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Catholic New World
Newspaper for the Archdiocese of Chicago

The Cardinal's Column
Francis Cardinal George, O.M.I.

What are you going to give up this Lent?

The Lenten rules about fasting from food and abstaining from meat have been considerably reduced in the last forty years, but reminders of them remain in the fast days on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and in the abstinence from meat on all the Fridays of Lent. Beyond these common sacrifices that unite us spiritually to the passion of Christ, Catholics were and are encouraged to “give up” something voluntarily for the sake of others. Often this is money that could have been used for personal purposes and instead is given to help others, especially the poor.

This year, the Catholic Church in the United States is being told she must “give up” her health care institutions, her universities and many of her social service organizations. This is not a voluntary sacrifice. It is the consequence of the already much discussed Department of Health and Human Services regulations now filed and promulgated for implementation beginning Aug. 1 of this year.

Why does a governmental administrative decision now mean the end of institutions that have been built up over several generations from small donations, often from immigrants, and through the services of religious women and men and others who wanted to be part of the church’s mission in healing and education? Catholic hospitals, universities and social services have an institutional conscience, a conscience shaped by Catholic moral and social teaching. The HHS regulations now before our society will make it impossible for Catholic institutions to follow their conscience.

So far in American history, our government has respected the freedom of individual conscience and of institutional integrity for all the many religious groups that shape our society. The government has not compelled them to perform or pay for what their faith tells them is immoral. That’s what we’ve meant by freedom of religion. That’s what we had believed was protected by the U.S. Constitution. Maybe we were foolish to believe so.

What will happen if the HHS regulations are not rescinded? A Catholic institution, so far as I can see right now, will have one of four choices: 1) secularize itself, breaking its connection to the church, her moral and social teachings and the oversight of its ministry by the local bishop. This is a form of theft. It means the church will not be permitted to have an institutional voice in public life. 2) Pay exorbitant annual fines to avoid paying for insurance policies that cover abortifacient drugs, artificial contraception and sterilization. This is not economically sustainable. 3) Sell the institution to a non-Catholic group or to a local government. 4) Close down.

In the public discussion thus far, efforts have been made to isolate the bishops from the Catholic faithful by focusing attention exclusively on “reproductive” issues. But the acrimony could as easily focus next year or the year after on assisted suicide or any other moral issue that can be used to distract attention from the attack on religious liberty. Many will recognize in these moves a tactic now familiar in our public life: those who cannot be co-opted are isolated and then destroyed. The arguments used are both practical and theoretical.

Practically, we’re told that the majority of Catholics use artificial contraception. There are properly medical reasons, in some circumstances, for the use of contraceptive pills, as everyone knows. But even if contraceptives were used by a majority of couples only and exclusively to suppress a possible pregnancy, behavior doesn’t determine morality. If it can be shown that a majority of Catholic students cheat on their exams, it is still wrong to cheat on exams. Trimming morality to how we behave guts the Gospel call to conversion of life and rejection of sin.

Theoretically, it is argued that there are Catholic voices that disagree with the teaching of the church and therefore with the bishops. There have always been those whose personal faith is not adequate to the faith of the church. Perhaps this is the time for everyone to re-read the Acts of the Apostles. Bishops are the successors of the apostles; they collectively receive the authority to teach and govern that Christ bestowed upon the apostles. Bishops don’t claim to speak for every baptized Catholic. Bishops speak, rather, for the Catholic and apostolic faith. Those who hold that faith gather with them; others go their own way. They are and should be free to do so, but they deceive themselves and others in calling their organizations Catholic.

Since 1915, the Catholic bishops of the United States have taught that basic health care should be accessible to all in a just society. Two years ago, we asked that whatever instruments were crafted to care for all, the Hyde and Weldon and Church amendments restricting funding for abortion and respecting institutional conscience continue to be incorporated into law. They were excluded. As well, the present health care reform act doesn’t cover entire sections of the U.S. population. It is not universal.

