One of the most common fallacies of our age is the assumption that simply because we prefer a certain set of social policies they must therefore be compatible.
For example, I like donuts and wish they were free. But I also like the people who make the donuts and want them to be able to make a living wage. The only way my two desires can become compatible is if there is a third-party who intervenes, say, by paying the bakers to give me free crullers.
But as economists will tell you, there is no free lunch (or free donuts). That’s why we don’t like economists. We don’t like to be told that we can’t have everything we want, and that we either have to make tradeoffs or give up some of our desires.
This is also the reason that we don’t like certain religious leaders. They too have a tendency to point out when our desires are incompatible. Even worse, they have the audacity to tell us which desire we — both as individuals and society — should put first.
There exists an entire subgenre of religious journalism dedicated solely to pointing out when religious leaders tell certain groups which desires they should prefer. Sometimes the media approves, such as when the pope tells us we should give preference to the poor over the wealthy. But most of the time, journalists are either annoyed or amused that some clergyman (and they are almost always a man) is trying to tell us that we can’t have it all.
Take, for example, a recent article that ran in the U.K.’s Daily Telegraph and was distributed by Canada’s National Post Wire Services, titled, “Cardinal says German women should stay home and have ‘three or four children’ to avoid need for immigrants.”
Although the headline is both factual and neutral, it gives the impression the Catholic leader was asked, “So, what do you think about German women?” and answered that they need to get busy making babies. But the context is much more interesting:
German women should be encouraged to “stay at home and bring three or four children into the world,” rather than relying on immigration to solve the country’s demographic crisis, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Cologne has declared.
Cardinal Joachim Meisner compared Angela Merkel’s government’s family policies to Communist East Germany, where, he said, women who stayed at home were considered “demented”.
Germany, which has the lowest birth rate in Europe, is seeking more workers from crisis-hit countries, including Spain, to solve its shortage of skilled labour.
In unusually direct criticism of the chancellor, Cardinal Meisner said: “Where are women really publicly encouraged to stay at home and bring three or four children into the world? This is what we should do, and not — as Mrs Merkel does now — simply present immigration as the solution to our demographic problem.”
Germany’s solution is similar to my donut problem: In order to get both preferences, a third-party has to sacrifice. As Cardinal Meisner implies, the third-party in this case is Spain and Portugal.
Instead of having babies of their own, Germany’s plan is to import them when they reach working age. As a representative of a transnational organization with strong pro-natalist leanings, Cardinal Meisner feels an obligation to note that producing the source material for future German journalists and archbishops is an important a job that shouldn’t be outsourced.
This is a legitimate disagreement about policy preferences and could have been used as a starting point for a discussion on how to resolve Germany’s demographic crisis. But instead, the Telegraph uses Cardinal Meisner’s statement as a proxy for pointing out that the Catholic Church’s habit of telling people what they should do is out of touch with the times we live in:
Annegret Laakmann, the president of the Catholic group Women’s Dignity dismissed the 79-year-old archbishop’s views. “Age doesn’t always bring wisdom,” she said. “The Church can’t drag women back into the kitchen. We don’t live in the 1940s – women are more educated and have greater opportunity for leadership now.
“I myself only have one child, and that’s because I’ve always worked. It is difficult to combine children and a career.”
There’s nothing wrong (journalistically speaking) with quoting a source who believes having a career is more important than having babies. But shouldn’t the question be open for debate? The Telegraph doesn’t seem to think so which is why they add this non sequiter at the end of the article:
Cardinal Meisner also commented on the controversy in January when two Catholic hospitals denied treatment to a rape victim, apparently because they did not want to give advice on dealing with an unwanted pregnancy.
He said that while rape was a serious crime, the Church had to warn women against birth control methods that were not compatible with Catholic beliefs.
Now, what does this subject have to do with the original story?
Nothing at all. But it does help the newspaper’s readers understand that Cardinal Meisner has a tendency to tell people what choices they should make. And as Laakmann noted, we don’t live in the 1940s anymore. Religious leaders shouldn’t be telling us what desires and preferences should take precedence. Apparently, that is now a job reserved for journalists.