A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

HHS’s Infringement on Catholic Moral Values

The following selected portions are from an editorial written by John Garvey, the president of The Catholic University of America, and published on September 30th by the Washington Post. I offer some personal commentary at the end.
The Department of Health and Human Services proposed some regulations a few weeks ago to implement a part of the 2010 health-care law, and it asked concerned parties to file comments on the regulations by Friday. In a section of the Affordable Care Act that didn't get much public attention during the debates last year, Congress asked HHS to prescribe a list of "preventive services for women" that health-care plans across the country would have to provide to subscribers at no additional cost.

The regulations that HHS unveiled in August will require Catholic University to offer its students sterilization procedures and prescription contraceptives, including pills that act after fertilization to induce abortions. If we comply, as the law requires, we will be helping our students do things that we teach them, in our classes and in our sacraments, are sinful — sometimes gravely so. It seems to us that a proper respect for religious liberty would warrant an exemption for our university and other institutions like it.

These regulations are more wide-ranging than what I have described. They apply not only to student health plans but also to employee health plans, group health plans and health insurance issuers. And they apply to hundreds of Catholic institutions outside the field of higher education — elementary and secondary schools, hospitals, social service organizations such as Catholic Charities, and so on. The rules direct that we provide all contraceptive methods approved by the Food and Drug Administration, sterilization procedures, "and patient education and counseling" at no additional cost to plan members.

The rules do include an exemption for "religious employers," but the term is defined in a way that excludes Catholic universities and most other Catholic institutions. The rules say: "The inculcation of religious values [must be] the purpose of the organization." That is too narrow to include Catholic universities, which observe norms of academic freedom and teach chemical thermodynamics, aerospace engineering, musical theater, Mandarin Chinese and the Victorian novel along with theology. It's too narrow to include St. Ann’s Infant & Maternity Home in Hyattsville, which provides care to abused and neglected children and to pregnant adolescents who need help. Nor does it encompass the Jeanne Jugan Residence for the elderly, which is across the street from our campus and run by Little Sisters of the Poor.

The rules disqualify any organization that does not also employ and serve "primarily persons who share the religious tenets of the organization." This would require Catholic hospitals and Catholic Charities to abandon their commitment to serve poor people of all faiths. It would disqualify Catholic middle schools such as Nativity Miguel Network, which educates boys of all faiths tuition-free. And it would exclude any Catholic college or university whose faculty and student body are not majority Catholic.

I understand, as do the leaders of other Catholic organizations, that not all citizens share the views that the Catholic Church holds about contraception and sterilization. It is particularly sad that not all Americans share our conviction that abortion is gravely wrong, even in the earliest stages of pregnancy. But in objecting to these regulations, our university does not seek to impose its moral views on others. All we ask is respect for the religious beliefs we try to impart to our students.
My guess is that HHS is going to have to back away from this one and rightly so. As a Protestant I may not share the Catholic perspective on birth control, but I do not want the government telling the Catholic Church, or any religious organization for that matter, that they must undermine their convictions for what Washington perceives to be a good moral end. When it comes to religious matters with moral implications, I don't think that the government is in a competent position to be dictating to the church (or a mosque or a synagogue) what it must and must not do.
What do you think?


PamBG said...

To be honest, I have mixed feelings about this. (I'm not trying to be fair or intellectual, I'm trying to be honest.)

As someone who graduated from a Catholic University and with half my family Catholic, I actually understand their point. What I have to try to set aside is that the Catholic Church - now more than ever - actually also wants to dictate their morality to people. So what we have here are two large institutions that are vying for the right to dictate to people and here is where my feelings get muddled in the process.

If I were a Catholic woman of child-bearing years and my life would be at risk from pregnancy, their answer would be "Tough, that's what God wants." Their stance on the value of the life of a grown woman whose life is in danger from pregnancy is becoming ever more legalistic, uncompromising, unsubtle and unloving.

Many people I know who are Catholic are Catholic because they believe being Catholic an integral part of their heritage and identity. Very few of us choose a religion or a denomination on the basis that we agree with 100% of what the denomination teaches, so it's not really a matter of voluntarily joining a club for the purpose of upholding all the organization's values.

If the university could avoid providing services that they felt were morally objectionable but if the students and staff could have access to those services if they needed them for a less-than-exorbitant add-on cost, I'd be happy.

I still remain cynical about the Catholic church shouting "control freak!" on the government, though. Pot. Kettle. Black.

bthomas said...

When it comes to the proposed HHS regulations one need only consider the administration that is driving and in control of the regulatory process. Unable to gain support for the killing of unborn children, the administration uses this and other regulatory procedures to advance its political agenda that values individual convenience over human life.

Lynn Proegler said...

In the guise of "regulations," this administration is imposing its values on this country in ways that frighten and disgust me. Who are those in Washington to decide what is a "good moral end?" This regulation should NOT be adopted, nor should any other "regulation" whose purpose is to force compliance on the people with a value system that is in conflict with individual moral values.

OrigamiGirl said...

In response to the above Lynn Proegler I would say that the administration does have the right to enforce its moral values on individuals. This is what government is elected for.

I would also point out that what an individual believes is not necessarily 'right' no matter how much we want to have freedom and liberty to exercise our beliefs. It is of course why we have laws. Laws are all about enforcing a moral right even if is just that stealing is wrong. The person who steals might believe it is ok. Sometimes the individual moral values should be dictated.

