On May 24, the N. J. Star-Ledger published an editorial labeling U.S. Catholic bishops partisan. The editorial, entitled, Manufactured Fight, took offense at the bishops’ outspoken position against the Obama administration’s mandate for health insurance to provide certain services. The editorial claimed that such opposition was not consistent with the bishops’ usual silence on other issues, such as war and poverty. The editorial claimed that the bishops were not pastoral, but political.
The newspaper editorial was published immediately after 43 Catholic institutions, educational and charitable, filed lawsuits in federal courts around the nation. These lawsuits argue against the recent Health and Human Resources ruling requiring all institutions to provide abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization and contraceptives in their healthcare coverage. The lawsuits claim that this violates religious freedom.
This past January, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced an accommodation to the original ruling of the previous August. At first, the prestigious University of Notre Dame, along with others, welcomed the January accommodation. But now the university has joined the long lists of those filing lawsuits against the federal government.
At first sight, the January accommodation seemed to mitigate the original ruling. The objectionable services would simply be paid for by the insurance companies, which would notify their clients that the mandated services were included. However, the reality remained the same. At closer examination, the accommodation changed nothing. The subscribers who had moral objections to these drugs and procedures will still be footing the bill for them.
In reporting the response of the bishops to this health mandate, the media are framing the entire issue in terms of access to contraceptives. The Star-Ledger’s May 24th editorial does likewise. Such inaccurate reporting grossly distorts the truth. It becomes a way of hiding the real struggle that is now taking place between religious institutions and the present administration.
This struggle cannot be dismissed or ignored. Both apathy and ignorance will have disastrous effects. Everyone, religious or not, needs to be very clear about what is at stake. To this end, the following four questions and answers can be very helpful.
First, why is the issue of insurance-covered contraception even a problem for the bishops?
This is exactly what the media wish everyone to think. But the issue is not about contraceptives. It is much wider and more profound. It is about forcing a religious institution, or any institution or individual, to pay for something that goes directly against the teaching of their faith.
Access to contraceptives is readily available and the cost is minimal. Georgetown Law student Sandra Fluke made national news when she said that the $3,000 cost for contraception for three years was too much for some of her fellow students. Yet, within three miles of her school, birth control pills are available for less than $10 a month for individuals with health insurance that does not include contraceptive coverage. Contraceptive pills are even free at certain clinics and readily available to teenagers.
Even though Catholic teaching does not accept artificial birth control, the bishops are not arguing to limit the legal right of access to these services for those who choose them. Rather, the bishops are insisting that no one should be forced against their conscience to provide or pay for drugs or procedures that go against their religious beliefs. The issue is, first and foremost, the protection of religious liberty. Don’t be fooled by certain politicians and the media who speak otherwise!
Second, what exactly is at stake in this controversy?
Certainly much more than meets the eye! The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has chosen to define who must provide these objectionable services and who would be exempt on religious grounds. In so doing, the department clearly recognizes that there can be a religious exemption. However, the same department so narrowly defines the religious exemption as to exclude dioceses, religious universities, schools, hospitals and social service agencies. Under the present ruling, they must pay for the objectionable procedures and drugs. If religious organizations do not provide these drugs and procedures, they will not be allowed to serve the public.
But, serving the common good belongs to the very nature of religion. Religion cannot be confined to the inside of a church, a synagogue, a mosque or any other house of worship. Religion is not simply about cult. It is not only about worshipping God. It is also about serving others in need. Let us be clear! What is at stake is the very practice of religion without government interference.
What is happening today is unprecedented in our national history. The federal government has placed religious liberty against the wall and is ready to fire! Do we really want to stand by as one of our most fundamental freedoms is taken from us?
Third, what happens if the present mandate remains in effect?
If the present mandate remains, there are but two choices. If a hospital, a school, a diocese or a university wishes to continue their work, they must violate their beliefs and pay for the services. If they do not, they will incur severe penalties. For instance, a Catholic university would face each year a penalty amounting to millions of dollars.
If the ruling remains and is enforced, then services provided by Catholic institutions to the young in education, to the sick in health care and to the poor in a variety of ways would disappear. Who will suffer in the end? People of every faith and those of no faith as well.
Fourth, what about the bishops? Are the media right? Are they limited in what they speak out about? Are they are only interested in this issue?
In a letter sent to the editor of the Star-Ledger, I answered that accusation leveled against the bishops. Please allow me to share that letter with you.
To claim that the Catholic bishops of the United States do not show concern for Catholic teachings on all issues is blatantly wrong. Had the writer of Manufactured Fight (5/24) done some basic research before putting finger to keyboard, he or she would have discovered that in the past 10 years alone the New Jersey Bishops:
- Issued a strong and clear statement on Poverty in New Jersey (2011), and convened task forces to address it;
- Called for action on Immigration Reform and Affordable Housing (2010);
- Worked with key N.J. legislators to eliminate the Death Penalty in New Jersey (2007);
- Launched a national Justice for Immigrant initiative (2005), and spoke out early and clearly with the Holy See against the War in Iraq (2003);
- Called for comprehensive health care, including universal access, decades before it was politically fashionable.
This information and much more is readily available on the websites of the U.S. Bishops (www.usccb.org) and N.J. Bishops (www.njcathconf.com
Sadly, the Star-Ledger chose to ignore these initiatives when they occurred and now wants readers to think they never happened. So much for manufacturing truth.
In facing the present challenge to religious liberty, everyone has the right to the truth, not just an editorial opinion. Only the truth will keep us free!