The Catholic Church's doctrine on contraception hasn't changed, though perhaps their attitudes towards it and other such issues has. (It was also then, as it is now, the most widely ignored ban among Catholics.) The federal government decision on requiring American hospitals and other health care institutions caring for the general public, regardless of the institution's religious affiliation must offer insurance that covers contraception I believe one that would have been understood in the Catholicism of my youth. We used to hear the phrase, you can't legislate morality. That a Catholic hospital is required to cover contraception services does not require anyone to accept those services if they violate their religious beliefs. Sin, forgiveness and redemption are individual matters, for freedom to sin or not to sin under any circumstances is pretty the whole point. (For other views on this recent policy decision, here are some collected by Andrew Sullivan, himself a Catholic, with links to even more discussion.)
In the Catholicism of my youth--and to some extent today as well--there were different degrees of emphasis on moral lessons derived from the teachings of Christ and his disciples, leading to different approaches to public policy and action. But major lessons were felt to support what may be considered "liberal" policies (and "liberal" was an acceptable and often admirable description then, particularly in the years of Pope John XXIII, one of the great voices of the 20th century.)
I mention this now because the major lessons President Obama described as the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday that drew from his Christian faith were lessons I learned then, through Catholic teaching. They remain bedrocks for me, especially as they are supported by so many other teachings, from many religions as well as from ethics that require no divine authority. Yet these moral statements were either dismissed or ignored, or interpreted only in the politics of Washington.
Love your neighbor as yourself, and the action program resulting from that--otherwise known as the Beatitudes, the Sermon on the Mount--and "the least of these," as well as the verse President Kennedy quoted--"To whom much is given, much is required"--were commonplace in my Catholic education. Are they so radical now?
There's no question that they are relevant to the moment--that's the point of moral standards, that you apply them to situations of the moment. And President Obama did that in talking about them, as he said that he does in informing his actions. The video of this speech speaks volumes. Wearing soft brown in contrast to his usual dark blue or black, the President was speaking from the heart--speaking strongly, but seeming to know how vulnerable he was being.
"We can’t leave our values at the door. If we leave our values at the door, we abandon much of the moral glue that has held our nation together for centuries, and allowed us to become somewhat more perfect a union. Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Jane Addams, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, Abraham Heschel -- the majority of great reformers in American history did their work not just because it was sound policy, or they had done good analysis, or understood how to exercise good politics, but because their faith and their values dictated it, and called for bold action -- sometimes in the face of indifference, sometimes in the face of resistance."
Dorothy Day--how brave to mention her, and a radical Catholicism that eclipsed even mine in high school, though for some reason a subscription to her newspaper that I never bought, The Catholic Worker, followed me from residence to residence for years. The others he named suggest how his faith informed his community organizing days, and vice versa. But it is equally important that with each example from the Christian Bible he gave, President Obama noted parallels in other religions (although he neglected to mention the very strong Buddhist call for compassion.)
"Treating others as you want to be treated. Requiring much from those who have been given so much. Living by the principle that we are our brother’s keeper. Caring for the poor and those in need. These values are old. They can be found in many denominations and many faiths, among many believers and among many non-believers. And they are values that have always made this country great -- when we live up to them; when we don’t just give lip service to them; when we don’t just talk about them one day a year."
He began his remarks with a plea for the relevance of these ethics rather than parading political affiliations with particular ideologies endorsed by particular religious groups. "At a time when it’s easy to lose ourselves in the rush and clamor of our own lives, or get caught up in the noise and rancor that too often passes as politics today, these moments of prayer slow us down. They humble us. They remind us that no matter how much responsibility we have, how fancy our titles, how much power we think we hold, we are imperfect vessels. We can all benefit from turning to our Creator, listening to Him. Avoiding phony religiosity..."
The heart of his message, simple and yet complex in its rejection of a certain kind of religiosity while grounding his moral beliefs in his faith:
"Now, we can earnestly seek to see these values lived out in our politics and our policies, and we can earnestly disagree on the best way to achieve these values. In the words of C.S. Lewis, “Christianity has not, and does not profess to have a detailed political program. It is meant for all men at all times, and the particular program which suited one place or time would not suit another.”
Our goal should not be to declare our policies as biblical. It is God who is infallible, not us. Michelle reminds me of this often. (Laughter.) So instead, it is our hope that people of goodwill can pursue their values and common ground and the common good as best they know how, with respect for each other. And I have to say that sometimes we talk about respect, but we don’t act with respect towards each other during the course of these debates.
But each and every day, for many in this room, the biblical injunctions are not just words, they are also deeds. Every single day, in different ways, so many of you are living out your faith in service to others."
Though I do not share his faith, I share his values, and I recognize their grounding in the Catholic teachings that informed JFK and--though he was either ridiculed or ignored for his statements on faith and works--Senator John Kerry when he ran for President in 2004.
Certain clergy were asserting that the Constitution is a Protestant document (another way of saying that America is a "Christian" nation within their narrow definition of Christianity) during JFK's campaign in 1960. Catholics in those days largely saw the separation of church and state as protecting them. Now it is being challenged in ways I wouldn't have believed possible, with the Catholic Church among the challengers. But these so-called religious wars should not distort or distract from the moral basis of our public life.