HHS mandate defender sees Catholic institutions as distractions

A view of St Pauls Hospital Credit Brent Granby CC BY NC SA 20 CNA US Catholic News 3 6 12 St. Paul's Hospital. | Brent Granby (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Washington Post columnist Anthony Stevens-Arroyo is a Catholic who does not believe the Obama Administration is attacking religious liberty by mandating Catholic institutions to pay for birth control in their employee health plans.

But he also doesn't think the Church should even be in the business of operating universities, hospitals and other agencies that serve the public welfare.

"I believe it is a distraction and an imperfection in the Catholic Church for us to be running institutions like hospitals where the Church is receiving money, and has public obligations," he said.

"I think that the Church running corporations, taking tax money, engaging in anti-union practices ... I think all of that complicates the role of the Church as a beacon of truth. I would like the Church to return to its primitive state when the Church was not a part of any establishment."

Stevens-Arroyo told CNA June 5 he would like to see Catholic universities "be restricted in terms of what is Catholic to the department of theology."

"I don't think you can bring Catholic thinking or Catholic thought into football teams or into the dorms of a frat house," he said.

In his view,  trying to do so creates "an intolerable tension" on Church responsibilities and leads to "huge compromises" in behavior, like monitoring the actions of students and faculty.

He believes his approach favors what he sees as the Church's return to "the purity of the Gospel."

Stevens-Arroyo is a religion scholar and a professor emeritus of Puerto Rican and Latino Studies at Brooklyn College. He also writes at the Washington Post's "On Faith" section and at its "Catholic America" blog.

His comments come after 43 Catholic dioceses and institutions, including the University of Notre Dame, filed suit against the Obama administration challenging a mandate requiring that most employers provide coverage for sterilization and contraception, including some potentially abortion-causing drugs.

Stevens-Arroyo rejected the claim that the mandate is an "attack" on religious liberty. He contended that the mandate controversy is "a conflict between the religious rights of the employer and the religious rights of the employee."

A Catholic university, he said, should not require faculty and students to abide by "moral rigidity" or it will face "the contradiction between running a corporation and preaching the gospel."

He argued that there is a difference between "direct and indirect cooperation" in an immoral action.

The Church, in his view, would only be paying for insurance that covers contraceptives. The moral burden would be on the employee to choose whether to use it or not.

The U.S. bishops have rejected this distinction. In a March 7 memo, the U.S. bishops' attorney, Anthony Picarello, argued that the Administration's regulations still force an employer to fund and facilitate objectionable coverage of morally objectionable medications and procedures.

Under the regulations, any health care plan is a cause of employees' access to "the 'free' coverage of objectionable items," Picarello explained.

While Catholic institutions say they are being coerced, Stevens-Arroyo says they are the ones trying to coerce their employees to go along with the Church's moral teaching.

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Stevens-Arroyo believes that the HHS mandate is "still in negotiation" and predicted that its final form will only affect entities that accept tax money, including universities that accept federal monies for student loans, and not any religious non-profits that are self-funded.

The mandate presently affects almost all employers with 50 employees or more, regardless of whether they receive taxpayer funding.

The Catholic bishops have warned that the regulation could force Catholic schools, hospitals and charitable agencies around the nation to close down.

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