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, unsubmissive, 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 percent 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 claims that 28 states are already doing the same thing, but this is piffle as there are carve-outs for Catholic institutions in the states or they self-insure. This attempted coup was a mortal assault on the Catholic leadership, which the administration thought an anachronistic paper tiger; it 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. 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.”)