said. “We, I think, are collectively a little wiser, I’m sure, and hopefully a little more encouraged as we go on from here.”

Complete Article HERE!