I think by virtue of circumstances it is time to revisit the matter of the Health and Human Services implementation plan (hereinafter “HHS Regs.”) which is a part of the Affordable Health Care Act and bring you up to date on what is the current state of the question. Two things in the last forty-eight hours suggest that this is a good moment. When last I wrote in this space about the matter in February, President Obama had announced a “fix” for most of the matters which concerned Church leaders like myself. After careful study, I found it not a “fix” but perhaps only a “first step.” While privately assuring some people in our Church with whom he was in personal contact that the Administration would address to our satisfaction the “self-insured” question later, it has not been done so far, at least publicly. Following that announcement, the public perception of the issue changed from what I am most concerned about “the freedom of religion to define its own self instead of the government” to a question solely of contraception/sterilization, painting the bishops as once again wishing to control women’s reproductive freedom. And there much of the public perception has sat for the last four months as one can witness from the op-ed piece in this morning’s TAMPA BAY TIMES.
On Monday, twelve different lawsuits were filed by forty-three entities including archdioceses and dioceses, Notre Dame University, and other Church institutions in thirteen federal court jurisdictions challenging the present HHS Regs. on religious freedom grounds. Is this judicial overkill? As I wrote in February, it looked at that time to me that only the judicial system could resolve with finality this issue and somewhere in this great land there must be judges, appeals court justices at the right time, etc. who agree enough to hear the case. We only have a window of sixteen months at this writing to settle this. So what exactly is at stake?
On the religious freedom question, the government wishes to define as “legitimate ministry of a Church” only those activities which pertain to, in our case, baptized Catholics (more simply put that which happens at Mass or within a worship place). So, for example, in this diocese, the following would not be “Catholic ministries” at least as defined by the HHS regs in their present language:
1. St. Joseph and St. Anthony Hospital – most patients are not Catholic and Catholic baptism is not required in either the hiring or admitting office.
2. Jesuit High School and the Academy of the Holy Names - approximately a third of their student bodies are not baptized Catholics and one’s religion has never been an admissions criteria.
3. Pinellas Hope and our ministry to people with HIV-AIDS and most programs of Catholic Charities where we never ask a person’s religion before helping them. Would the people of this nation wish Catholic Charities to simply disappear or hide under the biblical bushel basket of anonymity?
4. Many of our high and elementary schools if their enrollment contains more than 10% non-Catholics and while the exact percentage remains to be defined it is clear that ten percent is about the most that would be required for an exemption.
While contraceptive/sterilization coverage is the issue the government has chosen to launch this new definition of what constitutes “Church ministry,” it could morph into abortion coverage at some time (abortifacients such as the morning after-pill are already to be included under the HHS regs. - so in some senses we are already there). Where does a demonination, a Church draw the line in allowing government to define what is “legitimately Church ministry?”
I, as bishop, have no desire to control the contraceptive access of the general citizenry. As a bishop, I will continue to teach and affirm the beauty of Pope Paul VI’s total teaching on marriage and procreation in Humanae Vitae, while acknowledging that a part of that teaching can place great stress on a young couple beginning their married life. But that is a part of my teaching responsibility as a bishop. And quite honestly I think the Church has learned how to strongly affirm the teaching while respecting individual conscience formation in the last forty some years, as well as provide an option with little to no cost. But, I also do not believe my government should ever force my Church to provide something for its own employees which is against its teachings and beliefs. This is a dangerous, steep and very slippery slope.
Neuralgic in this debate is the matter of defending the consciences of individual employers who seek to opt out of providing coverage because of their personal religious beliefs. To me, this can possibly appear as an opening for exceptions large enough to endanger the good that is clearly at play here – enlarging the health care coverage to more people and making it more affordable to access. The goal of universal coverage has been an important goal of the Catholic bishops of the United States for at least two decades. We should neither lose sight of this goal nor ignore our serious concerns in the area of religious liberty. We remain strong proponents of care for the poor.
So we are currently in a state of “check” but not yet “check-mate” on this issue. Stay tuned, as the old Irish song goes, “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” still.