Taking the Oath of Attorney during the Red Mass. Photo courtesy of Maria Mertens.
Yesterday at beautiful Sacred Heart Church in Tampa we celebrated the annual Red Mass invoking the blessings of the Holy Spirit on all judges, lawyers and clerks in our area. The Mass derives its name not from the color of vestments which the priests wear, but when the custom originated in Britain many centuries ago, the judges all wore red robes, hence “the Red Mass.” Yesterday was also the Feast of St. Andrew the Apostle and since all the apostles suffered a martyr’s death, we always wear red when we remember them. The largest assembly of lawyers and judges in my time gathered to pray for the gift of divine guidance through the gifts of the Holy Spirit. We have great Catholic lawyers and judges and it has always been a pleasure to be with them. Each year on the Sunday prior to the first Monday in October opening of a new session of the Supreme Court, many of the nine justices travel to Washington’s St. Matthew Cathedral for what may be the largest and most important Red Mass held in the nation.
In my homily I chose to bring up a possibility arising from Health and Human Services regulations which bother me deeply precisely because I and many others find them violative of the religious liberty assured us by the first amendment to our Constitution and also of our personal moral consciences. These regulations will apply to the implementation of the soon to be fully implemented federal health care law.
The Diocese of Saint Petersburg has approximately 2300 employees who participate in a generous health care plan as part of their employment. While it covers almost everything, it excludes contraceptives, abortifacients, sexual enhancements like “Viagra”, etc. The first draft of the regulations for implementation issued by the Department of Health and Human Services mandated these and more services which I and others think violate the freedom of religion of our Church as regards procedures which we believe to be not in keeping with God’s law. Further, if a person is required by law to provide, perhaps in a hospital emergency room situation procedures violative of their individual conscience( in the past they have been exempt because of conscience concerns), they would be forced by this law to do so. Reacting to the first wave of complaints from the Catholic Church the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services modified the regulations slightly to exempt only Catholics working for a Catholic employer (other religions with serious moral concerns would also be included). Alas, I would still be required by law to provide the services to non-Catholic employees. What kind of sense does that make?
But there is an even larger problem for the Diocese of St. Petersburg. It is self-insured and our plan is only administered by a health care agency. Therefore the diocese by this law is an insurance company and all insurance companies must provide these services with currently no exemptions allowed. There are no exemptions to even include the situation outlined above. If the argument focused on abortion, a matter of public morality since the life of another person is involved, I suspect many more people would carry the fear which I have about this exercise of regulatory authority but because it seems to focus on contraception, a matter of private morality, lots of people do not understand what is at stake here. My genuine concern is that it is simply the proverbial camel’s nose under the tent. In my homily I outlined perhaps the only option left for the diocese as an employer if these regulations stand and believe me, colleagues in ministry and service and I will experience a marked loss of health care insurance coverage. A Church cannot be forced to violate its teaching, do something which is possibly immoral, and stand idly by and watch our Catholic doctors, nurses and aids forced to perform procedures which are both against their conscience and previously protected. That’s what involved in this and there is considerable opposition to the position of the Church coming from Planned Parenthood and other organizations which see this moment as an opportunity to close the conscience clause exemption which they have long despised. If you don’t believe me, read the blogs of those other groups. No one in yesterday’s congregation has the power to fix whats wrong with the Affordable Health Care and Patient Protection Act of 2010. Only the President of the United States and his Secretary for Health and Human Services can do that but a gathering for Mass such as yesterday’s does provide me a forum for vetting a serious question of the intersection of law and morality and learning from those far more skilled at interpreting and applying the law than myself. From the reactions which I immediately received and throughout the day yesterday by e-mail and personal contacts, posing the matter of religious freedom was appreciated and as you can see below, I asked nothing of those present but to listen, reflect and pray.
Here follows my homily to those attending the Red Mass. I believe you will find it simply a pastor raising a moral v. potentially legal dilemma before people far wiser than I about the law, individual rights, and the danger to something many deeply cherish and love love about our country to date.
Distinguished Judges, members of the bar, clerks and friends of the courts
It is an honor for me to join you once again in our annual invocation of the Holy Spirit for each of you in your respective and awesome responsibilities as dispensers and arbiters of justice in this time and place. Realizing fully my own need for the gift of wisdom from on high, I am certain that it is this gift of God and this gift alone which unites us this afternoon in this place and for this celebration.
