The Battle to Return to the Thirteenth Century Begins

Yes, there’s William F. Buckley’s famous definition of a conservative, as that one man standing athwart history and shouting NO! And of course Buckley considered that noble and right, if not heroic. But things change all the time, for better or worse, and fighting that change is inherently pointless. Others note inevitable change and try to figure out how to deal with it – goosing up what’s good about the change or trying to limit the inevitable damage caused by the inevitable change. But long ago, Edmund Burke, the father of modern conservatism as they say, gave that famous speech On the Death of Marie Antoinette – an impassioned cri de coeur. What had the French done? The age of chivalry was now gone and “that of sophisters, economists, and calculators has succeeded, and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever.”

Is that so? Burke said that was so, loudly, and to be sure, the French Revolution turned out to be a nasty business, what with Robespierre and all. But the system it overturned, an absolute monarchy that of course claimed divine right and thus infallibility, eventually had produced a ruling class of dim-witted fops and corrupt clergy, one that had led to widespread misery and general and absolute ruin – except for those amazing parties at Versailles with the great food and the ladies with the big hair. Do you really want to defend that? And anyway, that absurd house of cards was going to fall sooner or later. Yes, maybe it’s too bad about Marie Antoinette – actually a relatively harmless and fairly insignificant party in all these matters. She might have been pleasant enough too. But missing things-as-they-were is saying that things were fine as they were, when they weren’t. Sophisters, economists and calculators are sometimes better than greedy bastards and fools. Yes, Burke was right. Europe would never be the same. But the glory of Europe was not extinguished forever. The Sun King was extinguished.

And Europe did give us the Enlightenment – that period when everyone who was anyone decided the way to figure out the world was to examine empirical evidence and figure out, from that evidence, how things actually work. If someone says something is so you devise an experiment to see if what they say will happen or won’t happen, in a way you can repeat to show it’s always so. There’s a reason this was also called the Age of Reason. You didn’t take things on faith. You devised ways to test things, to see how they really worked – which is why Benjamin Franklin was flying his kite in a thunderstorm. Electricity wasn’t magic after all. So maybe the glory of Europe wasn’t chivalry and pretty idle ladies of the court after all. Maybe it was the development of modern science and all the technology that led to. Believe nothing and think things through, and test your thinking, and ask others to test your thinking, so you’re sure about what’s what. Because God said so, or just because God made things that way – that was no longer good enough. The idea was to see what He had been up to, to examine his intricate handwork.

But there were those who stood athwart that too and said NO very loudly. Darwin, building on the work of Lamarck, gave them pause – there was all this evidence of evolution, of one species evolving into another, and damn, it certainly looked like we might be descended from… earlier primates. The empirical evidence was there, but must be wrong, or incomplete, or planted by God to fool us and test our faith. What about Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden? What about the Book of Genesis? This wasn’t in the Bible. And like Burke weeping for Marie Antoinette, there were those who wept for Adam and Eve, and God. That glory too should not be extinguished forever. So here in America we got the Scopes Monkey Trial in the twenties, and now have the Creationists, claiming God-just-did-it should be taught in our schools alongside all that science stuff, as one theory of how things work is just as good as another – and empirical evidence cannot be all it’s cracked up to be. People joke that these folks are trying to repeal the Enlightenment – but that’s not far off the mark.

This is Buckley’s heroic conservatism at work – saying no to the inevitable, even as we do learn more and more about the world all the time, and even though there’s no easy unknowing of it now. Yes, there are those who do long for the days of simple faith, when the hierarchy of the one church – whatever it was at the time – said look folks, this is how things are, and then good people, and even the government in power, simply trusted them and agreed. But as you recall, Henry VIII had a problem with that, and he told the Pope himself to piss off – Henry would start his own church, the Church of England, and marry who he damned well pleased. So those who like the idea of those days of simple overriding faith long for an odd time – perhaps the thirteenth century. But if you’re going to stand athwart history and say no, you can choose any century you want. It’s all the past.

