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.
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.
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.