“Come follow me” is the invitation, which our Lord extends to Andrew, the apostle whose life and death the universal Church celebrates today, and to his brother, Simon. Such an invitation is also a generic call to all of us to follow Christ in the path of discipleship and service to humankind. No one living near Capernaum along the Sea of Galilee that day would have thought a thing about it because both men were simply uneducated fishermen. They were not antiquities forerunners of Rhodes scholars or McArthur fellowship award winners, they were what they were, fishermen. But in addition to three years spent in the close company of the master teacher, Jesus, they would with nine others gather in one room and await the infusion of wisdom, courage, understanding, knowledge, piety, counsel, fortitude and fear of the Lord, all gifts of the same Holy Spirit to whom and for whom we pray today. The Lord heard their prayers, gave them the gifts necessary to shape, form, and lead His people then and until His Son returns again in glory.
Today in many ways attempting to follow the Lord requires that each of us know our limitations and return from time to time to seek divine assistance. I am sure that you can say the same as I do each morning when at prayer: “Lord, I do not know what is in store for me today but I am sure that today will be unlike any other, give me grace and strength, wisdom and patience.” The words of St. Paul in the first reading are assuring to those of us who realize that we were not born with all of life’s answers: “no one who believes in him will be put to shame. . . .For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. “
Life on planet earth, the North American continent, and the United States has over time become exceeding complex and challenging and matters which the framers of our Constitution could never have envisioned now propel daily discourse. It is incumbent upon religious leaders like myself to present a consistent moral vision faithful to the law of Christ and the teachings of the Church and upon members of the judiciary and bar to navigate the tricky waters of law and precedent. But both of us are bound by vow or oath to be faithful to something, which must stand the test of time, be it creed or constitution. Occasionally our paths cross and less frequently but still occasionally they collide. I have such a fear at this moment in time.
You probably have heard that the Catholic bishops of the United States have focused a significant amount of attention in the last few months on the matter of religious liberty and the rights of individual conscience. The matter is headed, of course, to the courts bit it is not that direction which I wish to call to your respectful attention today. Rather I think you should know that the Catholic Church through its bishops are in conversation with the Administration on certain published regulations of the recently enacted Health Care Plan which we find both unacceptable and worse still which we see as frontal attacks on our liberty of freedom of conscience. As employers we would be forced to provide in health care plans services and procedures which clearly are contrary to our beliefs and teachings and individual Catholics would be required to participate in procedures which in the past have enjoyed conscience protection in the law. So far the Administration has not publicly blinked on any of these matters of deep concern to us. If they fail to shift in their present positions, then 2300 employees of the Diocese of St. Petersburg will lose their health care coverage which they have come to treasure and rely upon – I would simply give them what we would have paid for their healthcare and tell them they have to look for coverage elsewhere. For the first time in my adult life, I foresee the possibility of some form of civil disobedience and I am extremely uncomfortable at even the hint of such a thing.
We just celebrated the national feast day of Thanksgiving. The Puritans and Pilgrims of Massachusetts and the Catholics of Rhode Island and Maryland came to these shores precisely to found and build a nation which would respect and honor religious belief. The First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of religion reflects those foundational principles. Our founding mothers and fathers fled and escaped precisely what my Church and other denominations are coming to see now as assaults on their freedom of religious exercise and conscience protection. As difficult as it is for me to understand the reluctance of Christian Scientists to seek medical assistance, it is at the heart of their creed, their faith, their belief and I would fight to protect their rights in conscience. I hope others will see what we find at stake in this moment in history. One federal judge in California has said that the guarantee of “religious freedom” and lack of interference from the government pertains only to what we do on Sunday in our Churches and Friday nights in our Synagogues. All else is subject to government regulation. Dear sisters and brothers, we need the Holy Spirit badly.
You heard the Gospel of Matthew a short while ago and its retelling of the call of the apostles. There is a different account to be found in the Fourth Gospel of John. There Andrew sees Jesus and asks, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” Jesus responds, “come and see.” After spending a few hours with Jesus, in John’s Gospel Andrew then quickly seeks out his brother Simon and says, “we have found the Lord.” Today we pray that the work of the Lord can be found in our system of laws and their administration, in the women and men of the bar, rooted in justice and desirous of proclaiming liberty to all. Come, Holy Spirit, Come!
Pray for your country and its leaders. It is not too late to fix what needs to be fixed.