By Alan McCornick
Note: This commentary was first published February 27, 2012, by Hepzibah.
George Niederauer is beating a dead horse in this morning’s San Francisco Chronicle.
He is attempting to draw a parallel between the Boston Tea Party and the latest attempt by his church to inhibit the practice of birth control. The media are alive with signs of amazement at how good the religious right is at shooting itself in the foot with this cause, and Niederauer, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of San Francisco, keeps supplying the bullets.
It’s not something he has any control over, of course. As an archbishop, he has to ignore the actual church, which practices birth control without reservation, and speak for the official church, which is still pedaling backwards as fast as it can to keep the church from entering the 20th Century. That’s not a typo. The 20th Century.
The Boston Tea Party, Niederauer says, wasn’t about the tea. It was about liberty.
Well yes, of course it was about liberty. But as far as the East India Company was concerned, it was most assuredly about the tea, and they wanted, and got, the British Parliament to pass a bill to close Boston Harbor until the loss of the tea had been reimbursed. It’s not either/or. It’s both/and.
When you hear somebody say, “It’s not about X” you can almost always be sure it is about X. It may also be about Y, but it is still about X, as well. “It’s not about…” simply signals you’ve got a difference of opinion over how a conflict is being framed.
Same-sex marriage. Is it about “the right to marry and enjoy equal civil rights”? Or is it about “the wisdom of keeping the “traditional” definition of marriage”? (Never mind the wildly off-base misunderstanding of the tradition.) Integration. Was it about “giving black people full access to American citizenship”? Or about “preserving the God-given separation of the races?”
“It’s not about…” should send off an alarm bell. Warning. Background information needed.
We all understand that there are situations where there is more than meets the eye. That is attested to by phrases like, “cherchez la femme” – look for the woman (there’s bound to be a woman behind all this trouble). Or “follow the money.” The entire postmodern project of deconstruction is based on looking under the surface to find the real explanation. And for the real motivation, which is bound to be a desire for power. Or money. Which is the gateway to power.
You’ve got to hand it to the Archbishop. He does his job well. Absolutely untroubled by the notion that perhaps this furtherance of male control over women his church is notorious for is on the way out in modern times. The chutzpah! Telling women it’s not about birth control but about liberty.
A man who has no children and is committed to having none tells women he would force children on that he’s the voice of liberty. OK, not forcing, exactly. They could do without sex, if they prefer. Either one is a good Catholic choice, according to Niederauer.
For way way too long this retrograde institution has gotten away with chutzpah like this. It’s not about your right as a gay person to dignity. It’s about our right to declare that you aren’t worthy of it. Well, let me correct myself. We used to say you were not worthy of it, but now we have changed out minds and we say your are worthy of it but just not a dignity equal to ours. And you’ve got to allow us to say this and act out on this, because if you don’t you’re infringing on our liberty to discriminate against you. And our right to insist it’s not discrimination. It’s not about your right to have information on how to enjoy a rich and healthy sex life without risking pregnancy with each act of intercourse. It’s about our right to tell you we don’t want you to do that.
You see the problem. It’s all about who has the power to frame the argument.
Generally, when two people come at an issue with different vested interests, you hope for civility, stress common ground, and allow both sides to agree to disagree, if you must.
In this instance, however, there is no middle ground. The church dictates or it doesn’t. What Niederauer is missing in his insistence he has the right to discriminate because he’s following the dictates of his religion, is that he’s working out in the world, and not in the non-democratic tradition of his church. And in a democracy, one’s freedom ends where another’s begins.
Hiding behind religious authority is nothing new for the church. They tried it, world wide, in the priest abuse scandal. The secular world wanted the predator priests exposed and brought to justice. The hierarchical church wanted total control over how the matter was handled. For decades they had simply shuffled offender priests around from diocese to diocese, protecting the church from scandal. This control, they maintained, was their due as a religious institution. Gradually, the world has come to understand that since the church would not take care of its children, the state had to, and in one country after another, Germany, Ireland, the United States and elsewhere, this issue once framed as the Catholic Church’s right to care for the souls of its bishops was reframed as the right of the world at large to protect its children. Religious rights, it turned out, had its limits.
We are at that kind of divide once more. Where does the right of the Church to prolong its oppression and denigration of women (and LGBT people) on religious grounds end? And where does the right of women and gays not to be put down by the Church begin?
Niederauer and Company display an astonishing ignorance of the misery they inflict on others who out of fear of eternal damnation submit to their rules at the expense of their personal liberties, including the quality of their lives. The lenses the clerics wear permit them to discern their liberty to dictate. And filter out the liberty of the women susceptible to their influence to choose to have children on the basis of their ability to care for them.
We were taught in kindergarten that wonderful Oliver Wendell Holmes summation of rights in a democracy: the right to swing my fist ends where the other man's nose begins.
Niederauer can frame this conflict over the contraceptive mandate as a question of religious liberty all he wants.
But he must not feign surprise to find most of thinking in terms of a broken nose.