Obama Ignites a ‘Catholic Moment’ in the Culture Wars

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The last two weeks have produced an astounding convergence of profound philosophical public controversies in the United States that finally does justify the phrase, much bandied about for some years, “culture wars.” That expression was coined originally for Bismarck’s mad Kulturkampf against the Roman Catholic Church (and, to a lesser degree, other churches) in the mid–19th century. It was the usual self-aggrandizement of secular states against a vast, international, un-submissive, foreign-governed church, and recalled French and Spanish railings against the Jesuits, Napoleon’s detention of Pope Pius VII, and many other church–state frictions.

But the interim final regulation in the Affordable Care Act that would require Roman Catholic–affiliated hospitals and agencies to pay for insurance of abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization, and contraceptives for their employees, gratis, was an astonishing affront to America’s largest religious denomination.

There are 77.7 million Roman Catholics in the United States, a little over 25%  of the whole population. The majority of them oppose abortion, probably only about a fifth or a quarter of them have any serious problem with birth control, and 80% to 90% percent of them would likely object to the U.S. government’s grinding its hob-nailed regulatory jackboot into the face of their church.

This ukase was tossed off very arrogantly and flippantly, and the administration quickly retreated to a fallback imposition of the costs on the insurer. At first glance, this looks a bit like the shutdown of offshore drilling during the Gulf oil spill, with the demand that BP pay the other oil companies their losses and expenses. If the government had started with some such plan as the one to which it quickly climbed down, it would have avoided the firestorm that forced such an early retreat (although it was only to take effect in 2013, and the government claims that 28 states are already doing the same thing). Even if it ends here, this episode leaves the bishops incredulous and opposed, and most active Catholics uncertain; and it disquiets many non-Catholics as an insolent abuse of regulatory power to humiliate the country’s (and the world’s) premier faith institution.

There is doubtless still a reservoir of anti-Catholic sentiment in parts of the country, but this is a relatively small minority of superstitious bigots raving about the Scarlet Woman of Rome, and any identification with them would be a disaster for the Democratic party (the only party to have nominated Catholic candidates for national office — Al Smith, JFK, and John Kerry for president, and Ed Muskie, Sargent Shriver, Geraldine Ferraro, and Joe Biden for vice president).

A very large number of non-Catholics could get on board with the opposition, if the compromise doesn’t take and if the Roman Catholic leaders and the principal Republicans play it right — not as a dispute about birth control itself, but as a matter of the freedom of religion and conscience that could as easily be inflicted on any other organization or individual, an assault by the government on the rights of the people. New York’s archbishop and cardinal-designate, Timothy Dolan, was ready: “Never before has the federal government forced individuals to go out into the marketplace and buy a product that violates their conscience. This should not happen in a land where free exercise of religion ranks first in the Bill of Rights.” (The New York Times was dismayed at the swiftness and uniformity of the Roman Catholic Church’s response. The Wall Street Journal dismissed the compromise, which the administration pridefully calls “an accommodation,” as “Immaculate Contraception.”)

Pope Benedict recently stated that, in the U.S., religious freedom is under threat from “radical secularism.” The pope warned that “powerful new cultural currents” have worn down the country’s traditional moral consensus and have launched a “concerted” assault on “the rights of conscientious objection.”

In the preceding history of 42 presidents and 15 popes since American independence, no such charge has been made. In 1790, the new president of the new country addressed the country’s Roman Catholics: “May the members of your society in America . . . enjoy every spiritual and temporal felicity.” George Washington cannot have meant anything like this. It is such an insane enterprise, so brutal, gratuitous, and premeditated, after a debate between the Catholic men and militant feminists around the president, that the administration will, unless it has taken complete leave of its senses, backpedal as far as it has to to get clear of this fiasco, and the immediate, rather specious climb-down may not achieve that.

Vice President Biden, who is pretty accident-prone himself but at least saw this one coming and takes his Catholicism seriously, told a Cincinnati radio station that he was confident of a compromise. Such a dirigiste regime, so hostile to any alternative source of moral authority in America to itself, may have trouble withdrawing gracefully. The administration is trying to retreat in the proclaimed interests of social peace, but some taste, though not a lethal one, will linger. If it does not compromise seriously and eliminate the requirement for church-related organizations to pay for something of which they morally disapprove — especially the post-conception drugs and treatments — an epochal turning point impends.

The Roman Catholic Church is a uniquely venerable and influential institution, which knows all about martyrdom, and has won its full share of battles with secular authority, from the Emperor Julian the Apostate to the Italian Communists in the time of Pius XII (“God sees how you vote in the polling booth; Stalin doesn’t”), and the Polish Communists and John Paul II. Mr. Obama will not go to Canossa, but this can’t stand.

Of course, what is unfolding is not like the religious persecution of despotic and totalitarian states, but such conduct as this from the U.S. government is more surprising than was the murder of the archbishop of Paris in the Paris Commune, or Juan Peron’s burning down Catholic churches in Argentina in 1954. (Neither of those regimes lasted more than a few more months.)

