I have no objection to people letting their religious values influence their politics. Such values motivated some of our great radical social critics including Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King. Although a strong ethical consciousness can exist among non-believers, religion often stimulates ethical awareness and development.
Thus, values and ethics have an appropriate role to play in the political arena. In his The Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama wrote: “I think that Democrats are wrong to run away from a debate about values,” and the question of values should be at “the heart of our politics.”
My chief criticism of some religious people arises only when they are intolerant of those of other faiths, for example of Muslims; or when they deny scientific evidence, for example that evolution is a scientific fact; or when they fail to demonstrate humility and act like know-it-alls.
Like Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich I have some familiarity with Catholicism and, like them now, was once a Catholic. Having gone to Catholic schools—all the way through the Ph.D level at Georgetown U. —and taken numerous theology and Catholic philosophy courses, I think I know at least as much as either of these two Republicans about the Catholic faith.
It seems to me that both men, as well as Mitt Romney and the U. S. Catholic bishops, are wrong to charge President Obama with attacking religious freedom and the Catholic Church by his administration’s recent rulings on Catholic institutions and insurance coverage for birth control. Neither the original ruling (mandating such coverage by institutions like Catholic hospitals and universities) nor the amended version of it (allowing such institutions not to cover birth control and instead shifting the burden of coverage to insurance companies) violates the rights of American Catholics. Santorum declared that contraception is “not OK, because it’s a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.” And Gingrich charged that Obama was at “war” with the Catholic Church and guilty of launching “the most outrageous assault on religious freedom in American history.”
The main reason that Obama is not at “war” with the Catholic Church is that the U. S. bishops ARE NOT the Catholic Church in the United States. In an insightful essay in the The New York Times, Catholic philosopher Gary Gutting (University of Notre Dame) writes:
“In our democratic society the ultimate arbiter of religious authority is the conscience of the individual believer. . . . But, even so, haven’t the members of the Catholic Church recognized their bishops as having full and sole authority to determine the teachings of the Church? By no means.” Gutting also notes that “98 percent of sexually active American Catholic women practice birth control, and 78 percent of Catholics think a “good Catholic” can reject the bishops’ teaching on birth control.”
Whereas Santorum and Gingrich are simplistic (at best) in their assumption that the U. S. bishops speak for American Catholics, Gutting’s essay is nuanced and subtle and should be read in its entirety. He is not saying, for example, that majority opinion determines Catholic doctrine, only that we should not assume that the bishops are right “that birth control is contrary to ‘the teachings of the Catholic Church.’”
Walter G. Moss is a professor emeritus of history at Eastern Michigan University. For a list of his recent books and online publications, click here. His most recent book is An Age of Progress? Clashing Twentieth-Century Global Forces (Anthem Press, 2008).