The provision of health care should not demand “giving up” religious liberty. Liberty of religion is more than freedom of worship. Freedom of worship was guaranteed in the Constitution of the former Soviet Union. You could go to church, if you could find one. The church, however, could do nothing except conduct religious rites in places of worship-no schools, religious publications, health care institutions, organized charity, ministry for justice and the works of mercy that flow naturally from a living faith. All of these were co-opted by the government. We fought a long cold war to defeat that vision of society.

The strangest accusation in this manipulated public discussion has the bishops not respecting the separation between church and state. The bishops would love to have the separation between church and state we thought we enjoyed just a few months ago, when we were free to run Catholic institutions in conformity with the demands of the Catholic faith, when the government couldn’t tell us which of our ministries are Catholic and which not, when the law protected rather than crushed conscience. The state is making itself into a church. The bishops didn’t begin this dismaying conflict nor choose its timing. We would love to have it ended as quickly as possible. It’s up to the government to stop the attack.

If you haven’t already purchased the Archdiocesan Directory for 2012, I would suggest you get one as a souvenir. On page L-3, there is a complete list of Catholic hospitals and health care institutions in Cook and Lake counties. Each entry represents much sacrifice on the part of medical personnel, administrators and religious sponsors. Each name signifies the love of Christ to people of all classes and races and religions. Two Lents from now, unless something changes, that page will be blank.

The observance of Lent reminds us that, in the end, we all stand before Christ and give an accounting of our lives. From that perspective, I ask lay Catholics and others of good will to step back and understand what is happening to our country as the church is despoiled of her institutions and as freedom of conscience and of religion become a memory from a happier past. The suffering being imposed on the church and on society now is not a voluntary penance. We should both work and pray to be delivered from it.

© 2009 New World Publications

I Owe You an Update

Over the last six months or so, the Catholic Church in the United States has found itself in some tension with the executive branch of the federal government over a very grave issue:  religious freedom.  Can a government bureau, in this case the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), define for us or any faith community what is ministry and how it can be exercised?  Can government also coerce the church to violate its conscience?

I wanted to let you, the great people of the archdiocese, know how we’re doing in this fight.  Thank you for your extraordinary unity, support, and encouragement.  Throughout all the archdiocese, our people – both as patriotic citizens and committed Catholics — have been very effective in letting government know that we are not at peace at all with this attempt to curtail the  freedom of religion and sanctity of conviction we cherish as both Catholics and Americans.

This has not been a fight of our choosing.  We’d rather not be in it.  We’d prefer to concentrate on the noble tasks of healing the sick, teaching our youth, and helping the poor, all now in jeopardy due to this bureaucratic intrusion into the internal life of the church.  And we were doing all of those noble works rather well, I dare say, without these radical new mandates from the government.  The Catholic Church in America has a long tradition of partnership with government and the wider community in the service of the sick, our children, our elders, and the poor at home and abroad.  We’d sure rather be partnering than punching.

Nor is this a “Catholic” fight alone.  As a nurse from Harrison emailed me, “Cardinal, I’m not so much mad about all this as a Catholic, but as an American.”  It was a Baptist minister, Governor Mike Huckabee, who observed, “In this matter, we’re all Catholics.”

And it is not just about sterilization, abortifacients, and chemical contraception.  Pure and simple, it’s about religious freedom, the sacred right, protected by our constitution, of any Church to define its own teaching and ministry.

When the President announced on January 20th that the choking mandates from HHS would remain — a shock to me, since he had personally assured me that he would do nothing to impede the good work of the Church in health care, education, and charity, and that he considered the protection of conscience a sacred duty — not only you, but men and women of every faith, or none at all, rallied in protest.  The worry that we bishops had expressed — that such government control was contrary to our deepest political values — was eloquently articulated by constitutional scholars and leaders of every creed.  Even newspaper editorials supported us!

On February 10th, the President announced that the insurance providers would have to pay the bill, not the Church’s schools, hospitals, clinics, or vast network of charitable outreach.  He considered this “concession” adequate.

Did this help?  We bishops wondered if it would, and announced at first that, while withholding final judgment, we would certainly give it close scrutiny.

Well, we have — and we’re still as worried as ever.  For one, there was not even a nod to the deeper concerns about trespassing upon religious freedom, or of modifying the HHS’ attempt to define the how and who of our ministry through the suffocating mandates.

