Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Dragging myself back in....

I really thought this was over, until Jon Stewart convinced me otherwise. So, maybe not:

In fact, birth control use is nearly universal in the United States, even among Catholic women. One recent study shows that 98 percent of sexually experienced Catholic women will have used birth control at some point in their lives. Nearly 60 percent of women use birth control pills for something other than, or in addition to, contraception. For example for women at risk for ovarian cancer, taking birth control pills for five years reduces their risk of getting cancer by 50%. Should women have to explain to employers they need coverage for serious illnesses, not birth control, in order to obtain the medicine their doctor prescribe.
I take an aspirin a day, because of my family history of heart disease. Fortunately aspirin is not a prescription drug, so I don't have a problem with my health insurance on it. I do take two drugs that are prescription, for minor chronic conditions. I don't know why any employer would care why I take them, or that I take them.

I said below that this was an issue of power, not of ethics. Even to call it an issue of morality, is to call it an issue of power. All moral concerns always come down to the either/or that Kierkegaard associated with the ethical sphere of existence. That is, in the ethical sphere, choices must be made: you can no longer choose only for yourself and choose from among a range of opportunities (the aesthetic sphere, a life devoted to personal satisfactions); you must choose what is right: you must make the either/or. And that is a question of power: if you accept my ethical system, you must follow it as I see fit, especially if I have authority over you (priest; bishop, employer). If you do not accept it, perhaps I don't hire you.

Maybe Southern Baptist employers should complain that they can't fire employees in a community with liquor stores. Consuming liquor is, after all, a sin; and paying people is enabling them to sin, so....

So the either/or means you must make a choice, and you must choose wisely, as your choice reflects on me. It also means you must do with your choices what I wish you to do. Otherwise you have violated the either/or, and you remain in the aesthetic sphere; but there's no going back, once you accept the ethical sphere, you must accept it to the end. So who gets to decide what you can do, and what you cannot do, and on what basis is the decision made?

Is it acceptable for birth control pills to be covered by insurance, if I the employer don't have to pay for that? Why? Is it any different than if my employee uses my money that she earned, to buy the pills? Ah, but then it is no longer my money? Why? If I can refuse to pay for insurance for my employee, can't I refuse to pay my employee if she spends the money on things I disapprove of? Why not? When does my culpability end? And is insurance any less earned than wages? What employer pays an employee who never works? What employer provides insurance to an employee who never works? If the insurance policy belongs to the employer, why doesn't the money?

But we don't control our employees like that, you say. No, but the argument here is that we should. Or at least, that the state should allow us to if we wished it.

But when Notre Dame is the single largest employer in South Bend, Indiana, with Saint Joseph Regional Medical Center not far behind, how could we say, “Sorry, you should move if you want to have affordable access to these health services.” It is discordant with my Catholic and my American values that a receptionist at the local hospital making around $26,000 a year should have to shell out nearly $600 for birth control or cede control to her employer over when to start a family, when she is already paying in to her health care plan. The new agreement would take this difficult question off the table by allowing the women and men working at these religious affiliated organizations to receive the equal and affordable access through their insurers directly without engaging their employers.
If the people of South Bend, Indiana don't like it, they don't have to work for Notre Dame or St. Joseph Medical. That's fair, right? Just like it's fair if they don't want to work for the Southern Baptist who fires people found to be shopping in a liquor store. According to Mark Rienzi (the lawyer for two plaintiffs suing to have this rule overturned), the people of South Bend, Indiana should just suck on it:

Lastly, the suggestion that these schools or institutions are imposing their views or coercing people just makes no sense. There's no law that requires you to go work for a religious institution. There's no law that requires you to go to a Catholic school. If you go to a school run by monks and the monks sign your paycheck or the monks provide your education, you're probably not all that surprised that the monks have certain religious principles they want to run their school by.
In other words, screw the Civil Rights Act, you want a job with an employer, you live by that employer's dictates.

Right? And how far is that argument from saying you don't have to sleep in that motel, or dine in that restaurant? Is this really any different from the argument Anthony Picarello, general counsel for the US Conference of Bishops?

That means removing the provision from the health care law altogether, he said, not simply changing it for Catholic employers and their insurers. He cited the problem that would create for "good Catholic business people who can't in good conscience cooperate with this."

"If I quit this job and opened a Taco Bell, I'd be covered by the mandate," Picarello said.
I can't see any daylight between them. If I declare racism a matter of conscience, do I win?

And I don't, let us note, want to control the employees because they are part of my group, because they have agreed to the terms of membership of my order. I want to control them because the issue involves my money, and my money carries my agency with it. If I render it to Caesar, is it still mine? Do I give myself to Caesar in my coins? Then what do I give to God? Does my money given to God also display my power? What lesson, then, is there in the widow's mite?

