D.C. archbishop defends Catholic Charities' stand on health benefits

By Michelle Boorstein and William Wan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl said Tuesday that the decision by Catholic Charities to change its health coverage to avoid offering benefits to same-sex spouses of its workers is justifiable under Catholic teaching as long as the employees are paid a just wage.

"The Catholic Church teaches to pay a just wage. The compensation package you use to pay that just wage isn't defined by the church," Wuerl said during an interview with Washington Post writers and editors. "Employers have the right to frame compensation packages. . . . At the end of the day, Catholic Charities is here serving the needy, after the law has passed, in complete conformity with the law."

Wuerl has been engaged in a contentious debate since the fall, when he said the archdiocese could have trouble remaining in its dozens of social service partnerships with the city if the D.C. Council legalized same-sex marriage and required its contractors to honor such marriages.

The law passed overwhelmingly in December, and Wednesday is the first day that same-sex couples can apply for marriage licenses.

Wuerl said Tuesday that he was pained by perceptions that the church was threatening to walk away from services for the poor. He and his supporters say the council was to blame for not creating legal exemptions for faith-based social service groups.

Catholic Charities -- the archdiocese's social service arm -- said last month that it would end its 80-year-old foster care program rather than place children with same-sex couples. On Monday, it told its 800 employees that it would not make spousal health benefits available to any new employee, straight or gay, to any current employee who marries in the future or to spouses of current employees who are not covered by the plan.

Reaction among Catholics to Monday's news was mixed.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, a major lobbying force for expanded health care, supported the archbishop.

The church cannot "support the redefinition of marriage," spokeswoman Mary Ann Walsh said in an e-mail. The conference does not provide employee benefits to partners of gays and lesbians, she said, "because to provide such benefits is to recognize same sex *marriage* as legitimate."

Chris Korzen, executive director of Catholics United, a group that works to promote Catholic teaching on issues such as poverty, health care and war, said: "Here we have an opportunity to make sure human beings have health insurance, which everyone believes is a value. And instead of doing everything we can, we're in a sense holding that hostage to culture war issues. . . . I don't see how that's a win for Catholic values."

Several Catholic progressive leaders declined to comment Tuesday, saying the issue was too controversial. Many Catholic Charities employees did not return calls or declined to talk about the issue.

One employee, Michelle Mendez, who helps immigrants as a staff attorney in the legal service program at Catholic Charities, described it as a sensitive issue for employees.

"I disagree with it on a personal level," she said. "I think it's unfortunate to cut off benefits and worry about the effect it may have on employees' families. But on a public level, I understand how hard the decision was and where the organization is coming from."

As a Catholic believer, she said the church needs to keep to its tenets. But as an employee who might marry sometime and need health insurance for a spouse, she wishes the option were still there. "But at the end of the day, the reason we work at a place like this is to make a difference," she said. "As long as we can continue doing that, that's what's most important."

The archdiocese, which includes the city and suburban Maryland, might be the only one in the country to make such a decision about benefits in the few places that have legalized same-sex marriage, church-state experts said Tuesday. George Washington University Professor Ira "Chip" Lupu said the archdiocese is "now a pioneer." In Massachusetts, Catholic Charities ended its adoption and foster care programs as a result of anti-discrimination laws there, a dispute that prompted at least eight members of the charity's board to resign in protest.

Wuerl said that with the decision to curtail benefits, he thought no other social service contracts with the city would be affected. He repeated during the two-hour interview that he thought the church and other faith-based groups were facing new opposition because of their beliefs about sexuality.

"No one in the past said, 'Because you're motivated by love of the Gospel, you can't perform [social services.]' The question always was: 'Did you serve everyone?' And the answer was yes," said Wuerl, who said The Post had unfairly characterized the church as having a choice. He cited an expression, "The prophet isn't judged by the success of his message but fidelity of his message."

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