In the debates in the administration between Catholic men, led by Biden and former White House chief of staff William Daley (who have had a great deal of experience with elections), and the feminists, led by Valerie Jarrett (who have not), the feminists relied on Catholic dissent from the official counsel of perfection on matters of birth control to divide and weaken Catholic opposition. But even pretty casual Roman Catholics tend to regard the public oppression and humiliation of their church as unjust and unwelcome, and prefer internecine arguments to remain that. No dissenting Catholic has asked the assistance of the U.S. government against the episcopate. And, even more damaging to the administration, the regulation also applies to abortifacient drugs (those that induce abortions), and abortion is not the political free lunch it was before John Paul II cranked up the anti-abortion resistance and the division in American opinion on abortion drew almost even. Everyone is aware of the difference between the prevention of conception and the extinction of life in utero, and this regulation is widely seen, and not only by Roman Catholics, as a clumsy method of trying to finesse it, a regulatory wolf in sheep’s clothing.

As this controversy erupted, the most fervent Catholic candidate to get near a major-party nomination for president, Rick Santorum, is bypassing Newt Gingrich as the last pre-convention alternative to Mitt Romney. The Saturday CPAC results confirm the trend. To get any traction, he will have to lay out a comprehensive program beyond his social catechism and aid to manufacturing and the family, but those are a potentially very strong foundation for a serious challenge.

I did predict here several weeks ago that Santorum could come through the center as more conservative than Romney and less flaky than Gingrich. All three have attacked the administration’s contraceptive regulation, and as long as those who would emulate Bismarck and turn this into a straight anti-Catholic issue don’t succeed in doing that, the controversy could be useful to Santorum.

This could be something of a Catholic moment, as the Church leads resistance to a desiccated, double-dealing, pandering, and post-Christian state, and Santorum fills out a campaign based on Judeo-Christian values and encouragement of a value-added (and not just a service) economy with a comprehensive plan of action to deal with the nation’s woes. He has a few weeks to become a fully equipped candidate in policy terms, and respond to the Romney platform’s 59 platitudes about the economy.

A leitmotif in these events is the Susan G. Komen / Planned Parenthood fiasco. The breast-cancer charity withdrew its $650,000 grant to Planned Parenthood and then backtracked when the large abortion-dispenser muscled it. Komen apologized, its director resigned, and the charity went to the corner under a pointed hat and with a well-spanked bottom, but as the government put on its brass knuckles and got into the ring with the Catholic bishops, this episode highlighted the pugnacity of the whole abortion-and-birth-control coalition. President Obama conferred with the head of Planned Parenthood, Cecile Richards, before offering his minimalist olive branch of laying the cost on the insurers. Planned Parenthood makes $164 million annually arranging 300,000 abortions, and sends 90% of pregnant women who come to it for consultation to the abortionist. It bullied the “pro-life Democrats” into supporting Obamacare, and is in a fierce battle with the state of Indiana, which declines to help fund Planned Parenthood.

Planned Parenthood began as a Little Red Riding Hood organization encouraging African-Americans not to have too many children, but became a non-profit Fannie Mae, and grew and metamorphosed into an immense billion-dollar-annual-revenue lobbyist, pressure group, and rabid enemy of any restraint on feticide. It isn’t pro-choice; it’s anti-choice and pro-abortion. As the pro-life forces, led by the Roman Catholic Church, have fought back to level pegging in public opinion, the skirmishing has become fiercer and the politics more intense and complicated, and the robotic belligerence of the leading abortionist organizations leaves millions of moderate pro-choice partisans uneasy.

The usual jokey mocking and spoofing by the liberal sharpshooters like Gail Collins of the New York Times, treating it all as dragging the old church out of the Dark Ages, won’t cut it this time. This isn’t the amplification of “Oops” or the unmasking of Herman Cain, or more about Romney’s dog or Newt’s colonization of the moon. Ms. Collins’s mother-in-law’s priest will not, as she herself might put it, float this boat, though that was her first crack at the issue.

The battle between the big-government enforcers of a low-birthrate, materialistic, and anti-spiritual society with a deemphasized family, and the enlightened traditionalists who believe life is sacred and that the family should suffer less trespass from the overbearing secular state, could be reaching a political and societal climax. Neither Obama nor Santorum nor Romney is the ideal protagonist for such a mighty showdown, but the competing beliefs are the real combatants, and the administration’s position is much more fragile than it seemed to realize. Whatever happens, many will note the administration’s impulse, and the correlation of forces that caused it to backtrack so quickly. There is just a chance that this may not be as futile and vapid a campaign as many, including me, have feared.

Conrad Black is the author of “Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom,” “Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full,” and, just released, “A Matter of Principle.” This column first appeared in the National Review. He can be reached at cbletters@gmail.com.

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