Why War?

The men and women working for the Obama White House are not stupid people.  In fact, the billion-dollar Obama political machine is perhaps the most impressive such operation in American political history.  Why then, I’ve heard many people asking, would this Administration choose to go to “war”—to use the word of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius —with the Catholic Church, in an election year no less?  Why, furthermore, has the Administration’s response to Catholic objections to its new contraception rules ranged from the obtuse to the insulting?

Ducking reporters’ questions on the subject, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney read from a prepared statement with all the sincerity of a North Korean news anchor before refusing to answer questions about the penalties Catholic institutions will face when they refuse to supply free contraceptives to employees.  And the Administration trotted out talking points on the White House blog that are blatantly mendacious even by the standards of today’s politics.

People of faith, and even fair-minded secular opinion-makers, have seen through the pretense that this front in the White House’s war is really about contraception.  Indeed, one of the positive outcomes of this controversy has been the unity it has produced, not just within the Catholic Church but also among believers who do not share the Church’s beliefs on contraception—or just about anything else.  The liberal columnist Sean Michael Winters issued an interesting proposal for our cardinals to engage in civil disobedience.  Prominent Protestant and Jewish leaders have also objected to the Administration’s power grab, and the nation’s Orthodox bishops voted unanimously to “join their voices with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops” in “adamantly protest[ing]” the Administration’s new rules.

It is impossible to see this battle as anything other than an attempt to undermine the independence of religious institutions.  The Administration has consistently fought to narrow and weaken the First Amendment’s protection of religion.  Last year the Administration’s lawyers pursued a line of reasoning before the Supreme Court that would have given the government de facto veto power over who churches chose as educators and ministers, a line of argument that seemed to leave the justices universally dumbfounded.  Even the liberal Elena Kagan declared the Administration’s reasoning “amazing.”

Perhaps the most chilling line in Jay Carney’s Brezhnev-esque press briefing was:  “This approach does not signal any change—at all—in the Administration’s approach to conscience protections.”

In other words, this is what they were planning all along.

When at Notre Dame the President pledged support for conscience protections, he was apparently only talking about protecting the consciences of those who agree with him.  Those who took the President’s word at face value now find themselves sounding a bit like a discarded mistress:  “But… but… he said that he loved me… he promised that he’d leave his wife…”

It must now be clear to all of us:  the President has been in bed with the abortion lobby for so long, he has eyes for no other lady.  Sorry, Notre Dame.  This is a man, remember, who as a state senator voted to protect infanticide rather than risk even a peripheral threat to “the full range of reproductive services.”  When he speaks of the right to abortion as sacred, President Obama really means it.

(I would also note here, lest one of our long time readers reminds me, that I spoke up on these pages in defense of those Democrats who supported the President’s health care bill.  Since I don’t want to revisit that issue, I will simply admit now that I was mistaken to do so.)

None of this, however, answers the question of why the Administration made the decision that it did.  Why attack the Catholic Church in such a blatant and obvious way?  It is not as if the Church has kept her teaching on the sanctity of human life a secret.  Just days before the HHS rules were announced, the Pope himself spoke out against legal threats to religious liberty in the United States.  Even if the President is sincerely troubled at the prospect of a world in which somebody somewhere is not buying contraception, how could he not be equally troubled at the prospect of the inevitable and costly legal fight that will follow this decision and the even deeper and more painful cultural and political divisions that will come with it?  If he really cared about providing the needy with health care, why begin a campaign a likely outcome of which is hundreds of charitable employers dropping coverage for their employees—or simply shutting down?

In order to answer this question, I think there are both short-term and long-term calculations.  It’s important to remember who is included in President Obama’s political base.   Radical secularists and those who believe the world would be better without the Catholic Church—or any church—are an important part of the Obama coalition.  Not the only part, of course, but the President needs the excitement, energy, and money of those on the secular left.  People who are opposed to whatever the Pope says even before he’s said it are going to be fired up at the vision of their champion standing up to those mean old celibate men in miters.  And in the coming election—which promises to be very negative—rallying the base is probably a safer strategy than building bridges.

