Rush Limbaugh, Rick Santorum, and the Pope Walk Into a Room—Your Bedroom

The Church has not softened its stance against contraception or the “Obama compromise,” which requires the insurer rather than the religious institution to provide contraceptive coverage. Republican members of Congress have not retracted their defense of the Church’s position. They vow to keep employer health plans from covering contraceptives for hundreds of thousands of employees of all faiths working in religious institutions.

The contraception controversy between Catholic bishops and President Obama, and the religiously soaked-through Rick Santorum campaign, have fed into a rising stream in the national conversation—coming from conservatives like Charles Murray, moderates like David Brooks, and even liberals like Thomas Edsall—that labels sexual freedom and “sixties values” as the wellsprings of divorce and decline.

Often using language that equates morality, virtue, and character with traditional values, these writers glorify marriage without distinguishing between old, patriarchal marriage versus new, more egalitarian marriage. (Yet they are so different that the new marriage can almost be defined as a renunciation of the old.)

To Santorum, a strict Catholic and father of seven, the use of birth control is a moral “danger” that leads to unwed motherhood—though contraceptives prevent unwed motherhood. Santorum would restrict access to contraception where possible, ban abortion in the United States, and work to restrict it abroad. Presumably this would drive women and men into youthful matrimony.

As for those wicked women who might still manage to wind up as single mothers, Santorum has an answer for them, too. His proposed tax policy, according to an analysis in The New York Times, would make sole heads of households the only group whose taxes will go up.

Catholic dogma dictates that having sex outside of marriage, or for any other reason not intended to result in the birth of a new human, is a “grave sin,” as an infallible Pope has decreed. If he revised his views, he could not have been infallible before, as has been well-noted at the Vatican, so that option is out. Though abstinence or fecundity is what the Church preaches, it is not what the congregation practices. The overwhelming majority of North American parishioners (male and female) have used contraception, silently accepting—or shrugging off—the lash of shame.

The harsh judgment of the Catholic Church on a woman’s sexual life as a measure of her morality, even her human worth, is one I know well from my own childhood.

My uncle, Father Michael as we called him, was a Jesuit priest and headmaster of a Catholic boys’ high school and an occasional guest at our house. My own father had been a student at Holy Cross College when he “lost his faith,” as the Irish will put it, transferred to Harvard, and became a lifelong non-believer. He tried to maintain some semblance of family peace with his pious older brother. And so, when I was 16, Father Michael was in our home on a Christmas evening, sipping his Manhattan, when we fell to talking about my future dreams—college, travel, and so forth.

Well, he said, that doesn’t matter much, as “you’ll probably wind up as a prostitute.”

Startled, I asked, “Don’t you mean ‘promiscuous’?” I could imagine that, from what I understood to be his point of view as a celibate, I might perhaps, in the future, qualify.

“No, I mean what I said, a prostitute. It’s inevitable, since you’ve been raised with no morals.”

“I have morals,” I objected.

“No, you have been raised with no religion, and so you have no morals,” he said. “Morals are based in the fear of God. Without the knowledge of hell, people will all be sinners.” And, it seems, slide quickly from a little sin to a life of prostitution.

When Rush Limbaugh called Sandra Fluke a slut and a prostitute, I recalled my uncle and the powerful Catholic hierarchy behind him who say the same: Say no to birth control, then submit to birthing all the babies that God generously sends along.

Preach that message in America, and hundreds of thousands of women who work at Catholic institutions or are patients in Catholic hospitals are denied contraceptives. Preach it abroad in overcrowded and impoverished countries such as Mexico or the Philippines, and you leave women with nothing but prayer to cope with poverty, male dominance, and big families.

Not many of the secular cultural critics of postsixties America oppose contraception or abortion, but do they have a point about moral decline as the force that’s driving down America? Is that a good reason for a retrenchment of women’s rights? In a word, no.

It’s true that the expansion of women’s rights always extends individual liberty—which need not be the same thing as “individualism” or mere selfishness.

The women’s rights revolution was not the same as the sexual revolution; nor is women’s liberation the same as libertinism. The ideal of the women’s movement is identical to the ideals of the American revolution, just applied to women. Women have struggled to be included, as free individuals, in the promise of democracy—the vote, elected office, basic freedoms.

Does such independence destroy the institution of marriage? Why should it? Having democratic rights did not destroy male morality, presumably. If women, like men, are adults with rights, then contracts—such as those for marriage—are cooperative agreements, freely undertaken. In egalitarian marriage, where there once was a dominant and a subordinate, there is mutual respect. Where there were commands, there are conversations and negotiations.

Over time, women’s attainment of rights will tend to break down maledominant marriage and increase egalitarian marriage, with its own modern morality. And, in answer to worries about social instability and the breakdown of the family, experience is showing that egalitarian marriage partners and parents do as well at staying together, raising children responsibly, and modeling cooperation and community.

Looking back to my teen years, I’d say that Father Michael did me a favor—not just in reducing the appeal of Catholicism, which I’d once considered an option, but in making me ask myself what my morals were based in, if not fear.

Eventually I came to understand that a person must decide on her morality for herself. Embracing such values as love, concern, and compassion grounds you, and encourages you to willingly assume responsibility for others. You consider the long-term effects of your actions. Then you follow your conscience.

Secular people and less orthodox religionists have perhaps failed to proclaim the apparently littleknown truth that they actually do have ethics and morals, and to describe how a world without a fearmongering, dictating god can be a world of both pleasure and responsibility.

It was a nice thing when President Obama called Sandra Fluke and told her that her parents should be proud of her, as they should be. He played his avuncular role a lot better than my uncle did with me. What is more important, though, is that Sandra Fluke is proud of herself. She isn’t a child. Neither are all those American women who must make up their own minds about such matters as contraception and abortion.

Deirdre English, the former editor of Mother Jones, teaches journalism at Berkeley.

 

Further reading: Lou Dubose on Rick Santorum’s fetal attraction