A Catholic game of chicken

We are all familiar with the game of “chicken” where two vehicles hurtle towards each other and the driver who … Continued

We are all familiar with the game of “chicken” where two vehicles hurtle towards each other and the driver who turns away from the menacing mutual destruction becomes the loser and the “chicken.” Something like that is going on between the USCCB and the White House over contraception services in health care plans. Apparently, it was not enough for the bishops to have already forced President Obama into an early declaration of exemption for religiously affiliated employers. Now, the stakes have been raised as the bishops are holding out for more sweeping exemptions that would allow any employer of any faith or persuasion to nullify any provisions of health coverage for workers that the employee finds morally objectionable.

Gregorio Borgia


Archbishop of New York, Timothy Dolan, gestures during an interview at the North American College in Rome, Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2012. The top U.S. bishop has vowed legislative and court challenges to President Barack Obama’s compromise on exempting religiously affiliated employers from paying directly for birth control for their workers. Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan, who heads the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in an interview with The Associated Press that while Obama’s about-face initially sparked glimmers of hope in the Catholic Church, it ended up being a “hill of beans.”

According to various sources, unless the Affordable Care Act is amended to allow such nullifications, Catholic Charities, Catholic service agencies, Catholic hospitals and universities will have to shut down rather than cooperate with evil in violation of conscience. Other bishops predict they will go to jail rather than comply. Put another way, each institution would lose their Catholic identity if they continued to function by recognizing the validity of birth control as preventive medicine to be covered by their health plans.

That is the game of “chicken” being played by the USCCB: either the president gives in, or the Catholics close shop on religiously affiliated hospitals, universities and social services. Presumably, the episcopal leadership believes that the Obama Administration must cave in order to avoid the possibility of alienating Catholic voters in a crucial election year. But what if Obama wins anyway -with or without Catholic support? What would American without Catholic hospitals and universities look like?

The scenario is not unthinkable. In 2011, the Bishop of Phoenix withdrew the “Catholic” label of St. Joseph’s Medical Center because the hospital’s Board of Directors chose their professional standards over the bishop’s theological interpretations of a medical operation that saved the life of a pregnant mother. The nuns, doctors and staff at that hospital have continued their ministry without the benefit of the “Catholic” label but still as example of how Catholic individuals care for the sick. Similarly, might not colleges and universities concentrate their “Catholicity” to the department of theology and through on-campus apostolic groups pushing prayer, daily mass and good works? Such measures would make the “Catholic” part of the university stand out more clearly than the rest of campus goings-on.

Mark Wilson


President Barack Obama (R) is joined by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius while making a statement in the briefing room at the White House on February 10, 2012 in Washington, DC.

Hospitals and universities today, whether Catholic or secular, have become big business. The hiring of personnel, administration of government supplied funds and loans, are no longer religious decisions. Instead, the normal operating procedure in such religiously- affiliated organizations follows largely secular practices. It is well and good to say that Catholic doctors, nurses, accountants, janitors, and bed-pan attendants are giving “witness” to the faith by charitable ministry. But personal witness is possible to Catholics workers in a hospital that is Jewish-run, Lutheran-run or just plain publicly-run. The name-plate “Catholic” doesn’t condition God’s grace.

Catholic institutions increasingly risk diluting their ministry when seeking operational efficiency. Catholic social justice teaching defends the rights of unionization, but, we frequently find Catholic institutions opposing a unionized work force based on bottom-line considerations like cutting labor costs and denying pension benefits.

Wouldn’t the Gospel be better served by renouncing the worldly ambitions of institutional management and resting in witness to faith alone? Jesus told his followers they would not be able to serve two masters, (Mt. 6:24) and getting out of the charity business may free Catholics from too many secular compromises.