There is an even more fundamental long-term calculation in play however, and it’s this:  religious people are not good for the Democratic Party.  We can debate the reasons why, of course, whether it had to be this way or not; we can lament the cruel ironies of history that have so polarized our politics; but at the end of the day a bare political calculation remains:  the most religious voters tend to break for the Republicans by between 60-40 and 70-30, while those who never attend church or synagogue or mosque go for the Democrats by equally overwhelming margins.  The more agnostics or lukewarm Christians there are out there, the more likely it is that Democrats will win elections.  Weakening Catholic institutions, making them less religious, breaking their ties to Catholic practice and doctrine, is in the political best interests of the President’s party; it is just a matter of how the numbers break.  If all the Catholic pews in this country were to empty tomorrow, the President’s re-election would be a landslide.

The President sincerely believes in boldly remaking this country.  In order, however, to ensure that his social agenda endures even after his personal charisma and massive political war chest have become a memory, he needs to ensure that those institutions which offer a viable alternative are figuratively—and I guess in this case, literally—neutered.

Those sympathetic to the President’s agenda—and on many issues I find myself in complete agreement with him—should be advised that rights, once taken away, are rarely given back.  Some day the issues will change, but once the Church has lost her independence, the right to govern her own internal affairs, she will be nothing more than a branch of the State social services, a Department of Religious Affairs.

Fortunately, this battle is anything but over, and the impressive Catholic and ecumenical unity we have seen so far is evidence, I think, of the working of grace even in grim circumstances.  Even those who do not share our faith realize that something is fundamentally wrong with a social order in which Planned Parenthood exercises a greater influence over Catholic health care plans than does the Pope.

Perhaps we will go back to arguing over contraception once this battle is finished.  Perhaps this will be a moment of healing for our Church, so long and so painfully divided.  But for now at least we agree on this:  we will give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, but he has no right to demand our consciences.


28 Responses to Why War?

  1. Peter Wolczuk says:

    The bit about “lukewarm Christians” (Revelation 3:15-18?) reminds me of a saying that I once heard; All it takes for evil to prevail is for good Christians to do nothing.
    I wonder if this is a lead in to eugenics where inferior social groups, such as the poor and dysfunctional are weeded out due to a belief that being poor or dysfunctional shows a need to be “culled from the herd”
    I have heard that the order includes a “morning after” abortion medication and am interested if this can be confirmed.
    At any rate, If there’s such a eugenic belief, who decides? The worshippers of mammon who sell their spiritual values for worldly and temporary wealth. Are they insanely jealous of people who won’t let go of their faith and/or other spiritual outlooks, even when deprived or persecuted?
    For one of many viewpoints on eugenics there’s http://blog.adw.org/2010/06/the-ugly-origins-of-planned-parenthood-and-the-horse-that-contraception-rode-in-on/

  2. Tom Piatak says:

    An excellent piece.

  3. Debra Schluter says:

    Obama rightly believes in education. His understanding of education, however, as well as his own education, I am going to venture, appears to have some serious deficits. At the very least, what he might know to be right and just is being sacrificed on the altar of political expediency. I recommend a guided reading (re-reading?) of 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, in particular, and the conversion of Paul. Well, how about all of Acts. And we can pray that he discovers ‘how hard it is to kick the goad,’ (Acts 26:14) before we all have to pay the price of ignorance. Here in Denver, we have the Denver Catholic Biblical School for all of us lay people who want to learn and live God’s word. I cannot speak for them, but I just know they would scholarship him in, and be honored to do so. They have convenient class schedules to meet the needs of busy, working adults.

  4. laguir40 says:

    So now the Catholic church wants to have special status uh? I thought not being taxed was enough, if you want that kind of a status churches should also pay taxes as well as everyone else, ALL MEN CREATED EQUAL, all should follow the same laws NO EXEPTIONS.

    • Fr. Peter Calabrese says:

      We should then also be paid for all we have done free of charge to the state. So how about a $200,000,000,000 check for all the people we educated over the years, just for a start. There is a reason tax exemption are given to non-profits, they provide benefits to the state.

    • Fr. Peter Calabrese says:

      First amendment rights are not special status.

    • Barbara West says:

      America used to protect religious liberty and the right of conscience. That is what is at stake. The Pilgrims, Quakers and others came to these shores because the governments of their home countries wanted them to act against their moral convictions. America was the safe haven for them. Now the government wishes to push secular progressive values on an established religious institutions, and institution that serves – without regard to race, creed, color or RELIGION – millions through healthcare and education, often more efficiently than the feds can do. Keep in mind that if the federal government is allowed to intrude on this issue, it opens up precedent for ANY president – Republican or Democrat – to use this method to force ANY OTHER GROUP to act against its values. Think about it. This isn’t about the Catholic church, it’s not about whether contraception is right or wrong, it’s the pure force of government intrusion on every American’s liberty of conscience and it is WRONG.

