Who's controlling whom?

Last modified: 2/12/2012 12:00:00 AM
You know the most amazing thing about the kerfuffle over rules requiring birth control availability for American women?

It's that, somehow, the nation's Catholic bishops - perhaps the most utterly unsympathetic group of people in the country, the same folks who for years presided over a self-protecting theocratic bureaucracy that routinely covered up for abusive priests and moved them from parish to parish, the same prelates who rule their peons like feudal overlords - have been winning the PR war with the Obama administration.

Make no mistake. It is a war. And it's not a war about "religious freedom," as the crusading bishops and their conservative supporters, including a parade of pandering Republican presidential wanna-bes, would have you believe. It's a war about women and who will control their reproductive capabilities.

It is a war about birth control, especially the relatively easy, inexpensive and effective birth control provided by the Pill, IUDs and other devices that have in the past 50 years revolutionized the world. For the first time in human history, women have been able to participate fully in the world in which they live. The results have been dramatic as women have moved in force into academe and into the workforce.

This includes millions of Catholic women, in this country and elsewhere, despite the fact that their church holds that using artificial birth control of any kind whatsoever is a "grave" sin.

Such liberation - particularly when some of those women start questioning their subservient role in the Church as well - doesn't sit well with many members of the Catholic hierarchy, an authoritative and autocratic bunch of celibate men who seem obsessed with controlling the reproductive lives of the rest of the world.

These men, overwhelmingly conservative thanks to the current pope and his immediate predecessor, have made little secret of the fact that they detest the current administration and would happily see it fail. And they are not above playing politics to get what they want, which is exactly what they're doing now.

As a story Friday afternoon in the New York Times documented, this barrage of criticism of Obama, including the charge that he was waging "a war on religion," was planned well in advance of the announcement about insurance covering birth control. Video statements were prepared and newsletters to be read from church pulpits were ready to go. The hierarchy fears it is losing its oversized influence over national policy and has been preparing its counter-attack. This was its time to strike.

But for the bishops to start whining about wars on religious freedom is really rich. For centuries, their church, whenever and wherever it has had the clout to do so, has happily done its best to force everyone - not just Catholics - to live by its rules, particularly for their sexual behavior. It has not hesitated to fight for laws that impinge on the freedom of religion and personal liberty for many millions of non-Catholics.

It campaigns ferociously - from the pope on down - against distribution of condoms in sub-Saharan Africa as protection against the deadly disease of AIDS because condoms are also birth control devices.

In much of Europe and Central and South America, the Catholic Church for years used its significant influence to keep birth control illegal - not just for Catholics but everyone.

It has bitterly opposed liberalization of divorce laws - not just for Catholics but for everyone.

Its bishops attacked as "deplorable" a 2003 Supreme Court decision striking down the country's last anti-sodomy laws, traditionally used to harass gay people.

Those same prelates are leading political battles against legalizing gay marriage and have endorsed a constitutional amendment banning marriage equality in this country.

The Catholic Church opposes - for all people, not just Catholics - artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization, despite their promise of children for millions of infertile people.

Even today, the Catholic Church in this country still isn't resigned to birth control for non-Catholics.

Rick Santorum, a self-proclaimed devout Catholic candidate for president, argues - without apparent contradiction from any Catholic prelates - that states should be allowed once again to outlaw birth control for anyone. And some of the Church's legal lights are helping that cause by continuing to cast doubt on the legitimacy of Griswold v. Connecticut, the 1965 Supreme Court decision that said states could no longer ban birth control for married people.

That's a vivid demonstration of a fact that anyone opposing the Catholic Church should keep in mind: The institutional Church has been around for a long time, and it almost never gives up. In the current furor about providing women with birth control, the administration Friday announced a plan that it believes will lay the disagreement to rest.

Not likely. One bishop has already signaled his disapproval, and another has suggested that no Catholic employer - whether church-affiliated or not - should be compelled to provide insurance coverage for birth control.

Ultimately, I'm not sure it matters. The seemingly outraged conservative Catholics who are so exercised about the Obama administration's decision are most likely people who would never, ever vote for Barack Obama.

For the rest of us Catholics, well, we'll make up our minds without priestly political advice.

And one final illuminating reminder of the Catholic Church's long-honed genius for misdirection and distraction.

At the height of the sexual molestation of minors scandal, the Vatican sent a papal delegation to the United States - not to examine the that scandal with its ongoing cover-ups across the country but to investigate American nuns to make sure that they weren't straying from current conservative Catholic orthodoxy.

Yep, it was all the fault of pesky women. Isn't it always?

(Monitor columnist Katy Burns lives in Bow.)




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