Why do so many people hate the Catholic Church?

As the controversy over President Barack Obama administration’s January directive to religious institutions to pay for employees’ contraceptives, sterilizations and abortion-inducing drugs was heating up, Michael Gerson — a conservative columnist frequently friendly to the Church’s views — speculated on the reasoning behind this provocative move. 

“The Obama administration seems to have calculated that, since contraceptives are popular and the Catholic Church is not, the outcry would be isolated,” Gerson wrote

Leaving aside whether the administration actually thought that, as well as the element of exaggeration in the formulation, there’s a core element of truth here that serious Catholics need to face. In some quarters at least, the Church really is unpopular. The question isn’t whether but why. 

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A comprehensive answer would far exceed the space available. Countless individuals and groups have countless quarrels with the Church over countless grievances, real or imaginary. Let me speak of just one group — America’s secular establishment — that is of particular relevance in the present context. 

By “secular establishment,” I mean the cluster of people who dominate America’s secular culture and its institutions — the great universities, the national media, the big foundations and think tanks, and now, of course, the White House. 

It’s fair to say these people for the most part subscribe to a world view in which traditional religion does not play a large role. They are not just “secular” but secularists — secular ideologues — for whom a certain coolness (I use as neutral a word as possible) toward the Catholic Church comes naturally. 

They also share a particular approach to resolving ethical questions. Pope Benedict XVI famously spoke of the “dictatorship of relativism,” and that is one way to express it. Another way, highlighting the sources of antipathy to the Church, is along the following lines. 

The Catholic Church adheres to an ethic of substantive human purposes — things like life, truth and justice — that establish the parameters of ethically acceptable choices and behavior. To do the right thing is to act within these boundaries; to do what is wrong is to act outside them. 

The secularist mindset, by contrast, favors a libertarian ethic of process and procedure — values like democracy, equal opportunity, and that epitome of the process ethic: the “right to choose.” To be sure, most people rightly live by a mix of values of both kinds — partly substantive, partly procedural — but the differences in emphasis are real and often extremely important. 

According to the process ethic, there is in principle no such thing as absolute right and wrong — no substantive good that can’t be violated in a pinch if violating it furthers the exercise of choice by a sufficient number of persons. 

So what if making religious institutions part of a system for providing contraceptives, sterilizations and abortifacients (this is what Obama’s February “accommodation” would do) violates the consciences of people with traditional views on matters of substantive right and wrong? The overriding procedural imperative of the secular culture requires permitting, even subsidizing, the choices of those who want these things. 

A Washington Post columnist called President Obama’s purported concession to the bishops’ objections to the contraception-sterilization-abortifacient mandate (a proposal hailed even by some Catholic individuals and groups) “a dodge — a quite clever and positive one.” So it was — a skillful procedural sleight-of-hand aimed not at upholding some strongly held standard of right and wrong but doing a deal. 

Meanwhile the Catholic Church stands as the principal obstacle to realization of the secularists’ procedural paradise of all-but-unconditional choice. However the current controversy ends, this larger conflict will continue. 

Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.