    • Linda says:

      As there are already exemptions for conscience for the Amish and for Christian Scientists, on what grounds can you argue that they should be permitted but exemptions for Catholics should not? And then there is that whole pesky business of “free exercise” of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment. It hasn’t been repealed or replaced, though ignoring it is the first step in that direction.

  5. Beth Richards says:

    Historically the U.S. has not been exactly kind and considerate toward Catholics. Most of the original colonies were anything but warm toward them; The Know Nothings around the time of the Civil War were opposed to Catholics having the right to vote and land ownership, this was the group who spoke what most others would not: that Catholics were somehow un American. It was only after the heroic sacrifice of lives in the Civil War that Catholics were recognized as “one of us.” Our mistake, after 1860 and on, was spoken by President Kennedy, to be engaged politically without obvious influence by our faith.
    I would dare say it’s time. It’s time to engage the culture and if his administration calls it a war, then let us do what war requires: defend and not capitulate to this attack on our beliefs.

  6. hbhatnagar says:

    As an atheist I have always agreed with Voltaire when he said,”I disagree with your views but I will defend to the death your right to hold it”. I only wonder if I would get the same courtesy from most believers? 🙂
    Even health measures such as contraception should be voluntary in my opinion, We should leave people to make their own informed choices.

    • Well, actually, millions of Catholics have probably given their lives on battlefields around the world so you (& me) could boldly hold our own opinions.

      • hbhatnagar says:

        I’m sure they have, along with millions of Protestants and Muslims and Hindus and Jews in the World Wars and other conflicts around the globe. What I was talking about was on a more personal level.

    • Anthony Lusvardi, SJ says:


      Insofar as they are being faithful to the teachings of the Church, Catholics should defend your right to believe or not to believe free from state pressure or coercion. As the Second Vatican Council declared in Dignitatis Humanae (http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_decl_19651207_dignitatis-humanae_en.html):

      “This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.

      The council further declares that the right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person…”

      The right to religious freedom, in other words, does not depend upon whether what one believes is true or false; it depends upon our affirmation of the dignity of human life. Of course, as we well know, not every Catholic is always faithful to what the Church teaches. 🙂

      (I actually have an article on conscience in Catholic social thought coming out in the next issue of Logos, if anyone is interested. http://www.stthomas.edu/cathstudies/Logos/)

      • hbhatnagar says:

        I believe you Anthony, though it wouldn’t seem like so hearing what most believers have to say about atheists, but I guess (and hope!) that they are just a minority, a very vocal and visible minority but a minority nonetheless.

  7. […] The answer is quite simple, really. Wars happen because the ones who start them think they can win. Anthony Lusvardi, SJ, gets into more detail here. Read it, share it, and prepare.Then, share the little petition that can. As of 09:00 this morning, […]

  8. John says:

    Great article, Anthony! Keep up the good work.

  9. Qualis Rex says:

    The sad thing is “the administration” is definitely a collective organization, including Catholics (most notably Biden, Sibellius and Pelosi). Thus, we are not simply getting Obama v the church, but rather Obama + nominal Catholics v the church. These high profile catholics-in-name-only (CINO) are trying to lend legitimacy and in fact, authority to the anti-Catholic stance and positions of the administration. I am hoping our American Catholic bretherine is smart enough not to be fooled by them

    • Peter Wolczuk says:

      Excellent point. There will probably always be quislings but, even though we seemed to be helped by our persecutors, in accessing the blessing of the Eighth Beatitude – the church has a definite need to stick up for our rights in this matter because it has definately become about rights for all.

      • Qualis Rex says:

        LOL!!! You said “quislings”. I think we have another Zombie-phile on the board : )

        • Peter Wolczuk says:

          I made mention of a word derived from a WWII national leader and admit that I haven’t been keeping up with the latest fads and fashions so I put “Zombie-phile” in a search engine and ended up even more puzzled.
          I’ll just check it out in depth when I get more time and be greatful for the lead into a new experience.