Two, since a big part of our ministries are “self-insured,” how is this going to help us?  We’ll still have to pay!  And what about individual believers being coerced to pay?

Three, there was still no resolution about the handcuffs placed upon renowned Catholic charitable agencies, both national and international, and their exclusion from contracts just because they will not refer victims of human trafficking, immigrants and refugees, and the hungry of the world, for abortions, sterilization, or contraception.

So, we have given it careful study.  Our conclusion: we’re still very worried.  There seem far more questions than answers, more confusion than clarity.

Now what to do?

Well, for one, we’ll keep up advocacy and education on the issue.  We continue to tap into your concern as citizens and count on your support.  Regrettably, the unity of the Catholic community has been tempered a bit by those who think the President has listened to us and now we can quit worrying.  You’re sure free to take their advice.  But I hope you’ll listen to your pastors who are still very concerned.

Two, we’ll continue to seek a rescinding of the suffocating mandates that require us to violate our moral convictions — or at least a wider latitude to the exemptions so that churches can be free — and of the rigidly narrow definition of church, minister, and ministry that would prevent us from helping those in need, educating children, and healing the sick who are not Catholic.

The President invited us to “work out the wrinkles,” and we have been taking him seriously.  Unfortunately, this seems to be going nowhere: the White House Press Secretary, for instance, informed the nation that the mandates are a fait accompli (and, embarrassingly for him, commented that we bishops have always opposed Health Care anyway, a charge that is simply scurrilous and insulting). The White House already notified Congress that the dreaded mandates are now published in the Federal Registry “without change.” The Secretary of HHS is widely quoted as saying, “Religious insurance companies don’t really design the plans they sell based on their own religious tenets,” which doesn’t bode well for a truly acceptable “accommodation.”  And a recent meeting between staff of the bishops’ conference and the White House staff ended with the President’s people informing us that the broader concerns of religious freedom — that is, revisiting the straight-jacketing mandates, or broadening the maligned exemption—are all off the table.  Instead, they advised the bishops’ conference that we should listen to the “enlightened” voices of accommodation, such as the recent hardly-surprising but terribly unfortunate editorial in America.  The White House seems to think we bishops are hopelessly out of touch with our people, and with those whom the White House now has nominated as official Catholic teachers.

So, I don’t know if we’ll get anywhere with the executive branch.

Congress offers more hope, with thoughtful elected officials proposing promising legislation to protect what should be so obvious: religious freedom.  As is clear from the current debate in the senate, our opponents are marketing this as a “woman’s health issue.”  Of course, it cannot be reduced to that.  It’s about religious freedom.  (By the way, the Church hardly needs to be lectured about health care for women.  Thanks mostly to our Sisters, the Church is the largest private provider of health care for women and their babies in the country.  Here in New York State, Fidelis, the Medicare/Medicaid insurance provider, owned by the Church, consistently receives top ratings for its quality of service to women and children.)

And the courts offer the most light.  In the recent Hosanna-Tabor ruling, the Supreme Court unanimously and enthusiastically defended the right of a Church to define its own ministry and services, a dramatic rebuff to the administration, but one apparently unheeded by the White House.  Thus, our bishops’ conference and many individual religious entities are working with some top-notch law firms who have told us they feel so strongly about this that they will represent us pro-bono.

So, we have to be realistic and prepare for tough times.  Some, like America magazine,  want us to cave-in and stop fighting, saying this is simply a policy issue; some want us to close everything down rather than comply (In an excellent article, Cardinal Francis George wrote that the administration apparently wants us to “give up for Lent” our schools, hospitals, and charitable ministries); some want us to engage in civil disobedience and be fined; some worry that we’ll have to face a decision between two ethically repugnant choices: subsidizing immoral services or no longer offering insurance coverage, a road none of us wants to travel.

Sorry to go on at such length.  You can see how passionately I feel about this.  But, from what I sense, you do too.  You all have been such an inspiration, and I owe it to you to keep you posted.  We need you more than ever!  We can’t give up hoping, praying, trying, and working hard.

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