Burning Incense Before Idols

(photo: Register illustration by Melissa Hartog)

Here we are, standing before the idol.

It is not 250, but 2012; not Rome or Carthage, but America. Once again, some are prepared to be martyrs, others prepared to easy surrender to avoid discomfort, and still others to be apostate under duress, confident of God’s later forgiveness.

For some, the idol is sex. Having resisted the teaching of Christ and his Church for a generation, it’s an easy compromise: “After all, almost no Catholic believes today that contraception is wrong, and so many have used it, or are using it, with no qualms of conscience.” Catholics are not following the Church, so the Church, and those Catholics who do believe, can be ignored.

For others, the idol is money, especially government money.

We can do so much good with it. It feeds the poor, comforts the sick, clothes the naked.

Surely, it is not wrong to continue doing so, even if it means accepting this compromise, this new secular wisdom. Would not Jesus approve of aiding the poor with government coin?

For others, the idol is party and power, an addictive concoction that numbs the moral sensibilities: “We have the solutions of the future, beyond narrow doctrines. Continue to believe and worship, if you must, but do so in your houses of worship and stay out of public affairs.”

In many ways, these are not extraordinary times. The world, the flesh and the devil are always with us. These universal tempters encourage us to put human respect before respect for God — fitting in before standing up for what is right; love of pleasure and the easy way before suffering for the truth; or to think that we can determine what is good and evil by a calculation of interests, outcomes or utility, and even force that judgment on others for their own good.

What characterizes our day, however, is the pervasiveness of all three — and that the tempters are no longer just our family, friends and neighbors, or even just the culture, the media and other elites.

Today, it is the state where the three coincide and which is asking us to burn incense to the idol.

Supporters of the government’s contraception-abortion mandate — in politics, the media and even among Catholics — would have us believe the issue is contraception and women’s health care, though how preventing human life, even destroying it, is “health care” eludes common sense.

The recalcitrant Church, opposing modernity, needs to be dragged into the 21st century, needs to see the error of its teaching.

Government can help Catholics accomplish this. The constant, and false, mantra of “98%” has no other purpose except to drive that necessity home to Americans, and especially to Catholics.

It is these mandate supporters, however, who need to be dragged into the 18th century and who need to consider the reasons our nation’s constitutional order was established: to protect, first of all, individual freedom of conscience and its corollary, freedom of speech, from the coercive power of government.

In that century, it was government at the service of the “established” religion, the religion of the monarch. Today, it is government at the service of social engineering or party politics or protecting sexual license.

The U.S. bishops in opposing the mandate — as well as EWTN, Belmont Abbey College and Colorado Christian University, in suing over it — do so not to protect sectarian belief, but a principle that underlies the freedom of all Americans, which includes our freedom to believe.

We are not asking government to enforce our doctrine, even with our co-religionists. Churches are associations of individuals who are free to believe or not believe, to follow Church teaching or not.

The Church can excommunicate members, or they can self-excommunicate by their actions or simply stop practicing. The force exerted is moral, not physical.

The government, on the other hand, is using civil authority and penalties to force American citizens to act contrary to their consciences, either by formally providing “health care” they believe is gravely evil or by immediate material cooperation in providing it (such as referrals).

Since the mandate applies to all citizens who employ others, and who are obliged under the Affordable Care Act to provide health insurance, it is not just the “church exemption” that is the issue.

The mandate itself is a violation of the freedom of all Americans, even those who in this moment may agree with its social intent.

No majority opinion of Catholics — or of Americans — can ever justify establishing as a principle of government the authority to force citizens to do something contrary to their consciences.

The world, the flesh and the devil: In all times and places all three tempters are at work. The Scriptures are a record of that history-long battle.

But it is also the record of their complete defeat, first in the desert of Judea, by Christ not entertaining them but rebuking them, and then on the cross, by defeating their pride through humility, their power through weakness.

That remains the challenge of our day, as it is of all days until the end of time.

98%: The Number Lies

The 98% figure being widely reported derives from a Guttmacher Institute analysis of the Centers for Disease Control’s “2006-2008 National Survey of Family Growth.”

(The Guttmacher Institute supports Planned Parenthood’s worldwide contraception/abortion business.)

The National Survey of Family Growth office did not itself compile the data by religion.

The CDC data does, however, support the following conclusions:

Only 76% of women 15-44 years of age invited to participate responded (a self-selection of those willing to discuss in detail their sexual history in personal interviews).

99% of the responding women admitted to having used “contraception,” as defined by the survey, at least one time during their reproductive years.

22 methods of “contraception” were cited, including sterilization and “periodic abstinence-calendar rhythm” (19.4%) and “periodic abstinence-natural family planning” (4.6%).

The survey extrapolates to the general population that 62% of Americans are currently using “contraception” (including NFP).

The Guttmacher Institute came up with “the 98% of Catholics” analysis, using the standards of what constitutes “contraception,” a definition that includes even Catholics faithful to Church teaching.

Colin Donovan, STL, is vice president for theology at EWTN.