Catholics, Contraception, and the Constitution: Talmud 101

Guest Submission by Lou Gutnicki

 

Catchy title, but we’re not offering kitschy smatterings of holy water sprinkled on servings of bagels and lox. Unfortunately there’s other fish to fry. Folks, to get to the root of the woes plaguing society, we need to look beyond the C’s. Answers abound staring at us. Solutions await just daring us.

What! There are “woes plaguing society”!? Oh yeah! Just look at all the commotion surrounding the Obama Administration insisting that Catholic institutions provide contraception coverage in their employee health plans. Instead of intelligent discussion about important issues this has deteriorated into a turf battle.

Contraception coverage is complicated. The Obama Administration and those of similar mindset contend that contraception confers medical and social benefits. This contention is controversial but let’s go with it for now. We need to assume that the Obama Administration is right here in order to appreciate the depth of the problem. That is because irrespective of any possible benefit that contraception could confer, Catholic doctrine expressly forbids contraception and teaches that it is “intrinsically wrong to use contraception to prevent new human beings from coming into existence.” Now think of this… if you were a neutral observer, as many Americans are, how would deal with this? What would you do to resolve the issue and perhaps compromise without compromising one side or the other? Keep these questions in mind as we explore possible solutions.

There are two basic social human constructs that are fundamental for a functional society. The first is respect. From childhood on, we are taught to respect our elders and to deal with others as we would want them to deal with us. But respect means much more than the mere mechanical act of giving up one’s seat to the elderly on a crowded bus. Respect is as President Clinton famously quipped “I feel your pain.” Respect is “Walk a mile in your shoes.” Respect for another human being is one of the primary lessons of religion. And if you think about it, respect is codified in the Constitution and respect is the superstructure upon which the Constitution is constructed. These are not just glib talking points and by essay’s end, you’ll see exactly how and why our Constitution is structured this way.

Now the first construct, respect, is well understood. This construct is the basis of many laws such as those dealing with property rights. It’s the second construct that is at the heart of our problems. We’ll call this construct listening for lack of a better noun. We need to explain this a little bit. Uh Huh and Yes Dear are NOT listening. Listening means people exchanging ideas and trying to understand and, more importantly, acknowledge the other guy’s point of view even though he disagrees with him. This mode of interchange leads people to find common ground and in the end be able to resolve differences. Unfortunately most discussion is like a tug of war where each side tries to overwhelm the other guy and pull the guy over to his side. We are calling listening a social construct because it is an essential building block of a functional society. Without it there is division, divisiveness, and distrust. And, in truth, there can be no real respect without listening. Listening means understanding the other guy’s point of view, validating it, and respecting the other guy’s needs stemming from that point of view. By the way, for the record, this does not necessarily include acquiescing to the other guy if his view is contrary to your worldview.

Respect is clear and what it ought to mean is well understood, but how about listening? Is it possible to have vigorous debate with both sides having their viewpoints acknowledged, validated, and accepted? We turn to the Talmud to answer that question. While we don’t need to delve into deep discussion of Talmudic discourse, there is one key feature that stands out. The Talmudic deliberations don’t shy away from delivering differing viewpoints even if they veer off from mainstream thinking. Talmudic discourse often takes the form of a discussion among debaters with a moderator controlling the flow. Again, even as one debater is strongly advocating his points, he still attempts to incorporate the other guy’s ideas with his own. So despite the vigorous debate there still is a meaningful exchange of ideas and meeting of the minds. People are really listening to one another. Let’s eavesdrop on a Talmudic style debate dealing with the Administration vs. Catholics re. Health Care/Contraception issue…

(Moderator to Mr. Adam representing the Administration) Why is it so important to insist that Catholic institutions offer free contraception given what you just have heard regarding the Church’s historical position on the issue?

(Mr. Adam) The Administration is well aware of the Church’s rich history and we commend the Church in its unwavering adherence to spiritual doctrine. On the other hand, study after study has shown that the only reliable way to stem the unprecedented increase in STD and unwanted pregnancies is to insure contraception availability in high risk situations.

(Sister Catha, spokesperson for Catholic Conglomerates) Mr. Adam, are we to understand that the Administration is looking to treat pregnancy as a disease? I assure you that the Church carefully examines this kind of research but factors this information prudently. We do take health concerns very, very seriously. However, we don’t jump to rash conclusions since we can rely on centuries of experience.

