December 11, 2011
Public Life and Professions of Faith
Kathleen Kennedy Townsend has recently published a short essay in The Atlantic [HERE] entitled “Out of Step With the Flock: Bishops Far Behind on Birth Control Issues.” She is highly critical of the U.S. bishops for not taking a bold stand on economic matters, and she intensifies her caustic critique by arguing that they have “not infrequent disdain for the faithful.” Her bone of contention in this essay is this: the U.S. bishops do not agree with her on the stance they have taken regarding the impending requirements that all employers provide health care coverage for “reproductive health services.” Two points need to be made here at this stage: the first is that Ms. Kennedy Townsend demonstrates her unfamiliarity with the many public policy issues with which the bishops have spoken with strength and conviction on the pressing social and economic issues of the day that intersect Catholic social thought. The second is that she assumes something that cannot be assumed by anyone: her belief that she speaks for all women, especially Catholics, on an issue of morality.
She makes a particularly remarkable claim by stating that:
With yesterday, the 8th day of December, marking the Feast of the Immaculate Conception – which refers to Mary’s being conceived free of original sin, not the conception of Jesus – it would be wise of the bishops to realize that the conception of Mary by her human parents, Saint Joachim and Saint Anne, is a reminder that woman [sic] are people of conscience and can decide for themselves when it is best to conceive. In fact, birth control use is universal, even among Catholic women: 98 percent of sexually active Catholic women use birth control during their reproductive years.
Does she mean to suggest that Joachim and Anne were forward thinking people like herself who know how to use family planning? When Ms. Kennedy Townsend contends that “women are people of conscience and can decide for themselves when it is best to conceive,” she fails to note two important Catholic teachings. The first is that conscience is not doing that which you simply want to do on your own accord. This would be a perilous excuse for license. Conscience is that ability with objective reason to make the election between good and avoid that accords with recognition of the moral quality of an act in accordance with divine law. While Ms. Kennedy Townsend’s view coincides with that of Planned Parenthood and NARAL/ProChoice, it does not complement or coincide with the teachings of the Church. The well formed conscience is that place within the human person where one “detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience.” [Gaudium et Spes, N. 16] The second failure she demonstrates is her lack of familiarity with the Church’s teachings that parents have the responsibility to “space the birth of their children” and it is their duty to ensure that the decisions made are “not motivated by selfishness” but in conformity with objective criteria of morality. [Catechism of the Catholic Church, N. 2368] These criteria for spacing children’s births, moreover, cannot include those “methods of birth control which are found blameworthy by the teaching authority of the Church in its unfolding of the divine law.” [Gaudium et Spes, N. 51]
Ms. Kennedy Townsend’s essay does not reflect these teachings of the Church to which she affirms she has been a member all her “lifelong.” Yet she deems herself competent to chastise “conservative bishops” who conspire “with congressional [sic] Republicans to undermine” the promises of the new health care law. She is offended that the bishops want the conscience protections afforded to “religious employers” extended to all institutions that bear the moniker “Catholic.” She does not take stock of the fact that any institution which claims to be Catholic is finding it more and more difficult to be faithful to its identity as Catholic because of the very pressures from the state which she wants the Church to embrace.
A major justification for her withering criticism of the bishops is that they are “out of step” with their flock. For her, what is good or what is correct is determined by majority vote as she argues with her illustration of the Papal Commission on Birth Control.
Another argument upon which she relies is that “Church-affiliated institutions employ millions of non-Catholics who signed on to earn a paycheck.” For her, this means that these valued employees have the final say in determining what their Catholic institution employer can and cannot do on moral issues. Again, this is perilous and faulty reasoning on her part. She suggests that it is the non-Catholic employee who can determine what the Catholic employer can and cannot do on matters dealing with serious moral issues. A grave problem with her justification is the further claim that there is no legal justification for the bishops’ “ethically dubious” position. If that is indeed the case, which it is not, then let’s get ready for the hurdles that will be used to take the offenders to their earthly justice that she wishes to see dispensed.
A final point needs to be made today about Ms. Kennedy Townsend’s appeal. She further suggests that the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace’s Note, “Reform of the International Financial System” offers clear-sighted instruction from the Vatican from which the American bishops could profit. Of course, if she thought about the impact of this remark for a moment, she would realize that they, the bishops, in fact follow the Universal Church’s clear-sighted instruction on all moral issues including the ones on which she censures them.
While Ms. Kennedy Townsend is no longer a holder of public office, she still wields some influence in the forums of public life. She is entitled to do this. But I add a caveat: when she critiques others, especially those with whom she disagrees, she should be better prepared with her facts and her understanding of the Church and the Church’s teachings. Otherwise the service she intends to provide becomes a disservice to all.
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