What the Catholic Church Wants

June 27, 2011

At times, the Catholic Church resembles a hulking, maladroit dinosaur. But give it some credit. It knows when its vital interests are at stake. This explains its determined opposition to same-sex marriage and assisted dying, as well as its notorious obsession with forcing women to bear children. The Church will do all it can to preserve its authority, and in doing so it focuses on the most critical decisions we make during our lives. Control: that’s what the Church wants and needs.

New York approved same-sex marriage late Friday. In legalizing marriage for same-sex couples, the state enacted various exemptions for religious bodies, reassuring these institutions that it was not forcing them to recognize these unions as valid in terms of church doctrine. The Catholic Church can still sniff at same-sex couples and tell them “you’re not really married.” It says the same thing already to divorced heterosexuals who remarry.

But that reassurance did not mollify the Church. It reacted with vehemence to the new legislation. The New York bishops issued a statement immediately upon passage of the bill, loudly bemoaning that the new law “leaves us deeply disappointed and troubled.”

I bet they are. You might think that the Church should have no quarrel with the law because the Church doesn’t have to open its doors to same-sex couples seeking marriage. No one is infringing on the Church’s constitutionally protected right to be bigoted. Same-sex couples will simply have civil ceremonies or get wed in a more welcoming religious institution. But that’s just it. The Church wants the state to accept its definition of marriage so it can maintain its relevance and its appearance of authority. If people can conduct their lives as they deem appropriate and ignore pronouncements from the Church on such an important issue as marriage—well, then, exactly what purpose does the Church serve? Personal autonomy has always been and will always remain the prime enemy of the Church.

This explains the Church’s continuing campaign against legal assisted dying.   Just two weeks ago, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops met in Seattle and reiterated its position that terminally ill patients do not have the right to hasten their own deaths, no matter how much they are suffering.  According to the bishops, “suffering accepted in love can bring us closer to the mystery of Christ’s sacrifice.”  Great, so we are going to compel people to live their final days in fear and suffering so they can experience a “mystery.”

The Church’s propaganda machine was working overtime when the bishops issued their final statement on assisted dying.  The bishops stole a page from their opponents’ playbook and characterized their stand against assisted dying as the one that truly respects “human dignity.”  If we promote “human dignity” by telling a terminally ill person that his desires count for nothing and he will be forced to continue to suffer, then that term has been drained of all meaning.

In compelling a person to live, the Church has appropriated the life of that person.  But that is what the Church does in general, or hopes to do.  This year has witnessed a reinvigorated effort by the Church and its fundamentalist allies to impose restrictions on a woman’s ability to have an abortion—if not to eliminate the right to have an abortion entirely.  The Church wants to hijack women’s bodies for the sake of embryos. Scratch that. The Church wants to hijack women’s bodies period.

The Church does not want to let us decide when to bear children. It wants to control that decision. The Church does not want to let us decide whom to marry. It wants to control that decision. The Church does not want to let us decide on our own end-of-life care. The Church wants to control that decision.

Whose life is it anyway? In the Church’s eyes, you belong to God—who just happens to speak through the one true Church.