Liberal Catholics and the Contraception Debate Explained?

A little over a week ago, I presented the puzzle of liberal Catholics who disagree with the Church about contraception, but who felt betrayed when Obama enacted their contraceptive preferences into public policy.  Gary recently weighed in on the debate and highlighted some deeper questions that need to be asked, but I also promised to provide my own solutions to this puzzle.  So, here we go—I will begin with the simplest or most parsimonious explanation for liberal Catholics’ response:

Theory 1:  Framing– Sociologists often emphasize the importance of framing in political discourse.  Sometimes the notion of framing is seen as (or reduced to) a manipulation of meanings and situations.  And, at times, there can be an element of truth to this.  But the larger truth is that framing illustrates the role of context and history in shaping meaning, and a frame must be understand as the coming together of several different meaningful elements into a single whole.

With this in mind, I want to explore the devastating rhetorical power that the following quote had in the initial public debate:

“In effect, the president is saying we have a year to figure out how to violate our consciences,” said Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of New York, the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

My basic argument is that this quote illustrates a successful framing of the debate in a manner that left (many) liberal Catholics at odds with the Obama administration.

At the simplest level, the quote above frames the issue in the language of “coercion” rather than of health care “availability.”  At a gut level, US Catholics feel the state should not mandate that individuals follow Church teachings, but neither should the state create a contraception mandate that would require the Church to act against its own teachings.  Thus, it becomes an issue of state absolutism and an infringement on religious liberty.  Even if they are for availability, liberal Catholics are against coercion.

At the same time, framing is not merely about abstract rhetoric but about how meanings evoke responses from particular people in particular contexts.  So, the specific reference to conscience, above, is not insignificant for liberal Catholics.  In developing their personal moral position with regard to contraception, liberal Catholics invariably rely on conscience as the theological basis for their dissent from Church teaching.  Reliance on conscience also serves to maintain their identity as Catholic despite their disagreement with Church teaching.  Thus, an argument from conscience has added resonance for Liberal Catholics and Dolan’s quote successfully harnessed that connection.

Of course, the administration sought, from the beginning, to frame the argument as an issue of making health care available to all (by making contraception available to all women, in this instance).  Yet, the context of the decision—the administration had proactively developed a new rule that required religious institutions (beyond congregations and denominations) to directly pay for contraception—worked against their preferred framing.  Furthermore, liberal Catholic elites such as Sr. Carol Keehan and E.J. Dionne called them out on the issue.  In the end, liberal Catholics were persuaded by the framing of the issue (as one of religious liberty) to respond negatively to the administration.

This coercion vs. availability framing potentially explains liberal Catholics’ sense of betrayal rather than mere disagreement as well.  Historically, liberal Catholic politicians of Democratic provenance have taken the lead in arguing that a pro-choice stance is not the same thing as a pro-abortion stance.  Such folks have usually said that they personally were against abortion, but were also against outlawing abortion because it would use the coercive power of the state to enforce their own Catholic morality on other people of good will with different moral views (e.g., John Kerry made this argument when he ran for President).  Over the years, many of these Catholics have felt that this distinguishing between their personal Catholic morality and the coercive use of the state has been misunderstood.  In point of fact, they’ve heard people suggest that their position meant they were “not really” against abortion, and it has led to them being labeled “not really Catholic” by co-religionists on the right.  But this time, it was Obama who was failing to see the distinction between their personal views about an issue (the morality of contraception) vs. the coercive role of the state.

Liberal Catholics felt betrayed because after going to the mat for Obama on abortion and the health care law, he was disregarding (on contraception) their entire argument about the difference between personal moral belief and state coercion—Obama was using the state to coerce the Catholic Church to act against its own conscience on contraception.

In some ways, recent events have buttressed this argument.  The administration’s response clearly illustrates the way in which efforts have been focused on changing the “frame” of the controversy, rather than on changing the actual policy itself.  Obama’s “accommodation” sought to limit the coercive power of the state by removing the Church from “directly” paying for contraception and instead shifted this direct activity to the insurance company.

But it is unclear to me (and others) that this shift involved any substantive change in policy.  This is exactly why some have called this policy accommodation “morally obtuse.”

Others, such as David Gibson, have noted how Obama’s accommodation corresponds to a shift from “immediate material cooperation with evil” to “mediated material cooperation with evil” for leaders of religious institutions.  Gibson’s piece is worth reading, but the “moral theology 101” that David Gibson expounds on in distinguishing between formal and material cooperation with evil (and immediate vs. mediated material cooperation), while helpful in exploring and guiding individual level moral action, is much less helpful and largely inadequate for telling us how to create policy for a pluralistic world like ours.  Gibson proudly notes the Catholic roots of casuistry, but I feel like his article highlights why the word can have a negative connotation, too.

Here is my tongue in cheek summary–Sr. Carol successfully lobbied to free her conscience, but only by putting insurance companies on the hook!  Luckily, unlike the Church, we all know that insurance companies don’t have a conscience!

In one sense, Obama’s accommodation does grapple with the issue of the individual Catholic conscience by allowing religious actors within religious institutions to maintain their conscience while still providing health care to their employees.  But to get to this view, we have to almost start from the viewpoint of an imperial democratic sovereign state, rather than a democratic, pluralistic one in which religious actors and institutions (with their own understandings) can have ample room for developing their own authoritative voices.

In reading polls and blogs, it would appear that Obama’s effort at reframing has been at least somewhat successful, and he may even benefit politically from this particular battle.  In a strange way, I expect suspect that if people see contraception as a simple moral issue then they will largely be satisfied by this fight.  On the left, Obama has made contraception freely available to all women and even accommodated individual consciences at Catholic schools and hospitals (or Catholic obscurantism depending on your religious sensibilities).  On the right, where they always expect the worst from him, at least Obama laid bare the imperialism of the contraceptive mentality and illustrated the denuding nature of the contemporary liberal administration—all the while highlighting the moral contortions and laying bare the fears of the religious left.

For all those who view the issue of contraception as morally complex, however, and had hoped that Obama might be a leader who grappled with complexity rather than used it as a wedge issue, I suspect that they will not be satisfied.  At best, they will be ambivalent.  In this case, Obama failed to creatively grapple with the issue of moral complexity in a pluralistic society.  They may not fault Obama personally—after all, politicians have failed, for years, to grapple creatively with these issues.  But if people had hopes that Obama would be different, that he might actually have what it takes to help us engage with each other at a deeper level of conversation, then they are likely feeling dejected.

Instead, it looks like more of the same in culture war politics.

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