A SILVER STAR OVER TAMPA
The “Silver Star” is about to appear over Tampa’s Union Station; right on time I might add as it has been throughout the night on its 1120-mile journey from Baltimore yesterday afternoon. I slept like the “Chessie Kitten” albeit with some help from an “Ambien” tablet, falling asleep while standing in the station at Cary, North Carolina (twenty miles southwest of Raleigh) and waking up in Palatka, Florida this morning. Columbia, South Carolina, Savannah, Jacksonville were all just dreams. However, I think I have one more post of observations about the bishops’ meeting that just concluded.
First, our new President, by sheer bent of his wonderful personality, managed to make what could be tense moments less so and I think his gifts as chair were appreciated by the majority of bishops present. By nature he is kind and patient, both qualities very necessary in a bishop leader today. There was quite a bit of concern expressed in the Catholic and secular press that the USCCB has lost its moral compass on social issues like jobs, the economy, justice, capitol punishment, etc. These same critics see most of our time and attention when congregated directed to issues like abortion, contraception, the government and President of the United States, etc. These comments and reflections at this moment in time are quite fair I believe. As a body of bishops, we seem to be in a period of navel gazing at the “safe” issues and have lost for the moment our zeal for those which society largely ignores, even though I readily admit advocacy on behalf of human life also fits into this general category. Some voices were raised by my brothers about immigration but not a lot. Some voices were raised by my brothers about atrocious injustice at home and abroad but not a lot. And as proof of this reality, there is not a lot if anything in the hopper of future USCCB concern which might portend the prophetic engagement of many of these issues. This is the period of the life issues, almost p-e-r-i-o-d-“ We long have been the most consistent and persistent voice on behalf of human life from conception until natural death and I would not wish that to change one bit. But we used to be able to be that voice as well as a voice for other issues of deep social and societal concern. It is that second “edge” that I feel we are losing.
The whole movement to engage and enlarge the issue of religious liberty flows primarily from assaults on Church teaching on human life currently seeming to arise from the Obama administration and more so from the Department of Health and Human Services. We would not be so keenly interested perhaps were it not for the fact that HHS seems to be having a field day threatening to require religious employers to provide a vast range of contraceptive and abortifacient services in the new health care law, certainly with nothing but total disregard it would seem to date for the Church’s longstanding teachings on these matters (and here I would enjoin our Mormon brothers and sisters as well as the Christian Scientists and other evangelical religions) which want nothing to do with provision of services which are against our (their) conscience belief. Let me give you an example of what I, as your bishop and the diocese of St. Petersburg might be up against if the individual mandates remain in the law and are regulated as HHS currently plans. On its face, I would be required to provide all our employees a full range of contraceptive opportunities not currently covered by our health care plan. Ah, but HHS might say, we can make you exempt as a religious employer (please note that to this moment they have not yet been this generous). But for the diocese that is just hurdle number one. Hurdle number two is the fact that we are self-insured, which means we are an insurer acting as an insurance company and we would seem to still be even more compelled. Thus, I and every other head of a Catholic institution would have to in conscience terminate the health care plans for myself, my priests and all our 2300 employees, perhaps give them a check the equivalent of what would have been our contribution to their health care and send them looking for a plan and carrier that will come the closest to matching the plan they had. Our religious freedom to fashion a health care plan consistent with our beliefs will have been denied and removed. And as diocesan employees would readily admit, a great health care benefit which until now we could mount on would be taken away. That’s not progress in health care, that is sheer regression.
This week the Supreme Court has agreed to five hours of oral arguments in the New Year on several aspects of the health care plan including the mandate. We should know prior to the fall election what our fate would be on this matter. Soundings from Secretary Sibellius’ HHS are not promising. It is an important moment in the history of Church and State in this land of freedom of religion and I agree the signs are so far ominous.
But, as I conclude the last of these reflections on this year’s fall meeting, the Presidential Address of Archbishop Dolan was a bright spot precisely because it can serve as the launching pad for what I believe to be the most important work of the Church over the next two decades – the new Evangelization.
Quite truthfully AMTRAK’s “Silver Star” is presently “backing up” into Tampa’s Union Depot to drop me off. Like others remaining on this train and continuing south, I look to more forward progress in the days, months and years ahead.