Monday, September 12, 2011

Jesus Won’t Pass Muster at HHS

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is picky when it comes to religious exemptions from its rules implementing the nation’s new affordable health care bill. Right now HHS has such a narrow standard as to who operates a religious ministry, Jesus himself couldn’t pass muster.

HHS has a very limited definition of which church organizations can be exempted from having to pay for contraceptives, sterilization and other services that violate church teaching. Amazingly, to establish what HHS deems true religion, the agency turned to a definition concocted by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) for a law in California. (For the record, a list of church-state lawsuits suggests ACLU does not look kindly on religious organizations’ active involvement in the public sphere.)

Following the ACLU lead, HHS argues that a religious exemption should be available just to some religious institutions, and only if they primarily serve and hire persons who share their religious tenets and restrict their charitable efforts to the inculcation of religious values.

Here Jesus loses out. His chief teaching about serving one’s neighbor highlights the Good Samaritan who took care of a woebegone stranger by providing medical care, food and lodging. Jesus did not say anything about checking the man’s religious affiliation beforehand. There was no catechism test afterwards. The point of the story is to help anyone who needs help.

Jesus met needs that were not necessarily catechetical. For the disconsolate father Jairus, Jesus raised his daughter from the dead. For the worried military leader whose servant had a paralyzing illness, he offered a cure. For the wedding couple at Cana, he turned water into wine. He met basic human needs. The church practice to give help when and where it is needed marks the work of religious institutions from clinics, hospitals and nursing homes to soup kitchens, food pantries and Catholic schools and universities. The goal is to help people in need because they are fellow children of God, whether or not they pray beside you on Sunday.

As the law reads now, to follow HHS rules and qualify for an exemption, many Catholic institutions would have to violate their very mission and refuse service to non-Catholics. They’d have to fire hard-working employees. To maintain their religious integrity, they could be forced to stop providing employee insurance benefits. Or they’d have to close down, a step that would not benefit a nation where one out of six persons seeks hospital care in a Catholic institution. It would also hurt the millions who receive social services and counseling through Catholic Charities; bread, milk and cereal from parish food pantries; and other types of assistance from additional church-run agencies.

You’d have to be pretty removed from American reality not to know that Catholic Charities, Catholic hospitals, Catholic schools and many other Catholic charitable organizations serve more than Catholics. Such service is part of the church’s mission, following the example of the Good Samaritan and Christians from the first disciples onward.

Catholics are called to help people in need whatever their religion. To imply that when Catholics reach out to help others they are not being Catholic shows a poor understanding of the role of religion in our society. Most citizens know enough about Jesus and his works to recognize that his followers' caring ministries deserve respect, even (or especially) when they benefit not just Catholics but the health and human services of the entire nation.


Lama Paenitens said...

Well, Sister, if this interim rule is not reversed then let me be the first to admit that many of us Catholics who supported the Health Reform Act were wrong. We trusted what Congress and the President said... that this law would not infringe on the religious freedoms of individuals. And perhaps they meant that, but then they better call the HHS in front of Congress and ask why they want to implement a law that violates our Constitutional rights to religious freedom. This rule would force Catholic charities, for example, either to hire and serve only Catholics and violate a major tenet of our faith to serve all people regardless of their faith OR violate our religious tenets that say that all life is sacred from the moment of conception. Either way we would be losing our rights to freely practice our religion.

pat said...

this seems like an important issue; however the above article lacks clarity in its untent and meaning

Christopher Blosser said...


Perhaps Mary Ann's earlier post on the matter will provide clarification, or examine for yourself the narrowly-drawn guidelines for "exemption" provided by the HHS:

Group health plans sponsored by certain religious employers, and group health insurance coverage in connection with such plans, are exempt from the requirement to cover contraceptive services. A religious employer is one that: (1) has the inculcation of religious values as its purpose; (2) primarily employs persons who share its religious tenets; (3) primarily serves persons who share its religious tenets; and (4) is a non-profit organization under Internal Revenue Code section 6033(a)(1) and section 6033(a)(3)(A)(i) or (iii). 45 C.F.R. §147.130(a)(1)(iv)(B).

which will effectively force Catholic organizations to either provide coverage for elective sterilization and abortifacients, or remove themselves from public service.