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