But who wants to go back to the thirteenth century, with all the odd Crusades and the Church telling the government what it could and could not do? Well, Rick Santorum thinks the Crusades were a fine idea and we’re luckily doing the same thing now – and there is the other matter:

The nation’s Roman Catholic bishops have rejected a compromise on birth control coverage that President Obama offered on Friday and said they would continue to fight the president’s plan to find a way for employees of Catholic hospitals, universities and service agencies to receive free contraceptive coverage in their health insurance plans, without direct involvement or financing from the institutions.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops – which has led the opposition to the plan – said in a statement late Friday that the solution offered by the White House to quell a political furor was “unacceptable and must be corrected” because it still infringed on the religious liberty and conscience of Catholics.

The state – the government of, by and for the people – must be subservient to the Church, or religious freedom means nothing at all. Yes, the logic is odd. And David Atkins is a little cynical about this:

There are two things to note about this. First and most obvious is that there is no reason to ever attempt to accommodate people like this. They will never be happy, and the person doing the accommodating will always be seen as more weak than reasonable.

Second, it’s fairly clear that the Bishops don’t really care all that much about this issue. They haven’t raised this much of a stink about the subject at a state level, even though they’re required by many state laws to provide contraception.

This is a political move by the Bishops to damage the President, and to rally support among the most extremist elements of an organization that lost its way and true calling some time ago. They’re acting purely as an attack arm of the theocratic Republican Party, and they should be treated accordingly.

And Dennis G. at Balloon Juice offers this:

The President offered up a rhetorical solution in response to their rhetorical freak-out over language in a new health insurance rule and the fiction that their objection was about religious freedom was exposed as bullshit. They could walk away, but instead they are pumping up the volume to keep the issue alive. It is a political play that has more to do with Republican politics than almost anything else.

But he adds this context:

This is just the latest iteration of a centuries old objection to women having control of their bodies, their lives, their happiness and their liberty by the conservative power-focused elites running the Roman Catholic Church. This objection manifests itself in screeds against anything that treats sex as an activity separate from breeding and/or free from the dictates of Church Law.

And yet, I don’t think this latest play is about sex or even the Church trying to control the lives of women – I think it is about power and that sex, women, gay marriage and a host of other culture warrior issues are the pathway that they see as the golden road.

For anybody who has looked at the history of the Catholic Church (and any organized religion for that matter) a key part of their activities over time becomes how to maintain power, privilege and influence – and all the goodies that come with it. Eventually that is all that matters for the institution. The greatest success in this effort always comes when political leaders bow to the dictates of the Holy Roman Church and agree to make State Law subservient to Church Law. Back in the days of Kings and Queens you only had a handful of elites you had to work with and the mutual pursuit of power inspired many of them to treat Church Law as State Law. It worked for a long while and then came the Reformation, Protestantism, King Henry, the Enlightenment, Democracy and eventually a desire by more and more people to make their laws free of religion and the dictates of any Church.

So he goes one to argue that this country was founded on the belief that church and state are separate and that the laws of this nation trump the laws of any religion, including the Roman Catholic Church, and this has made the conservative wing of the Catholic Church quite sad. They’ve lost too many fights already – they opposed suffrage for women and anything that “might free women from the Church sanctioned role of breeder” – and thus every form of contraception. And they have lost the battle of finding any American politician who was willing to say that law should be subservient to Church Law. But wonder of wonders, now that’s changed:

In the 2012 Republican race there are two Catholics running for the GOP Nomination and both have rejected the JFK formulation that US Laws and the Constitution trump the laws and dictates of the Catholic Church. Both Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum have signaled they will follow the orders they are given by the Bishops, but Santorum is the one the Bishops are fighting for and that is why they are doubling down on the Contraception flap.

