Timeless Truth vs. Modern Manifestation

The Vatican grabbed headlines last week, frustrating the efforts of US bishops to keep Catholic lawsuits about contraception in the spotlight.  Both news stories offer a small window into how difficult it is for religions to change.  Some religious groups like the Amish resist all change, moral and technological, while others like the Society of Saint John the Evangelist were founded to be “men of the moment,” present to modern day hurts and needs just as Jesus was in his day.

Religious attitudes towards procreation have consequences that ripple through societies in all directions.  I’d hazard a guess that for most of religious history, enhancing population would have been advantageous either for the human species in general or for certain religious groups specifically.  The medieval era saw population decimating epidemics and low childhood survival rates.  Similarly, in sparsely populated agrarian settings, increasing population would have been advantageous regardless of religious considerations.  Always a minority, Jews are one religious group that has a long history of promoting procreation, especially following the holocaust.  But on an overpopulated planet struggling to feed the inhabitants it already has, what is the ethical stand on contraception and reproductive rights?

One-time Republican presidential nomination hopeful Rick Santorum, with a straight face, told Chris Wallace he doesn’t give to charity because his children are too expensive.  He happens to be Catholic, he believes birth control is morally wrong, and his wife gave birth to their eighth child at age 48.  Tragically, the child is afflicted by a serious genetic disorder for which the risk rises with maternal age.  The bible talks a lot more about helping the poor than procreating, but Santorum clearly bought into the American Catholic priority on procreation, despite the risks.  What would our country look like if a majority followed Santorum’s example?  I shudder to imagine.

This brings a significant question into focus.  How do religious communities discern the difference between timeless values that merit preservation and manifestations of those values that change with changing societal conditions?  Jesus was clearly concerned with feeding the hungry and healing the sick.  How do those values translate into action in a society where the biggest health risk to the poor is obesity?  Surely it looks different than in biblical times, and surely addressing food stability for those who are already alive is no less imperative.  Blithely stating one is “for life” is gratuitous without addressing the poor who already happen to be alive.

My last post pondered invitations for transformation, and as a country, it seems that the healthcare reform discussion offers such an invitation.  Historical Jesus scholar John Dominic Crossan boils Jesus’ ministry down to two radical elements—free healing and open table.  With that religious foundation, it’s hard to understand why the American Christian voice for healing is not louder.

Join the conversation.  What attitudes embodied a timeless truth in a bygone era and should manifest differently in current conditions?

Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

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Skin in the Game

Maureen Dowd is at it with the Catholic bishops again. Today’s column takes aim at them for rejecting the president’s proposed compromise on employee reproductive healthcare.  The opinion is well composed, as usual, but I disagree with Dowd at the end.  She concludes, “…what the bishops portray as an attack on religion by the president is really an attack on women by the bishops.”

Plenty of commentary characterizes the Catholic hierarchy as power hungry (suppressing women to consolidate power) or outright misogynist, but to me, those charges don’t ring true.  I had a flash of insight on this recently, thanks to that great spiritual thinker and writer Richard Rohr.  He is also a Catholic priest, by the way, and doesn’t shy away from candid observations on our culture and public discourse.  He says it is easiest to pillory that which threatens our own character the least.  “Many Christians whittle down the great Gospel to some moral issue over which they can feel totally triumphant and superior, and which usually asks nothing of them personally.”  As examples he cites:

“celibate priests focusing on birth control and abortion as the core of evil, heterosexuals seeing gay marriage as the ultimate threat to society, liberals invested in some current political correctness while living lives of rather total isolation from actual suffering in the world, Bible thumpers ignoring most of the Bible when it asks them to change, a nation of immigrants being anti-immigrant, etc.”

Although it seems that the Catholic hierarchy has an ax to grind regarding reproductive rights, and this issue seems to rank way above reaching out to the poor or outcast on its public policy agenda, I couldn’t quite put my finger on the reason why.  Rohr has supplied it.  For men who have taken a lifetime vow of celibacy, reproductive concerns are far from personal turf.  This is safe ground to stomp on.  They don’t really have to do anything or to be changed in any way, on a personal level, no matter the outcome.  They don’t have to expose themselves to God’s transformational power or embrace Jesus’ radically egalitarian message.  Human reproduction is something they can all agree on because, basically, it doesn’t impact them.  They don’t have any skin in that game.

Now, welcoming the despised and outcast or taking in the poor, that is another story entirely.  That, evidently, is a bit too close to home.  Too much focus there would inevitably shine a spotlight on actions of the bishops themselves.  Some bishops might not be comfortable actually doing some things.  There might be disagreements about how or how much to do.  Outcomes might not be predictable or controllable.  The safest course appears to be supporting the good work of food pantries, shelters and clinics on a local level without calling public policy attention to systemic forces underlying the needs.  Otherwise, calling for change might call them to change.

To disagree respectfully with Maureen Dowd, the bishops’ stance is not so much an attack on women as it is a sprinting retreat from the gospel.

Join the conversation.  Where do you see moral triumph, and where do you see invitations to be transformed?

Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.