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It seems a little strange that we [Catholics] are so wildly exercised about the “murder” (and the word is of course correct) of an unborn infant by abortion, or even the prevention of conception which is hardly murder, and yet accept without a qualm the extermination of millions of helpless and innocent adults, some of whom may be Christians and even our friends rather than our enemies. I submit that we ought to fulfill the one without omitting the other.
—Thomas Merton, Cold War Letters, p. 38 (letter to Dorothy Day, Dec. 20, 1961).
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recently set out guidelines under which employers would be required to offer reproductive-health care to women, including coverage for contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs. The nation’s Catholic bishops reacted with a concerted campaign in opposition, adopting the language of persecution and victimhood. The church, they asserted, was being forced to provide services it condemned as unethical and immoral. When President Obama pulled back from the initial proposal by stating that insurers would be required to provide such services, but that employers who objected—such as the Catholic Church and its social and health-care-service organizations—would not, the bishops continued their opposition. Their leader, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York argued that the government’s move was “an unwarranted, unprecedented, radical intrusion into the integrity of the church, the internal life of the church.” He delivered a homily that was a thinly veiled appeal for Catholics to support the G.O.P. at the polls; Cardinal Francis George of Chicago issued a similarly political pastoral letter.
These developments occur just as Europe has been rocked by yet another scandal involving sexually motivated barbarism by Catholic clerics—this one related to the castration of young men in the Netherlands in the Fifties. Moreover, Americans, and particularly American Catholics, have adopted an increasingly hostile view toward the attitudes of church fathers on sexual matters. The hierarchy is seen as virulently homophobic, despite its likely being heavily populated with homosexuals, its unconscionable behavior in covering up cases of sexual exploitation involving priests, and its misogynistic and demeaning attitudes toward women. Catholic candidates who seem close to the views of the hierarchy, like Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum, don’t actually garner much support from American Catholics—many in fact mistake him for an evangelical Protestant based on his rhetoric. With elections just around the corner, it looks like another culture war is heating up, but this time the political dynamics seem weighted against the bishops.
The term “culture war” is used by Americans today to refer to a political strategy honed by the G.O.P. starting in the Seventies of appealing to religious conservatives by spotlighting such issues as gay marriage, abortion, and contraception use. However, the term relates back to the Kulturkampf of the nineteenth century, adopted by Otto von Bismarck to help Protestant Prussia “digest” the recently acquired majority-Catholic provinces of the Rhineland and Westphalia. Bismarck’s campaign included the Kanzelparagraph or “pulpit article”, which provided for the criminal prosecution of any Catholic priest who dared to discuss political matters from the pulpit—a step designed to block the Catholic hierarchy from pressing reactionary political views on their flocks. The judgment of subsequent historians is fairly clear, however: Bismarck lost the Kulturkampf. He overplayed his hand, and the Catholic hierarchy proved more than his equal in striking back. They threw their weight behind the Center Party (Zentrum), the forerunner of the modern Christian Democrats—the party of chancellors Angela Merkel, Conrad Adenauer, and Helmut Kohl, in fact the dominant party of modern German politics. The current Pope, Joseph Ratzinger—a former archbishop of Munich and Freising, and the man who has more than any other shaped the current politics of the Catholic Church—must be understood as a grandchild of the Kulturkampf, a man who insists that the church’s role should extend to the political world and that the church should not shy away from partisan engagement. In this sense, the Kulturkampf of nineteenth century Germany is linked with the culture war rising in America today.
Thomas Merton’s observations in a letter to the Catholic activist and writer Dorothy Day reveal his concern about precisely the kind of posturing we see in recent activism by Catholic prelates. He does not reject Catholic dogma related to abortion and birth control, but he questions why views expressed on these subjects are allowed to drown out other aspects of the church’s doctrine, effectively distorting that doctrine. The obsession with issues of human reproduction, pressed by men who have sworn an oath of celibacy, he suggests, delegitimizes views that might well be accepted as elements of a more comprehensive doctrine manifesting the church’s commitment to life and to the integrity and dignity of the individual.
The wisdom of Merton’s assessment is apparent in polling results today: the community of the faithful has arrived at a different view from the hierarchy. And whatever delusions the hierarchy may entertain, the community in the end constitutes the church. The current campaign risks becoming not just a test of the hierarchy’s leadership capacity, but a demonstration of the untethering of the hierarchy from the body of the church, of their loss of moral authority in the eyes of their erstwhile flock.
Listen to Johann Sebastian Bach’s exhilarating and fugue-like double chorale, BWV 50, “Nun ist das Heil und die Kraft,” whose text is from Revelation 12:10:
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“American politics has often been an arena for angry minds.”