And Santorum is the Man of the Thirteenth Century now:

If the conversation of the GOP Primary shifts to the Culture Wars Santorum will surge – especially if the focus of the culture wars is on sex and bodily functions. This is Rick’s sweet spot and the Bishops have decided to double down on their Grail to end the existence of contraception as a way to help move the Republican Primary to topics that will help Santorum win the nomination. If the main topic in the Michigan Primary is the Culture War and the Bishops are sending out Sunday letters, Santorum will surge all over that State. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is working to drive the GOP Primary debate to issues that will help Santorum beat Romney. And all they ask in return is that Rick agrees to bow to the dictates of the Holy Roman Church and place Church Law above US Federal Law and the Constitution. It is a request that Santorum will fulfill.

Supporting a Santorum surge is an opportunity for power and that is why the Bishops are doubling down on opposing any insurance company offering any contraception or family planning services to anybody, anywhere. Ultimately the entire issue is about power and not about sex.

So what we have here is one unhappy Catholic:

I grew up Catholic. I went to Catholic schools from first grade through College. I worked at a church as a janitor for years while in school. I even seriously considered the Priesthood at one point. I love Liberation Theology, the Catholic Workers and the work they do and the work done by many others in the Church, but there has always been a part of the Church that puts the pursuit of power on this Earth ahead of all other concerns. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops speaks for those weasels in America. The pursuit of power is why pedophiles are still protected by the Church, why human rights for women, LGBT folks and members of other faiths are sometimes opposed by the Church and why a discussion about who gets to control the vaginas of America is more important to the Church than a focus on who will fight for the poor, the oppressed, the imprisoned and the neglected.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is why I walked away from the Church of my upbringing and why my Baptism into the Catholic Church fills me with a bit of shame every time these weasels make another transparent grab for political power.

It seems that Dennis doesn’t like the thirteenth century. But the rest of the party is with Santorum:

Not satisfied with President Obama’s new religious accommodation, Republicans will move forward with legislation by Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) that permits any employer to deny birth control coverage in their health insurance plans, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said Sunday.

“If we end up having to try to overcome the President’s opposition by legislation, of course I’d be happy to support it, and intend to support it,” McConnell said. “We’ll be voting on that in the Senate and you can anticipate that that would happen as soon as possible.”

And there’s John Cole:

I’m simply speechless. I honestly cannot believe that in this day and age, the GOP is going to go all out and wage this war. This has nothing to do with religious liberty, and this is just a war on women. They are just done pretending they are anything but religious zealots and fanatics. I wonder if the press will figure that out.

I simply do not understand how they could be this stupid. I also don’t understand how there is anyone out there left who is a moderate Republican who will still vote with these lunatics.

So Cole, once a firm Republican himself, adds this:

Moderate Republicans – at this point, you are out of excuses. No more BS about trying to take the party back. No more crap about your principles or how you are an old school conservative or just don’t feel comfortable with Democrats. You vote Republican, you vote for the maniacs. No more bullshit excuses to help you sleep at night. You vote for them, you are one of them. Period.

But while press coverage of the bill will likely center around contraception, that’s not the only target:

“The fact that the White House thinks this is about contraception is the whole problem. This is about freedom of religion. It’s right there in the First Amendment. You can’t miss it – right there in the very first amendment to our Constitution,” McConnell said. “What the overall view on the issue of contraception is has nothing to do with an issue about religious freedom.”

Laura Clawson begs to differ:

That’s the religious freedom to deny coverage for birth control, of course. But it’s also the religious freedom to deny coverage for cervical cancer, because it’s caused by HPV, which is transmitted sexually. It’s the religious freedom to deny coverage for treatment for alcoholism or any health issue associated with drinking. It’s the religious freedom for any employer, not just religiously affiliated ones, to be legally allowed to come up with any excuse to exclude any kind of care from the health coverage they provide their employees, as long as they say it’s a religious or moral reason.

Even as they claim it’s about something bigger than contraception, you can bet Republicans will keep the focus squarely on that – they want the public debate to be contraception (associated with sex and women’s health and therefore … icky) against religious freedom (a noble abstract idea and essential constitutional principle). But they’re going for something much bigger. They’re simultaneously looking to eviscerate the Affordable Care Act, turn over governance to churches – in fact, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) is sponsoring a bill similar to Blunt’s because of something he heard in church – and give employers yet another way to shaft their workers.

