Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Opening Old Wounds

"Women want to have sex." Not pulling our punches today, I thought as I watched the old lady standing at the podium. I had the feeling she'd waited half a lifetime to say that.

It was December 2, 2009. I'd ridden down to D.C. from Philly on a packed bus that had three men on it, including the driver. It was Stop Stupak! Day, and people came from all over the country to protest against yet another attack on abortion rights. Bart Stupak, a Democratic congressman, had proposed the Stupak Amendment to President Obama's health-care reform bill, and here we were in a large caucus room in a Senate office building, articulating the many ways in which we thought the good congressman was misguided.

Will the young women fight? It's a question that gets asked at regular intervals. The underlying thought is that women fought and won the big battles a generation and two generations ago, and young women today, not having any experience of the way things were, tend to a certain complacency.

Well, there were a lot of young women in Washington that day, and they were hardly complacent. In fact, although respectful of their elders, they were quite noisy.

So here we are more than two years later, and now it's contraception. The Affordable Care Act says contraceptives get covered. The Catholic bishops say, Wait a minute. What about our freedom of religion?

There are days when I actually feel sorry for the president. He deserves a better opposition. It rapidly became clear that the argument wasn't about religious freedom. It was about sexual freedom. And religious authority.

Will the young women fight? You bet. And the old ones too.

I confess the bishops baffle me. Why have they chosen this ground to fight on? I think it's a colossal mistake.

On the other hand, maybe they're just acting in character. I guess if you're infallible, the concept of overreaching does not compute.

Take the face-off with Henry VIII, for instance. I can understand how the pope might have been annoyed by Henry's serial polygamy. I myself have reservations about his treatment of women. But when the pope refused to annul Henry's marriage to Catherine of Aragon, Henry's riposte was to move his whole country from the C column to the P column. As Henry's marital difficulties were occurring in the middle of the Protestant Reformation, and losing countries to the Ps was an ongoing concern, you would think the pope - the Big C, if you will - might have found a way to keep Henry on board.

By the way, Henry didn't just make himself the head of the Church of England. He also dissolved the monasteries - an act which has been called the largest transfer of wealth in England after the Norman Conquest. Guess who got the money. I'll give you a hint. His name begins with an H.

Then there was the little dust-up with Galileo. Galileo thought the earth moved around the sun. The church thought the sun moved around the earth. Bertold Brecht wrote a play about it, called Galileo, which was recently revived in New York. Talk about buying yourself 380 years of bad press.

I suspect the Inquisition could have found a way out with Galileo. After all, it was okay to think that the earth was round. Mariners knew you always saw a ship's sails before you saw its hull, as it came over the horizon. So why not cut Galileo some slack? The effect on popular belief would likely have been minimal. After all, we still watch the sun rise in the morning, and I'm told that quite a few people still think the earth is flat.

It seems the church has a chronic propensity for shooting itself in the foot. (I'm not even going to talk about the pederasty scandal.) I also think there's a deeper dynamic at work. As societies mature, they become more complex. A process of differentiation, or specialization, takes place. Years ago, the family doctor took care of everything. Today, an orthopedic surgeon may specialize in the elbow. Similarly, Galileo just knew more about astronomy than his inquisitors did.

I think the church would be well advised to recognize this dynamic and accept that its authority will not be recognized on as wide a range of issues as it was in, say, the year 1000. And then I'd suggest that they regroup on a core concept where they're not outgunned - love, maybe. Maybe even turn love into a core competency.

It would be nice to move on from the stale arguments of the past. But instead we seem intent on reopening every old wound we can find. Just a few weeks ago Rick Santorum, who's running for president, was trying to scare people with the French Revolution. My jaw dropped. I had thought everybody agreed the French were better off without Marie Antoinette.

I can see why Rick would line up with the French aristocrats, who paid even less in the way of taxes than hedge fund managers do today. But then I had another thought. I think there's something comfortable about refighting the old battles, even if you know you're going to lose.

Every year in Philadelphia, Revolutionary War reenactors get together to refight the Battle of Germantown, which originally took place in October 1777. I remember, one year in the nineties, maybe 1993, I was commiserating with a Continental soldier about losing the battle yet again, and he smiled and said something like, "216 to zero, and still we come back." And he took a swig of his beer.