Birth Control

Catholic Church: Right-Wing Pawn or Left-Wing Front Group?

Political enthusiasts are by turns infuriated and delighted by the church.

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Today's pop quiz: A religious organization that seeks to influence public policy is (a) bravely "speaking truth to power" or (b) "trying to impose its values on the rest of us."

For many people, the answer to that question is: It depends. If the religious organization is, say, the Roman Catholic Church, the policy in question forces Catholic institutions to pay for employees' birth control, and the church is opposed, then conservatives (generally speaking) will praise the church for its principled stand in defense of religious freedom, while liberals (generally speaking) will denounce it for theocratic oinkery.

That certainly was the scene earlier this year, when the Obama administration first laid out the details of the contraceptive mandate, and throughout the ensuing debate, and again a few months later when the administration floated an ostensible compromise.

The compromise—under which insurance companies supposedly would foot the bill for contraception, thereby leaving the church entities out of it—amounted to more of a P.R. stunt than a genuine concession, because many Catholic agencies and institutions self-insure. So more than 40 dioceses, schools and other Catholic units filed suit—prompting many to echo the complaint from The New Yorker's Margaret Talbot. The lawsuit, she lamented, "will embed the Church in partisan politics." Oh dear.

Oddly, few seem to have raised this concern about the Nuns on the Bus, a group of Catholic sisters who in late spring undertook a nine-state tour to denounce budget proposals by Republicans, and especially by Rep. Paul Ryan, as miserly and cruel. Nor did many seem to object when the nuns challenged Mitt Romney to spend a day with them so they could show him the error of his ways, or when a group of Catholic Bishops tartly rebuked Ryan for the moral failings of his budget proposal.

Some of the church's critics, in fact, suddenly wanted to be its best friend forever. Take ThinkProgress, the website of the liberal Center for American Progress and the id of the conventional left. During the contraception debate ThinkProgress cranked out scores of pieces explaining why the Catholic Church was wrong to "impose its values on fellow citizens," as an April 13 post put it. Yet by August, ThinkProgress had discovered the virtues of religion's participation in politics: "Catholic Nuns Send Letter to Romney Challenging His 'Woeful lack of Knowledge' About the Poor," it bugled a few days ago.

This is all the more odd when you look at what each group of Catholics was trying to achieve. Catholic institutions that did not want to underwrite contraception for their employees were not forbidding those employees to use birth control. They clearly were not constricting the activity of non-employees. They were not trying to overturn the mandate for anyone else—and they certainly were not trying to outlaw the sale of contraception at the corner pharmacy.

By contrast, the Nuns on the Bus and the bishops who objected to Ryan's budget proposals want the federal government's coercive taxing power to achieve their social-justice ends. They want the government to make other people underwrite programs that reflect their particular interpretation of the Gospel. That seems a far greater imposition of religious values on non-believers than a request simply to be left alone.

William McGurn certainly saw it that way. A few months ago, the conservative columnist for The Wall Street Journal took the view that the Catholic Church "represents possibly the only institution in the world that still speaks the language of the American Declaration." That was during the contraception fight. Last week, after Catholics began hammering Paul Ryan, McGurn sang a different tune: "Today," he lamented, "the liberal impulse in American Catholic life has substituted political for religious orthodoxy." Margaret Talbot sends her sympathies.

Such whipsawing is, literally, old news: During the 1980s Catholic bishops were everywhere denouncing Reaganomics, and calling for a nuclear-weapons freeze, and sticking up for the poor, misunderstood Communists in Nicaragua, and so on. In 1985, the bishops condemned the 7.1 percent unemployment rate as "morally unacceptable" and publicly urged Congress to reject funding for the MX nuclear missile—all of which left many on the right in a purple rage. It was widely felt in conservative circles that the church was a bunch of useful idiots being exploited by the Kremlin. Those on the left, meanwhile, saw in the church a proud, clear model of sanity and compassion in a world gone mad.

So it was again a few years ago, when the church was defending the rights of illegal immigrants (thereby earning the opprobrium of William F. Buckley) and expressing reservations about free-trade pacts. The Catholic position on the death penalty irks the right; the Catholic position on abortion irks the left. Political enthusiasts are by turns infuriated and delighted by the church. Yet the church, which reasons from first principles to policy conclusions rather than the other way around, seems never to check its positions against their partisan predispositions. How refreshing.

This column originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.