So it comes down to this:

Mitch McConnell is right. This fight is bigger than contraception. It always has been, because women’s health isn’t just a minor issue. But now, thanks to Republicans, it’s a fight about any kind of health care you might name, and about workers at any business. Because women aren’t a big enough target anymore; they’re going after everyone now.

She too has a problem with the thirteenth century, where the Church tells the state what to do. And Charles Johnson simply sees that the Republican Party’s descent into Dark Ages misogyny continues – a nice historical echo. And Andrew Sullivan argues that all the predictions of disaster for Obama on this issue are deeply misleading:

Right now, they are driven both by cable news’s love of a good fight and high ratings and by the Republican primary campaign, in which the candidates, especially Newt Gingrich and Santorum, are desperately battling to unify the evangelical base, which is convinced its faith is somehow under attack. In the longer run, however, I suspect this sudden confluence of kerfuffles will be seen as one of the last gasps of the culture war, not its re-ignition. That’s especially possible since Obama’s swift walk-back last Friday, when he proposed an utterly sensible compromise, which exempts both churches and other religious institutions that cater to the general public from directly covering or paying for birth control, shifting the coverage requirement to insurance companies. Catholic organizations will be able to stay out of the contraception question entirely, while contraception for all women will be kept free of charge. Instead of being lose-lose for the president, it became win-win. Most Catholics will be fine with this compromise, as are the Catholic Health Association and Planned Parenthood. But the bishops? They’ve gone out on a very long limb. This could be the moment when the culture-war tide finally turns and the social wedge issues long deployed so effectively by the Republican right begin to come back and bite them.

The more Machiavellian observer might even suspect this is actually an improved bait and switch by Obama to more firmly identify the religious right with opposition to contraception, its weakest issue by far, and to shore up support among independent women and his more liberal base. I’ve found by observing this president closely for years that what often seem like short-term tactical blunders turn out in the long run to be strategically shrewd. And if this was a trap, the religious right walked right into it.

So the bishops can say what they will:

This kind of rhetoric is not about protecting religious freedom. It is about imposing a particular religious doctrine on those who don’t share it as a condition for general employment utterly unrelated to religion at all. And if that is the hill the Catholic hierarchy and evangelical right want to fight and die on, they will lose – and lose badly.

You don’t scream no at inevitable change, you deal with it, or you don’t:

Time after time, they have rejected compromises on social issues because of fundamentalist rigidity, not Christian engagement with a changing world. They could have agreed, for example, to secular civil unions for gays – and not full “marriage” rights – but instead they insisted that neither was acceptable at all. They could have made a strong and vital case for the immorality and evil of abortion as a civil-rights issue, without demanding it be criminalized by the state. They could have accepted a compromise on contraception in health-care policies, but they have refused. And their fundamentalist intransigence has not worked in persuading anyone.

And Sullivan, a Catholic and a conservative, also longs for an age long ago, but one that these guys wouldn’t recognize:

There was a time not so long ago when Catholics and other Christians weighed various moral claims to find a balance. Sometimes, the lesser of two evils was preferable. For centuries, for example, Catholic theologians, including the greatest, Thomas Aquinas, argued that human life begins not at conception but at some point in the second trimester. For centuries the Catholic Church allowed married priests. For centuries Catholics believed that extending the end of life by extreme measures like feeding tubes was a violation of natural death, which Christians of all people should not be afraid of.

But this ancient, moderate, pragmatic reasoning has been rejected by the last two popes, who have increasingly become rigid, fundamentalist, and hostile to prudential balancing acts in the real, modern world we live in. Their radical fundamentalism – so alien to the spirit of the Second Vatican Council and to so many lay Catholics – has discredited the core priorities of Christianity, failed to persuade their own flock, and led to increasing politicization. And the obsession among Catholic and evangelical leaders with an issue like contraception stands in stark contrast to their indifference to, for example, the torture in which the last administration engaged, the growing social inequality fostered by unfettered capitalism, the Christian moral imperative of universal health care, and the unjust use of the death penalty. That’s why younger evangelicals are also alienated. They want to refocus on issues of the poor, prison rape, human trafficking, and the kind of injustices Jesus emphasized, rather than on these sexual sideshows the older generation seems so obsessed with.

