Obama riles the bishops

There's nothing like a good old-fashioned fracas with the Catholic bishops to spice up the election season.  Usually, the Bs are a quiet lot, churning out position papers urging peace in the Holy Land or flogging National Vocation Awareness Week, or dreaming up tweaks in this or that prayer in the lectionary. But this month, President Obama touched the Bishop's third rail -- by trying to push US Catholic institutions -- hospitals, etc, -- to include coverage for contraception in the health care plans they provided for their employees.

It was the flap hear round the nation, much of it missing the point:
  • Yes, after years of mishandling cases of child rape, the bishops hardly have a moral leg to stand on when it comes to dictating morality
  • Yes, as celibate and pampered men, they have little first-hand insight into the lives of ordinary Americans, especially women, and most especially the sexual lives of normal people
  • Yes, it's true that 98% of American Catholics use birth control (count the number of 2-child families at Mass lately?)
  • Yes, it's true that contraception should be part of a woman's total health and wellness program
  • Yes, the Church's no-abortions-at-any-cost teaching is a mindless simulacrum of an subtle moral position
But what the president did not count on was the that bishops get to be in their positions not so much because of their innate holiness, but because of their obedience to the Church. Which, said in another way, means that their past advancement as well as their their future advancement within the Church is fundamentally predicated on their willingness to toe the line. To support every teaching that the Church teaches, to oppose any foe that the Church fights and to uphold every position that the Church proclaims. While your local parish priest might go light on some kinds of sinners, there is little room for such latitude at the top.

And whatever mental or moral gymnastics are required to maintain this pose are rigorously and joyfully performed. Or, you could just be a brainless lout with no moral sensibility who is good at repeating and looks good in purple.

But aside from personal ambition, the bishops are hemmed in by some truly awe-ful church (or canon) laws.

Here's the biggie:
Canon 1398: “A person who procures a completed abortion incurs a latae sententiae excommunication.”

Latae sententiae means basically means "in and of itself." That means you don't have to wait for a church tribunal to declare you excommunicated. You just are.

To "procure" an abortion has a wide meaning as well. Procuring an abortion does not just mean having one. Driving a person to the abortion clinic counts, as does counseling a woman who then gets one, as does contributing to an abortion provider, as does (in theory) holding and sharing pro-abortion views.

And disbelieving the church teaching on abortion can get you into hot water too, even if you don't actively help anyone to get one. Heresy, according to the Catechism, "is the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and catholic faith, or it is likewise an obstinate doubt concerning the same." Obstinate means that you persist in error even after someone teaches you otherwise. Heresy  -- the ultimate thought crime -- gets you excommunicated as well.

So imagine the poor bishop's dilemma. If they accede to the Obama administration's directive, they are guilty procuring an abortion, in that they allowed their health plans to pay for one -- an excommunicable offense. If they insist that the Church needs to broaden its outlook and change its teaching, they are heretics -- also an excommunicable offense.

So whichever way they turn, they are excommunicated, and in short order, no longer bishops and no longer on the fast track to a cardinal's hat or papal tiara. Seems like their only option (since none is courageous enough or sensitive enough to dissent) is to keep teaching that abortion is a grave sin, loud enough for all to hear.

Is it any wonder that the bishops are fighting like the Dickens against this regulation?

Obama made a HUGE political error here, and the word is that he is looking at a way out of the mess he has made. There is NO WAY the bishops will back down -- no matter how many blogs urge them to. When the focus of America should be on the Republicans eating each other alive during the primaries, we are stuck in an anti-Obama frenzy, talking about this obscure provision in the health care law. Already, the Republicans are turning this issue into a political hammer with which they will gleefully pound the president until he changes his mind.

Which he will. And I predict very soon.

Another day, we will have to discuss whether caving to a religious group is wise. Shall we now have to allow Christian Scientists to stop paying for blood transfusions? Jews to refuse to pay taxes because they pay for ham sandwiches in the Capital cafeteria? Muslims to protest if our driving laws prohibit their women from driving while covered?

This situation could open the door to all sorts of shenanigans. But if Obama is looking for a reasonably easy path to a second term, he'll give in one this one -- just enough to make the bishops stop swinging their crosiers.