Of course state control is dangerous if it over everything and yes I do believe in freedom of speech etc. I'm just questionning the idea that the state should never force compliance on people.

I hope I made sense!

Allan R. Bevere said...


I think part of the problem is that when it comes to politics all of us can be control freaks when it comes to issues we deeply care about and we can be libertarians when it comes to matters that are not all that important to us.

I'm not sure the charge of legalism really gets us anywhere. Is a conviction on which we will not compromise legalistic? I am not sure that is indeed the case, though in some instances it may be.

I suppose on the other end of the issue, if I worked for an organization that excluded certain things from my health insurance for religious reasons, I would hope that I would respect that. I remember Stanley Hauerwas saying in a class many years ago that Christians should be willing to forego certain medical procedures in order to stay true to their convictions. For example, if I had a disease that could only be cured by embryonic stem cells, would I accept the procedure knowing it was only possible because of abortion? Of course, no one can answer for certain until they are in such a situation, but I hope I would be true to my convictions and refuse the treatment. Otherwise, it becomes difficult for me to argues against something that was used to save my life.

Is my life more significant than my convictions? Should we force religious institutions to abandon theirs in practice because we think otherwise? I'm concerned about the implications if we go there.

Allan R. Bevere said...


Yes, we do indeed enforce our moral values on others. People say we cannot legislate morality, but we do all the time. Laws against murder are moral legislation.

But let me point out, if I may, the irony of your argument. You say it's OK for the government to enforce its moral values on the catholic church in this instance. Why is it not acceptable for the catholic church to enforce its moral values on the employees for which it provides health insurance?

PamBG said...

Is a conviction on which we will not compromise legalistic?

Fair point, but that's kind of what's happening here, isn't it? The Catholic Church, like the government, has strong convictions on which it won't compromise.

If suddenly it got political power somewhere (I'm fantasizing for the sake of illustration here), it would try to impose its values in an authoritarian way.

So, pot, kettle, black. I don't think it's fair invoking a libertarian-like principle when you yourself would not be a libertarian if you were given half a chance.

A more honest approach would simply be to put your cards on the table and say you think the government is wrong according to Catholic moral standards and to own up to having an authoritarian approach.

Lynn Proegler said...

This nation was established as a democracy in a republic. That means that the majority gets to elect representatives that make laws. If the legislators make laws that the majority agrees with, they get to keep their jobs. If the majority does not like what the legislators are doing, they get to kick the bums out. The majority seems to agree that murder, theft, etc. are things they want laws against, so the laws get passed and the majority does, indeed, impose its morality on the country, as it was meant to do. This “regulation” we are considering is not created in this way. It is rule without legislative process. It imposes abortion on institutions (i.e. people) whose moral values are in direct opposition to the procedure. You may say that the majority wants abortion legalized. We need to remember that the law allowing abortion does not impose a value on anyone. It simply says that CONGRESS shall make no law PROHIBITING abortion. The Catholic Church and the institutions it establishes and runs are certainly allowed by law to deny abortions. Congress does not run the Catholic Church. By forcing the Catholic Church to provide, pay for, sponsor or in any way do abortions, this administration would be going directly against the intentions of the founders who would never have condoned this kind of coercion.

Lynn Proegler said...

OK it was late last night and I was tired. It was a Supreme Court decision that "legalized" abortion, not a law. It had the same implication, though, in that it allowed abortion. It did not mandate it.

Allan R. Bevere said...

I appreciate all the comments. This is a good discussion.

Pam, my reference to libertarianism was simply to say that we are all libertarian when it comes to something. I am not a libertarian overall (as I have said on this blog) and I know you are not. What I am raising for ALL of us to consider is that we tend to minimize issues that are not important to us even though they may be important to others. That is a "rub" we must encounter.

And as far as legalism and the Catholic Church on this issue-- I am not convinced that legalism best describes what is going on here, but I am open to be being persuaded.

Allan R. Bevere said...


Thanks for your helpful comments. In general I agree with you on the Founders and religion, but we must recognize that there was great diversity as well. George Washington was much more open to religion in the public sphere than was Thomas Jefferson. Even then there was robust disagreement about the role of the state and the church as they interacted together.

John B said...

Religious freedom is guaranteed in the Constitution. A certain kind of health insurance isn't. Seems to me the Bill of Rights trumps the HHS.

PamBG said...

Yes, of course we all minimize things that are not important to us and maximize things that are important to us. I'd say that's a human universal. I understand you're not a full-out libertarian. I don't think the Catholic church is even anywhere near being a democracy, however. I'm not sure how much we're disagreeing here; it just annoys me that they are playing the system when they are themselves autocratic. As I said, I wasn't making an intellectual argument. I was saying how I feel.

I'm also not certain what we're disagreeing about here re "legalistic". Thirty years ago, the strength of the Catholic Church, IMO was that it stood by it's corporate doctrines and tolerated leeway and individual conscience. Now it's going after people and groups who don't conform to the letter of it's law. Selectively, yes, but it's certainly meant to be an example and instill fear. What do you call that?

Allan R. Bevere said...

The long and short of this is that if HHS does not change the current provision, the Catholic Church will drop health coverage for all employees of Catholic run institutions.

So much for "if you like your current health insurance, you can keep it."