As for politics, the Republican fusion with the Vatican is also, it seems to me, a terrible mistake for the party.

But now it’s game on. It’s the fight to return to the thirteenth century, or not. Do we deal with the modern world as it is? Some will stand athwart history and scream NO! The rest of us will just sigh.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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4 Responses to The Battle to Return to the Thirteenth Century Begins

  1. Dick Bernard says:

    Thank you. Here’s a lonely response from a near-72 year old lifelong practicing Catholic, me, who you’ll find in church every Sunday… I’ll link yours to mine. (I expect I’ll do a followup post today on the same topic.) I like your reference to the 13th century: those good olde “The Pillars of the Earth” days in England so well reconstructed by Ken Follett.

  2. Doubting Thomas says:

    The issue over contraception is the same in essence as the spark that caused the Reformation 600 years ago. Then the Roman Catholic Church did everything it could to stop the Bible being published in anything but latin to deny people the right to read and decide for themselves; they wanted the power over people that restricting knowledge gives. Plus ca change..On the wider issue, I have to say I am beyond gob-smacked that the Republicans have walked – actually not walked but dived headlong – into this one. In the UK in the 19th century, J S Mill called the Conservatives the stupid party which he later explained on the lines that all the stupid people he met were conservatives. I can’t see much reason to argue with him now.

  3. Rick says:

    Two points:

    (1) Despite what everyone says, this is all about defending religious liberty from attack, but what nobody seems to understand is that the attacks on liberty are coming, not from Obama, but from the Catholic Church and its Republican friends.

    The rights and liberties protected by the Constitution are the rights of people, not the rights of large institutions. And just as corporations are not really “people”, nor are organized religions “people”. If anyone in a church deserves religious freedom, it’s the people sitting in the pews. But also the people not sitting in those pews, since in this case many of the people not being offered the choice to receive or reject contraceptive insurance are people employed or served by these Catholic organizations who are of a different faith.

    In other words, American Religious Freedom is not about churches having the freedom to impose their beliefs on people, it is about people being free to choose what to believe themselves.

    (2) Even though I’m on Obama’s side in this, I see his “accommodation” as mostly just a good tactic on his part, although maybe one that fails to settle the issue. After all, he’s succeeded in making it look like the bishops were just objecting to paying for contraception insurance, rather than having to making it available, leaving the church an opening to come back and say Obama obviously doesn’t understand the problems he’s pretending to solve.

    But Obama’s tactic does have the advantage of separating the “reasonable” Catholic leaders from those bone-headed bishops who are trying to run the country from their pulpits. And so, yes, I do think Obama will probably win this.

    Maybe one lesson that we can take away from all this is, if this country insists on electing a Catholic president, it needs to take care that he’s not a Republican Catholic, since they haven’t the sense to know that it’s the people who are supposed to be in charge here, not a bunch of Catholic priests.


    • WM Toronto says:

      At the end of the day, you can be both a conservative and a liberal on this simply by respecting the concept of the separation of church and state as the founding fathers intended (that’s the conservative part part of my argument). To take the liberal side of it one actually has to promote this “traditional” (in the American experience) view to anybody who spouts the nonsense or nods in agreement at the toxic and destructive nonsense that has become the currency of this Republican primary. Secondly, and more specifically: ANYBODY who would run for President and be ready to blithely state that he/she was fine with officially re-introducing the primacy of church over state is not worthy of the name “American” to my mind. Why? Well such rhetoric demonstrates either a breathtaking ignorance or an absolute contempt for the principles that the country was founded upon. Third, are the bishops on meth? Why are they even supporting a Republican at all (esp. this bunch) because I’m hard pressed to find anything in the platforms proposed that speaks to the greater good as opposed to narrow interests and cynicism. BTW: I’m an R.C and went to R.C. schools, so I’m already well acquainted with the dogma.

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