(Mr. Adam) Why is the Church and its supporters so slow to accept new ideas that can have such a positive impact on society?

(Sister Catha) You have the answer in your own question. There is no doubt that your researchers are amongst the smartest people around.  Nonetheless, it’s impossible to believe that any individual or even group has such profound insight and wisdom to direct the lives of millions or billions! We prefer to let new ideas bake over long periods and introduce insightful change gradually and carefully.

 

Even though we showed just a small excerpt of this debate, there still is a lot of information to digest here. Firstly, Talmudic discourse does indeed take this form. However, actual Talmudic discourse is more terse and definitely deals with diverse topics. Now to the main points. We see a lively debate with either side strongly presenting its own view and yet still entertaining the other’s view. Nonetheless, after all that we still have deadlock. Why?

Look at the debate very carefully. Try to find religion in the debate and and you’ll see that religion was not ever mentioned. Nevertheless, there still is deadlock. The two debaters are obviously very far away from compromise. Look again at Mr. Adam’s last question and Sister Catha’s response. This is NOT just an arbitrary heated exchange. What we have witnessed is the main ideological conflict in how society should conduct its affairs. Professor and Economist Thomas Sowell calls this a “Conflict of Visions” and devoted an entire book to this topic. Sowell explains that there are indeed two vastly differing visions and they instill two very different approaches to politics. This “Conflict of Visions” is not recent; it’s been going on for centuries.  One vision holds that there exist people so smart and so capable. These people should guide humanity and if need be cast off the old approaches in favor of the new ideas that they devise. This is where Mr. Adam is coming from and Sowell calls this the “Unconstrained Vision”. The other vision, as Sister Catha demonstrated, looks at man’s limitations and relies on history and experience to guide mankind. Sowell calls this the “Constrained Vision” in that man’s capability has definite boundaries.

The Constitution clearly was framed and constructed by people who understood that there does not exist individuals who possess such extraordinary talent that they alone should direct all of society. That is why the Framers of the Constitution carefully divided power between the Federal government and the states. Even within the Federal government, power is divided amongst three branches. With all this, the Framers put in further protections to assure that the government can not gang up on the individual. These protections take the form of respect for individual liberty that is codified in the Bill of Rights.

Let’s summarize and also cast Thomas Sowell’s ideas in more familiar terms. We have two sides that just are not communicating and that’s because they are coming from vastly divergent ideologies. On the one hand we have those who cling to their guns and their religion. On the other we have those who believe they have the answers that eluded society from the beginning of time; they are ready to uproot all that has come before them. Against this backdrop we can appreciate and marvel at the genius of our nation’s Founders. It becomes clear that the Founders understood this “Conflict of Visions”. So they assured that the Know-it-alls could have their say and provided Freedom of Speech. On the other hand, Freedom of Religion protects the Clingers from the Know-it-alls should the latter ever get into power as is the case now.

It would be really sad if Conservatives were nothing more than close minded Clingers without the capacity to consider new ideas. We all know this to be a myth but it is Obama and his left leaning media that have foisted this ridiculous notion upon the public. We Conservatives do indeed entertain new ideas but consider these ideas carefully and with prudence as Mark Levin explains in Liberty and Tyranny. Incorporating new ideas and prudent change are actually right there in the Constitution. We also heard Sister Catha talk about prudence. The question then is how do we Conservatives inform Independents and yes, Democrats that we are always on the lookout for the best ideas to move our country forward? To answer that question, we can look at the lessons from the Talmud which clearly shows that meaningful, vigorous debate brings forward the very best ideas. Some will be surprised to find out that this is exactly what Sarah Palin, former Governor of Alaska and the Vice Presidential candidate in 2008, has been saying for quite some time. She has been encouraging, almost begging the Republican candidates do discuss and focus on issues and contrast their viewpoints in meaningful debate. We Conservatives, those of us without a title and who are not running for office, can also be part of the solution by listening and debating with those who don’t necessarily agree with us. As Sarah Palin has said repeatedly, meaningful debate makes us stronger. Thoughtful debate will allow us to understand others’ points of view so that we will be to communicate more effectively. Who knows? Maybe we’ll able to turn a few people around.

 



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