President Barack Obama is not a historian. If he were, he might not have made what amounts to a public declaration of war between Washington and Rome, and at least could have predicted the response he got from the American bishops.
In 1076, Pope Gregory sought to end civil investiture of church prelates — in short, he wanted the separation of church and state. King Henry IV, however, insisted on his traditional rights as Holy Roman Emperor to choose (invest) bishops and other clergy despite the papal decree, and renounced Gregory as pope. Gregory excommunicated and deposed Henry who was already dealing with rebellion among the aristocracy begun in 1075.
The papal legate met with German princes in October, and swore an oath not to recognize Henry unless the excommunication was lifted. Fearing further rebellion, Henry sought to have his excommunication rescinded before it became permanent — a year after its imposition.
On Jan. 25, 1077, with time running short, Henry reached the gates of Canossa where Gregory waited with Matilda, the Countess of Tuscany, who was loyal to the papacy. Henry, dressed in the penitent's hair shirt and allegedly barefoot, waited three days to be admitted.
Finally, the gates were opened, and Henry bowed to Gregory, begged forgiveness, and was given Holy Communion, signaling that the excommunication was officially lifted.
The reconciliation did not end well for Gregory. The German princes forced Henry to assert his civil authority and eventually he appointed the Anti-Pope Clement III to take Gregory's place.
That's the political outcome. But in the battle between church and state, the church clung to the position that papal authority over churchly things is sacrosanct and only the church can ordain, invest and govern its clergy.
Thus, while Obama believes he has offered a reasonable accommodation to the American bishops, they are adamant that only the church can speak to Catholics regarding faith and morals.
Arguments about the fact that 98 percent of Catholic women use birth control are irrelevant. This is a battle over who is going to set church policy whether or not the faithful abide by that policy. No unartful circumventing of the church's authority can or will be tolerated.
Leave aside the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that forbids government intrusion into faith and conscience or interference with free exercise of religion, there are larger, older, and more meaningful precedents within Catholic history than Obama realizes.
Currently, supporters of reproductive rights are weighing in on the matter with appeals to reason, modernity, logic, fairness and feminist arguments. Opponents are using constitutional, legal and traditional arguments.
Both sides are overlooking the central issue: when it comes to authority over the faith and morals of Catholics — whether they be Americans or Swahili — only the Holy Father can speak for Christ.
The American bishops, in their rejection of Obama's accommodation are not asserting their opinions as to the rationality of the church's reproductive policy. They are upholding the authority of Benedict XVI.
Viewing the current brouhaha from this historical perspective can assist those who castigate Catholicism as being oppressive to women, irrational and anachronistic, to understand the history that undergirds the church.
Catholicism — like orthodox Judaism, conservative Lutheranism, Baptists, and yes, Islam — is grounded in tradition, and that traditionalism is precisely what provides assurance and permanence to believers.
Obama, whether he knew it or not, threw down a gauntlet to the bishops when he, like Henry IV, asserted that the government will tell the 2,012-year-old church what it must do.