  10. Tom says:

    As a Jew, I don’t agree with the Catholic Church very much – but I do in this circumstance. The HHS ruling was an overstep and should be litigated and fought against.

    However, this piece while right on the issue is a deplorable instance of using divisive rhetoric. The references to North Korea and Brezhnev undermine your fundamental argument and make you look as a hyper-partisan ideologue. I consider myself a middle of the road voter, and I am turned off by this rhetoric and I don’t think it captures the attention of other middle of the road people you will need to convince.

    • Qualis Rex says:

      Hello Tom, It’s interesting that you would preface and come at this argument from the angle “as a Jew”. As an immigrant to the US, I have often scratched my head at the fact that most Americans have their baby boys circumcised as a regular part of the child-birth process. Even the ancient pagan Romans and Greeks (by no means champions of human life and dignity) found this practice on helpless infants barbaric and cruel. Assuming the medical community in the US will eventually come around to what the rest of the world has known for centuries and eventually outlaws the practice, that will leave the Jewish community who would no doubt wish to continue this practice to be “an exception” included among the ones mentioned above (i.e. Amish, Quakers etc). Point being, if the govt comes out against Catholics for NOT allowing specific (harmful) procedures under religious grounds today, they will no doubt come after other groups who mandate procedures under religious grounds tomorrow.

      • Tom says:

        I’m a little late, but just saw the reply. Obviously you read the first part of my opening sentence and must have boiled over with anger. If you take 30 seconds and read my reply, you will understand that I am indeed actually agreeing with the underlying arguments for religious freedom and exemption from regulations which undermine religious conscience. I just don’t like when my stance on issues is reverberated in echo-chambers using divisive rhetoric. While this blog entry was far from the worse showing – it is clear that many Catholics love to compare the President to humanity’s monsters – Stalin, Lenin, and even Hitler. All of which offend me as a Jew – until Obama starts committing violent acts against a religious or ethnic group, please hold off the comparisons. Obama’s policies are mostly horrible but fail the test of considering them equivalent to atrocities.

    • Jeremy Zipple, SJ says:

      Agreed, Tom. In another posting the author refers to the Obama administration as the most “anti-Catholic presidential administration in the history of the Republic.” I’m not sure how one would go about substantiating such a claim, but a cursory glance at administrations of the first half or so of the Republic’s history turns up formidable competition.

      Like you, I’m sympathetic to the author’s premises, but his rhetoric makes it tough to take seriously his argumentation.

    • Anthony Lusvardi, SJ says:

      Thank you for your response, Tom, and I take seriously what you say, though I do think that on balance the greater danger in this debate is that of being washed away in euphemism. I don’t see the names Hitler, Stalin, or Lenin in the above article, and I would remind you that even moderates can sink to inaccurate rhetorical excess when condemning those they think are, well, hyper-partisan ideologues.

      The references to Soviet public relations are deliberate, if hyperbolic, and I stand by those for two reasons: (1) when Mr. Carney asserted, for example, that there were no Constitutional issues involved, that assertion had about the same relationship to the truth as, say, your average Soviet agricultural report; when one misleads that unabashedly, one deserves a little ridicule. And (2) the basic model of Church-State relationship behind the administration’s policy-making is disturbingly similar to the model operative in Communist-occupied Poland — worship spaces are to be tolerated, but religion is more or less limited to them.

      And the author, while acknowledging it could be debated, stands behind the claim that this Administration can rightly be considered the most anti-Catholic in history, for the basic reason the author outlined in the first post. Other Presidents may have disliked Catholics more on a personal level, but the attempts to meddle in the Church’s internal affairs — and particularly the attempts, which have only escalated over the past week, to divide the Church internally — are unprecedented. Even the Baline Amendment, while aiming to weaken parochial schools, did not presume to set policy for those schools. The occasional discrimination the Administration has shown against Catholic groups (http://www.catholicculture.org/news/headlines/index.cfm?storyid=12035&repos=4&subrepos=2&searchid=795210) on the other hand, is probably within the range of 19th century anti-Catholicism.

  11. Qualis Rex says:

    Tom, thanks for responding. There was no anger : ) I saw that you had agreed and I was qualifying your agreement with why that was the correct choice.

  12. Qualis Rex says:

    Hello Anthony (aka “the author”), That is a very interesting point, one that I had not considered; being anti-Catholic in rhetoric and conviction vs being anti-Catholic in actual action.

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