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The Tiresome Tale of Maureen Dowd

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | May 29, 2012

One tires of Maureen Dowd. But then one tires of her newspaper, the New York Times, too. Between the two of them, they cannot seem to analyze their way out of a paper bag. Why might this be?

A case in point is Dowd’s analysis of the opposition of the American bishops to the HHS Mandate, which seeks to force everyone to share the cost of contraception, sterilization and some forms of abortion for those who, because of their personal sexual proclivities, decide to employ these means. For Catholic leaders who have opposed the Mandate, the key issue has been the government’s attempt to coerce people into paying for procedures they deem immoral.

In defense of the bishops’ position as they have enunciated it, we might notice that there is no chicken-and-egg problem here. It was the Mandate that provoked the episcopal reaction. Before the Mandate, the bishops were not conspicuous for their presence in legal and political battles over contraception; nor were they noteworthy in their political opposition to the Democratic Party.

But Maureen Dowd doesn’t see it that way. Consider this from her op-ed column last week:

The church insists it’s an argument about religious freedom, not birth control. But, really, it’s about birth control, and women’s lower caste in the church. It’s about conservative bishops targeting Democratic candidates who support contraception and abortion rights as a matter of public policy. And it’s about a church that is obsessed with sex in ways it shouldn’t be, and not obsessed with sex in ways it should be. The bishops and the Vatican care passionately about putting women in chastity belts. Yet they let unchaste priests run wild for decades, unconcerned about the generations of children who were violated and raped and passed around like communion wine.

This is not an argument but a series of assertions with a certain emotional appeal among Those Who Matter. But even the assertions ignore the one factor that might have turned the passage into an argument, though with a different result. For the Catholic Church has always taught that all persons ought to be chaste, not just women. And even if too many Church leaders were way too slow to deal forthrightly with sexually abusive priests, nobody has ever suggested that these priests were not violating Catholic teachings on sexuality, or that the Church does not hold her priests to a very high standard of chastity, even to the point of demanding a life-long commitment of celibacy. An argument might, then, have been made out of the consistency of the Catholic position on sexuality, but that would not have served Dowd’s purpose.

One might also observe that it has not been the Church which has insisted that the laity should be forced to foot the bill for these abusive sexual choices; it has been the government, through court settlements, that has done that. So it is difficult to spot the inconsistency which Dowd believes she has somehow exposed.

But this should not surprise us for, again, the passage is not an argument. All it says is that Maureen Dowd knows better than the bishops themselves why they oppose the HHS Mandate and why some of them have filed law suits against it. She doesn’t tell us how she knows. She just knows.

For some undisclosed reason, she does cite the results of a poll which shows that the majority of Catholics either don’t agree with the Church’s teaching against contraception or don’t have the strength to follow it. But she doesn’t explain why so many more Catholics are sympathetic to the bishops’ defense of religious liberty, or even to the bishops’ straightforward opposition to the idea that we must all pay to support the sexual lifestyle choices of others.

For yet another unfathomable reason, she also cites a conversation with her mother in which she learned that her parents sometimes used contraceptive techniques. This was surprising to Dowd because “my parents were the most devout Catholics I’ve ever known.” Dowd’s purpose, if she has one, might be that she thinks this shows more clearly that the bishops are frauds. It is almost as if she is saying, “Mommy and Daddy didn’t agree with the bishops, and they were Really Good Catholics. Therefore, the bishops must have an ulterior motive, a motive completely irrelevant to the Catholic Faith (for remember, Mommy and Daddy were Really Good Catholics). And that motive can only be...misogyny.”

But, sadly, what this family anecdote actually reveals is one of the major formative influences that has led Maureen Dowd to disvalue chastity. Apparently, the best Catholics she has ever known were not the kind of people who could imbue Maureen Dowd with a deep understanding and an even deeper love for what it means to lead a fully Catholic life. After all, isn’t Dowd just like Mommy and Daddy after another generation of cultural decline?

It is axiomatic, of course, that people who are slaves to their passions cannot think clearly. Moreover, anyone who has ever reflected on the matter knows that, for most of us, it is precisely the sexual passions which most frequently disrupt our analytical powers. Indeed, it takes self-discipline and a willingness to cultivate virtue to think clearly about not just our sexuality but about everything.

Plato knew this. Aristotle knew it. Augustine made it a principle of Catholic theology. Without the habit of virtuous self-discipline, emotion sways the will, the will asserts itself, and the intellect is pressed by the will to ignore the good. Instead, the intellect is commanded to propose something—anything!—to sustain the position the will has taken. In most cases, this is called rationalization. In serious cases, we call it being “in denial”.

The writings of Maureen Dowd, and often of the New York Times in general, provide many textbook cases of denial. At the outset I explained why I’ve offered only one such example here. But again, it is because reading the material is so tiresome.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: koinonia - Jun. 01, 2012 6:20 PM ET USA

    Each of us has been created with an immortal soul, and each has an intellect and free will. These faculties can be enhanced by the consequences of virtuous living and by the presence of God's grace in our souls. Clear thinking, resulting from virtuous living in concert with God's grace and proper intellectual development, is good. Unfortunately, it's also quite rare. The predominance of emotion over thought is readily demonstrable in today's culture. Unfortunately, happiness is not.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - May. 30, 2012 1:51 PM ET USA

    The cure to the Maureen Dowds of America is the slow but steady Catholic awakening that Really Good Catholicism works, but not necessarily "Really Good Catholics." Remember that, until he became veep, Joe Biden could not start a conversation without telling everyone how good a Catholic altar boy he was. John Kerry and Nancy Pelosi are infamous for their "I'm a good Catholic" line. The awakening is to be found in the FSSP and ICKSP parishes and in the revised translation of the Mass in English.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - May. 30, 2012 12:58 PM ET USA

    “Plato knew this. Aristotle knew it. Augustine made it a principle of Catholic theology. Without the habit of virtuous self-discipline, emotion sways the will, the will asserts itself, and the intellect is pressed by the will to ignore the good.” Very good. Water gets into the boat. The boat gets heavy. The boat sinks. An interesting study. Unless of course you are on the boat. The sailors at least had enough sense to throw Jonah overboard.