The Obama administration is insisting that church-affiliated employers pay for birth control in their health care plans. This especially violates the Catholic Church’s doctrine prohibiting the use of contraception. As such, it’s an act of tyranny — an insidious attempt to bring down one of the load-bearing walls of liberty.
The idea that churches stand to a great degree apart from the power of the state has its beginning — in my reading of history — in an incident that involved Pontius Pilate before he entered the Gospel stories. Appointed the Roman governor of Judaea in 26 AD, Pilate set up (according to the account of the historian Josephus) a set of Roman standards in the city of Jerusalem. The Romans were famously tolerant about the religions of the people they conquered. They didn’t care if you worshipped your gods — as long as you also worshipped their gods. To ask this was to ask no more than loyalty to Rome, whose gods and government were as one.
This was good conqueror policy and worked well — except in Judaea. The Jews had only one God and he was a jealous one. They felt the Roman display constituted idolatry and a violation of God’s law. They protested to Pilate. Pilate enticed the rabble rousers into the great stadium at Caesarea, then surrounded them with soldiers, swords drawn: Either accept the Roman symbols in the Holy City or die. The Jews, as one, flung themselves on the ground and extended their necks: better to die than to break God’s law.
Pontius Pilate, meet the Jews. With his emperor furious at the mess he’d made, Pilate was forced to back down and remove the symbols.
About 45 years later, the Jews tried to secure their religious freedom through violent revolt. The Romans crushed them, sacked Jerusalem, and destroyed the Jewish temple. But God’s irony never sleeps. By destroying its Jewish centers, the Roman conquest of Palestine accelerated the spread of a Jewish cult throughout the Roman world — a cult that would eventually transform Rome into its instrument.
According to theologians like N.T. Wright, the founder of this cult, Jesus of Nazareth, had been trying to warn zealous Jews off the disastrous path that led to the revolt. He preached a more patient and pacific but nonetheless unyielding religiosity, pointing to a way that involved neither religious surrender nor political violence: Give Caesar what belongs to Caesar; give God what belongs to God. It may have been the best political advice anyone ever gave anyone, and was wholly in keeping with the actions of the men who bared their necks at the stadium in Caesarea.
Throughout the so-called Dark and Middle ages, as Christianity helped shape Rome’s savage conquerors into the nations of Europe, church and state battled over how to actualize Jesus’s doctrine. In clash after clash, crisis after crisis, kings and popes vied over which was the ultimate arbiter of what power where. Did these clashes involve perfect people versus evil people? Pristine institutions versus corrupt ones? Don’t be ridiculous. They involved only men, sinful, self-interested, and violent. But out of their clashes, there evolved an idea that was better than the mere mortals who shaped it.
That idea found its best expression in law when our founding fathers wrote these words into the Bill of Rights: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” Here was a rule under which men would not have to bare their necks to the swords of tyrants in order to defend the dictates of their creeds. It was as if it had taken mankind some 1800 years to say, “Oh wait, I get it! Give Caesar what belongs to Caesar; give God what belongs to God!”
As I understand the Catholic ban on contraception (after slogging through much of Pope John Paul II’s mind-wracking Theology of the Body), it’s based on the idea that people should act in the completeness of their spiritual humanity even in the moments of their most intimate physicality. Thus sex should only take place within a sacralized and lifelong commitment of love without being detached from its essential purpose of conception.
I don’t have to agree with this doctrine to understand that it’s an heroic attempt to defend the one most essential ingredient of freedom: the concept of the inviolable human soul. In taking this stand, the church of Rome is doing exactly what churches are supposed to do. It is institutionalizing the fact that man is spirit, that he cannot live by bread alone.
Kings have wanted to snuff out this idea forever. They want to convince us that we’re bodies only, collections of material needs — and that they can fill those needs in exchange for their power over us. Without our churches, without our religions, nothing would stop them from filling us with bread and stripping us of freedom. Obama offers us this exchange virtually every time he opens his mouth. He will give you your contraception, but he will command your conscience.
Whether we’re Catholic or not, whether we agree with the Catholics or not, every single one of us should stand up against the Obama administration’s assault on their church. The Jews of Caesarea will be standing with us. So, I believe, will the Christ.