I realize that this approach puts me outside the policy position of the USCCB. They want to continue the church-state cooperative model established after the II Vatican Council, with government payments to religious agencies to fund the church’s charitable enterprises. But in such arrangements, both religion and government face compromises. I remember what Jesus did when He confronted a comparable “religious-affiliated” enterprise of money-changing in the Jewish Temple (Mt. 21:12ff). Perhaps it is time for Catholic America to get back to the basics and sever the businesses of church and state with Christ-like evangelical decisiveness.

  • lanthonyprice

    The Catholic Church has always been the largest purveyor of charitable services in the country. We do it better and cheaper than any other organization, including the government. That has nothing to do with “worldly ambitions.” The nuns who run the hospitals or schools make less than people who work at McDonald’s. Catholic teachers with years of experience make less than kids fresh out of college.

    The bishops aren’t talking about de-Catholicizing businesses. They are talking about closing businesses. Shutting down hospitals, nursing homes, schools, and orphanages. When Illinois forced Catholic Charities to consider same-sex couples for adoption, it closed down its adoption services. It didn’t just de-theologize them. The country will lose hundreds of millions of dollars of services to the poor that the government will have a difficult time making up. But there will be free contraceptives for all women who want them.

    The bishops want freedom of choice for their people. We want to be free to follow the dictates of our consciences but the law is going to prevent us from doing that. That’s not what this country was founded on. “Worldly ambitions” have nothing to do with that.

  • JohnnyDale1

    “They are talking about closing businesses. Shutting down hospitals, nursing homes, schools, and orphanages”

    Do you promise? I do hope so, because then the tax dollars these institutions suck up could be be used to fund non-bigoted services instead.

  • usapdx

    When most RCs do not fully ( 100% ) agree with the RCC’s teaching on birth control how is the RCC going to cause the alienating of RCs vote from Obama that plan to vote for President Obama?

  • DaudMauddib

    The bishops want freedom of choice, the freedom to dictate to their employees at the cost of the non-catholic and catholic women who disagree with the bishops religious stance. If everyone who signs up to work for a catholic institution must sign up to abide by all the catholic religious dictates at work and not then we really do need to reevaluate the catholic/public partnership. There would be a whole different constituent howling if Muslim charities ask that all those they minister to through charity and all who assist in their charitable ministry abide by their interpretation of Sharia Law.

  • david6

    So the bishops show us that they hate what Jesus taught about caring for others. If they are not allowed to force their foolish teachings, teachings that the vast majority of Catholics reject, they will just take their marbles and go home, even though most of those hospitals have been given huge tax breaks and huge secular donations and have been in business for the last 45 years because of Medicare and medicaid.

    The bishops have indeed succumbed to their own hubris, their own vainglorious arrogance. They did nothing for those hospitals. They have no moral right to say anything about what those hospitals or colleges do.

  • amelia45

    Catholic hospitals and universities continue to function in European countries, the vast majority of whom provide contraceptives in their national health care schemes. If it is so evil, why are they still operating there?

    Maybe it is a game of chicken and maybe it is not. But, individual religious freedom is at issue – not this “group” religious freedom that the Catholic bishops want, but the indiviudal religious freedom of a citizen.

    We have had the federal government involved in providing contraceptives to poor women since 1970. And, since that time, we have had the majority of states mandate contraceptive coverage in the prescription drug plans sold by insurers in their states.

    This is not a new issue. Why now is it suddenly crisis time in the Catholic world?

    As a Catholic, I think it is pure Republican politics being played by our bishops and I am ashamed of them.

  • lynnlm

    Will any medical treatments derived from stem cell research be banned?

  • Americacares

    America has the highest infant mortality rate for any industrial nation. Our Bishops are being lead by the nose from the right on trivial issues. Why aren’t they pushing for stronger Health Care laws for these Mothers and Children? As a Catholic….I am appauled at the battles they think we will follow them into? Ridiculous. I am a senior citzen that looks at these stoggy leaders as being lost in their own identities. The past few weeks we recieved a flier in our Church bulletins regarding anti women and gay rights. As a Catholic Christian, I must speak out against this misguided direction of our Church. Our Church…not simply theirs.

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