A confession: The Catholic Church is too much for me—and I'm not even Catholic. A prayer: Give me political freedom from that religion.
John F. Kennedy, the only Catholic president, never would have made a political deal with the American Catholic bishops and let them meddle in a matter that matters, such as women's health. President Barack Obama is being praised for his elegant settlement—or surrender to them. In response to pressure from the punditocracy and the bishops, the president agreed not to require church-affiliated employers to provide universal free birth control coverage to women. In victory, Church leaders—except for a pivotal player in healthcare reform, Sister Carol Keenan—could not have been less gracious.
Oh, how the wind changed. Excitement spread through the Democratic ranks days ago when it looked like Obama would stand strong against the bishops. No such luck. But this is not about the difference-splitting Obama, who has ducked every donnybrook that has come his way. This is about the Roman Catholic Church and its dominant American establishment, from Baltimore (where the nation's first Catholic cathedral was built) to Los Angeles.
It's like a Hummer parked illegally in the public square, blocking the light and view for all.
The American bishops think they dictate policy to all Americans, even in the most private compartments of our lives. As far as available and safe birth control goes, that is a liberty hard-won by the 20th century crusader Margaret Sanger—and known to reduce the abortion rate. You might think the Church would reconsider and relent on its condemnation of birth control, but you would be wrong. The fact that almost all Catholic and American women use it (or have used it) to govern their own fertility doesn't sway them.
After all, the bishops presumably never used birth control—so who needs it?
Believe me, Martin Luther is looking better to me all the time in his cry of conscience, his revolution against Rome. As a Protestant of German descent, he's practically my spiritual ancestor.
If you look far back into the Vatican's history, it has a lot of sins still weighing on its back. In Italy, the genius Galileo Galilei was tried by the Holy Office of the Inquisition for his scientific observations that showed the earth rotated around the sun, not the other way around. Even then, progress was slow going.
During the Holocaust, an enormous silence shrouded the Vatican in the heart of Europe's darkness. Recently on this side of the Atlantic, decades of sexual abuse by priests on boys is finally coming to light. It is as if there's a conspiracy to protect the perpetrators, not the victims who bravely stepped forward. Abuse of authority is apparently nothing new, as the stories of each taken together add up.
As an outsider looking in, I think Catholic nuns do much more social good, teaching school, molding minds, and some such.
As for women as priests or bishops elevated in the Church's leadership hierarchy, that will never happen in a medieval institution that still blows smoke as a symbol of popery. Gay marriages are even more unlikely. Don't spend a lifetime waiting for the Roman Catholic Church to catch up to society's steps forward.
As Galilieo would tell you, that could be a very long time. He died in 1642, after a nine-year ordeal, under house arrest.