The ethical consideration is for the individual. The Desert Fathers understood that. They went to the desert to avoid the entanglements of who was good and who was better, because they realized it was a false hierarchy. Jesus taught his disciples that the first among them would be last, and the last first, and the least among them were the greatest. It is an order that absolutely denies power, that absolutely rests on the devolution of power and the rejection of judgment. It is a situation where you are united only in your servanthood, not in your ability to wield authority against the rulers:

MS. NOONAN: That's what the church thinks. Can I just note, by the way...


MS. NOONAN: ...as Catholics it was so great for three weeks that we all got along. We were all in agreement.


MS. NOONAN: I mean, this is a church that...

MR. GREGORY: Yeah, exactly.

MR. DIONNE: President Obama united Catholics.

If the world is too much with you in the hospital or the university, perhaps its time for those places to close. A hospital run by a group which objects to blood transfusions wouldn't be much of a hospital. An employer who insisted no one who worked for them should be able to use employer-provided insurance to get blood transfusions would not win much support inside the Beltway. The objection might be that such a belief is too errant and outside the mainstream to be supported by the government at large, even tacitly. The real argument would be: who cares that the Seventh Day Adventists think? What power do they have?

Agency is always a question of power. What is the power of my money in the world? What are the power of my beliefs? What is the strength of my faith? And how much control do those things give me, over you? I have power over the beggar on the street. I can relieve his suffering, or prolong it, or increase his invisibility. But if I give him money, will he buy liquor with it? Is that my concern? What if my money buys a hamburger, and the next handout buys the liquor? Am I still culpable? When do I let go of what is mine, and let it become yours?

After a while the stream dried up, for there had been no rain in the land. Then the word of the Lord came to him: “Go now to Zarephath, a village of Sidon, and stay there; I have commanded a widow there to feed you.’ He went off to Zarephath, and when he reached the entrance to the village, he saw a widow gathering sticks. He called to her, ‘Please bring me a little water in a pitcher to drink.’ As she went to fetch it, he called after her, ‘Bring me, please, a piece of bread as well.’ But she answered, “As the Lord your God lives, I have no food baked, only a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a flask. I am just gathering two or three sticks to go and cook it for my son and myself before we die.’ ‘Have no fear,’ Elijah said, ‘go and do as you have said. But first make me a small cake from what you have and bring it out to me, and after that make something for your son and yourself. For this is the word of the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of flour will not give out, nor the flask of oil fail, until the Lord sends rain on the land.’ She went and did as Elijah had said, and there was food for him and for her family for a long time. The jar of flour did not give out, nor did the flask of oil, as the word of the Lord foretold through Elijah. 1 Kings 17:7-16 (REB)
What little the widow had, was hers. When she shared it with Elijah, when she let go of it and let it become his as well, three people survived a terrible drought. But that's just a story, it's not a guideline for how to live:

“Come for water, all who are thirsty;
Though you have no money, come, buy grain and eat;
Come, buy wine and milk,
Not for money, not for a price.
Why spend your money for what is not food,
Your earnings on what fails to satisfy?
Listen to me and you will fare well,
You will enjoy the fat of the land.
Come to me and listen to my words,
Hear me and you will have life:
I shall make an everlasting covenant with you
To love you faithfully as I have loved David.
I appointed him a witness to peoples,
And you in turn will summon nations you do not know,
And nations that do not know you will hasten to you,
Because the Lord your God, Israel’s Holy One, has made you glorious.—Isaiah 55:1-5 (REB)
And that, of course, is simply crazy. How can you maintain order if you give everything important away?

Funny thing about Kierkegaard and that "either/or." Kierkegaard scholars once thought he meant to subdivide human existence into three discernible and distinctive spheres: the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious. He meant no such thing, however. That is the work of the pseudonyms, the works meant to undermine Hegelianism by mocking it. The "either/or" is not a condition of existence, it is an imposition on the individual by society; it is a method of control. It is a bind we put ourselves in, in order to both deny and to avoid our self-fulfillment, to prevent ourselves from fully becoming ourselves. It is, in Othello's phrase, as false as water. For Kierkegaard, self-actualization (as we call it know) was possible only in full devotion to the rigorous life of discipleship to Christ. It could not come from society, it could only come from God, the Creator, the source of life. Either/or is not a step along the way to that Platonic fulfillment, it is a step away from it. Either/or might, in fact, please Plato or Socrates; but for Kierkegaard it was a false trail, if only because the either/or is all about morality, and morality is not about God, but about playing God for others. It is, yes, a radically Protestant point of view. But then, Kierkegaard was almost more Lutheran than Luther. And yet, there is an eternal golden braid that connects Kierkegaard to Luther to one of the great Fathers of Catholicism, St. Augustine.

There is always a way to stitch these things together that brings light instead of heat, or just a spark that leaves behind a little more darkness.

ADDENDUM: although some of the people concerned about this topic seem to be a little unhinged.

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