When Deaniac invited me to contribute to The People's View, my intention was to start with a post I had written for The Obama Diary. I'll still post that one, but the events of the past week have turned my attention elsewhere.
I am, in common parlance, a lapsed Catholic. In other common parlance, I'm an agnostic; if I'm not an atheist it's because I'm not certain enough in my disbelief to completely rule out the existence of some sort of divinity. Call it a mind willing to be open to all possibilities; however, I consider the chances of the Creator's existence to be quite slim.
Whether or not God exists, human beings seem to be inexorably drawn to explaining the ultimate meaning of the universe in spiritual, supernatural terms. It's part of our cultural DNA, evolved in a pre-scientific age, when explanations for both good and evil had to be sought to give life sense and meaning. I still at times make the sign of the Cross when I have a particularly close call while driving, or when I escape a potentially embarrassing situation by the skin of my teeth. It's wired into most of us.
Human history is littered with the rise and fall of various religions. The main ones we have now have, through speaking to their adherents' needs, managed to survive from being cults and upstarts to being hale, hoary, loaded with the appurtenances of well-earned wisdom. We can wish that religion didn't have such an outsized influence in the world -- and data suggests that the percentage of non-believers, even in this most believing country, grows year by year. But religion is not going to be swept away this year, or next year, or next decade. It is, for now, quite a presence in the life of every human being, believer and non-believer.
Which isn't necessarily a bad thing. Again, I'm a lapsed Catholic. The reason I still maintain that title is that, even if I can't believe in the rituals and God, I was given a very Catholic upbringing, and some of the teachings still speak to me. At its best, the Catholic Church speaks to the value of every human being, no matter how poor or forgotten; indeed, the Church teaches that how a society treats the poor and the stranger speaks to its good or its ill. In high school, one of our religion teachers would go to the nuclear test sites in Nevada every summer with a few students; they would then chain themselves to the perimeter fence, and willingly get arrested to protest the arms race. Priests and nuns were active in the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, the asylum movement for illegal immigrants fleeing Central American dictatorships supported by our government. I was taught by people like that and grew up with people like that. Those are memories that I cherish, and that in part formed me into the man I am.
But, true to the point that it's almost a truism, religion has a very dark side. Whether the dark or the light has won out in history is an open debate. Religion at its worst finds justifications for oppression, enslavement, genocide. The Crusaders on taking Jerusalem engaged in such wholescale slaughter that the blood on the streets came up to their knees. Jewish settlers on the West Bank take a promise supposedly made to them by a dubious God to bring the world to the brink of disaster. Islam is replete, like its sister religions, in blood.
The greatest religious scandal of the past decade has been the coverup of clerical pedophilia in the Catholic Church. The crimes themselves were sufficiently awful. But what raised the individual crimes to the level of a general atrocity was the reaction of the Church leadership. Some turned a blind eye, refusing to believe the accusers. Obviously many did believe the accusers, or at least wanted to pass the problem on to someone else; thus the musical parishes played by pedophile priests. Not once was an accused cleric handed over to the police, defrocked, sanctioned in any way by the hierarchy. The damage these men did to the children in their charge was not the issue; the only issue was to avoid scandal for the Church, to keep itself on the pedestal it occupied with increasing difficulty in a world that was quickly passing it by.
The Church's reaction to one sex abuse case after another breaking just made matters worse for itself. At first it denied, then it said the situation wasn't as bad as portrayed, then finally admitted the depth of the situation. By then it was too late. It had suffered a wound from which it would take years to heal. The Church has had a bad time of it, and its teaching on sexual morality, always ignored by the vast majority of European and US Catholics, carried even less weight.
Which brings us to the latest political movement, in which the Church and its defenders have come out in full-throated opposition to the requirement in the ACA that women's contraception be covered for free in all health plans -- including those provided by religiously affiliated institutions like Catholic hospitals. Never mind that a large plurality of states already have laws to that effect. Never mind that exemption will be issued -- your local parish priest won't have to offer the Pill to his secretary. Never mind that this is an obvious shiny object to distract the chattering classes from the fact that the economy is improving, the GOP is insane, and President Obama's numbers keep going up as people realize just what is at stake. The idea that prelates who have spent the past decade and a half mired in a sexual scandal that beggars the imagination can, with a straight face, cry "religious intolerance" for this new rule -- which isn't new, as many states have it, and hasn't been written yet -- is what is so shocking. The institutional Church had long been losing its authority on sexual morality; most Catholics ignored it on premarital sex and contraception, and polling of Catholics saw approval for abortion rights that mirrored that of the population at large. With its sex abuse coverup, it lost any last vestige of authority it had on that score. The chutzpah is amazing.
But, of course, let us not forget who's in the White House. He is a friend to Catholics, but probably not much of a friend to the ermined prelates. He's pro-choice, pro-gay rights, and for the government staying out of the bedroom. All are positions which make him unacceptable to the Catholic hierarchy. The Catholic leadership is just the latest group to take a whack at the President, sensing an opening, a weakness. Whether Mitt Romney or Rick Santorum gain the White House (don't worry, it won't happen, it's only a "what if"), their positions would be much more amenable to the Church leadership.
This is a tempest in a teapot. The President has proven himself to be no fool. Just as he got the GOP House to go on record as being against a middle class tax cut, he's now putting them on record as being against female contraception. The political calculus is pretty clear, as is the moral calculus.
Even for all of the memories that I cherish of my upbringing, I have no choice but to remain lapsed and agnostic. God may exist, but too many of his representatives on earth lack that spark of the divine. Until then, I'll muddle through on my own and with those I love, drawing wisdom from wherever it may come.