I attended Mass this past weekend, feeling quite invigorated with a Liturgy that featured the Gospel according to St. Mark. The inspirational anecdote gave witness to Jesus entering the house of Simon and Andrew where Simon’s mother-in-law lay sick with a fever: “They immediately told him about her. He approached, grasped her hand, and helped her up. Then the fever left her and she waited on them.” This was one of many familiar stories of healing, a theme so prevalent in Scripture. In closing, the congregation was given a friendly tip by our Monsignor that a statement from the Bishop could be found inserted into our weekly bulletins regarding the January 20th administrative decision from the White House regarding health care policy and its expected impact on the Catholic Church’s efforts to practice health care in the community.
Despite this latest development apparently impacting the Church’s ability to practice health care in good conscience, I’ve resisted commenting on it because it has seemed to me, for my entire life, that the intractability of reaching a consensus between the Church and many issues of American public health care policy, particularly women’s health care, will simply outlive me regardless of what I might say, think or do.
But after reading the statement, I was particularly struck by the invective. Its title was “Obama Administration: Catholic Conscience Not to be Tolerated”. The opening couple of comments mentioned an unprecedented move to curtail the freedom of religion in the United States and that the new policy mandates that all institutions providing health insurance to their employees must also provide for sterilization, artificial contraception and abortifacients (drugs that induce abortion).
The statement refers to a “blatant, insensitive and unnecessary undermining of our constitutionally protected freedom of religion. This is the first instance in the history of our country that any administration is forcing some of its citizens to purchase something that violates their conscience”. It continues before closing by saying that “Once the moral conscience of a substantial group of Americans is simply swept aside by any government, no right remains safe,” and “the Catholic conscience is not to be tolerated in America”.
I was then motivated enough to do a little digging. I certainly didn’t want to be on the wrong end of a 2012 strain of McCarthyism aimed at Catholics, although we are no strangers to criticism.
My first stop was the White House blog. A recent post by Cecilia Muñoz, Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, is entitled “Health Reform, Preventive Services, and Religious Institutions”. It mentions the announcement on January 20th by Secretary Sebelius. It also states that certain religious organizations including churches are exempt from paying their insurers to cover contraception. Other religious organizations that employ and serve a broader constituency would qualify for a one-year transition window that gives them an opportunity to make adjustments in order to comply with the new law.
Besides the church exemption, several additional points are stated that include these:
No individual health care provider will be forced to prescribe contraception; drugs that cause abortion are not covered by this policy – drugs like RU486 are not covered by this policy, and nothing changes the President’s firm commitment to maintaining strict limitations on Federal funding for abortions. No Federal tax dollars are used for elective abortions; over half of Americans already live in the 28 states that require insurance companies to cover contraception and several of those states have similar employer exemptions although Georgia and Wisconsin have no exemption; a recent study shows that 98 percent of Catholic women have used contraception. One of Director Muñoz’s final points is that President Obama is committed to respecting religious beliefs and increasing access to important preventive services.
Despite this straightforward and measured statement, it seems there has still been no lack of heightened rhetoric about a direct attack on religion and in particular Catholicism. Newt Gingrich, for example has ratcheted up the accusations, saying that the Obama Administration is requiring some religious hospitals offer birth control under the new health care law.
At issue here seems to be the extent of the exemption.
For religious organizations that employ and serve “co-religionists,” or those of the same religion, the exemption applies. But because so many Catholic hospitals treat people of all religious faiths, the main complaint is that this exemption is too narrow.
It’s remarkably fortuitous that the Koman Foundation made a decision that has since been reversed to terminate funding for Planned Parenthood during this same time. The resulting controversy has combined with the strong reaction from American bishops on the new policy to thrust health care and in particular, women’s preventive health care, onto the center stage of public discourse this past week.
As a lifelong practicing Catholic who believes in the Church I have a few comments. I think there has been a lot of kneejerk hyperbole and in some cases, outright misinformation.
This situation certainly presents a vexing philosophical dilemma, no doubt about it. What are the finer details of the exact parameters of the exemption? How does the Church, whose central mission includes care for the sick, including preventive care, remain faithful to that mission? How does our government implement a law that strives to expand health care affordability and accessibility to all Americans as a basic right when certain providers object to elements of that care as a matter of conscience?
Another important question asks, “What is the nature of health care?” Is it selective? Is it preventative? Is it unalienable? Is it a universal right? In 2010, Pope Benedict XVI declared, that it is the moral responsibility of nations to guarantee access to health care for all of their citizens, regardless of social and economic status or their ability to pay. The current bishops’ response would say that it should be selective, contrary to the 2010 statement from the Vatican. The question then becomes, who should decide the parameters of that selectivity?
Something that has also puzzled me is the fact that when the issue of contraception and abortion come up (although abortion is only a marginal issue here in the context of the present policy at issue), a holistic view is rarely taken that includes the health of a pregnant woman and what her wishes (and ability) are in handling a pregnancy. Don’t her wishes pertain when we are discussing the dignity of the individual? As Scott Lemieux points out, “There’s not a genuine clash between religious freedom and pressing government interests here; rather, a small minority of religious leaders are seeking a special exemption that burdens women in the name of principles the overwhelming majority of their followers reject.” In other words, the attack on the Church is really a Quixotic windmill, if we consider the situation thoughtfully.
The US Conference of Bishops, chaired by Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of New York, is framing this as a First Amendment issue. How would the First Amendment play in court? Would the issue of freedom of religion also drag in a discussion of the Separation Clause? If so, should Catholic hospitals continue to accept federal funding for Medicare and Medicaid?
We need to tone down the rhetoric and remember that the health care of Americans is really what’s at stake here. Second, we need to remind ourselves of our commonly held commitment to make that health care, a basic right of all individuals, provided for all Americans. Let’s go back and really examine what the policy is saying. Kathleen Sebelius recently said that it “strikes the appropriate balance between respecting religious freedom and increasing access to important preventive services.”
Women’s access to preventive health care and the benefits to them and our entire society are well documented and specially targeted in the Affordable Care Act.
One thing is certain. This is not the full frontal attack on religion or Catholicism that some would have us believe.
I would also like to appeal to my fellow Catholics, particularly the U.S. Conference of Bishops to take a reasonable approach to this issue. That approach should be one that is informed by the dignity of all people involved, not least, American women. I assure you, this is in no way an intolerance of the Catholic conscience.
Recall the woman in St. Mark’s Gospel whom Jesus healed by virtue of his gentle touch. We Catholics need to calm down and remind ourselves that there is a real and present need for health care in America. Hysteria will do nothing to display Catholics as enlightened people who lead their lives based on the moral conscience that some so vehemently claim is currently being denied under the new statute.