Wed Jan 21, 2015 – 11:18 am EST
When the going gets tough, the tough get going. Catholic hospitals, on the other hand, apparently give up without a struggle.
At least that’s the lesson Missourians could take from the speedy compliance of the Mercy health system, which has decided to extend its benefits package to the same-sex spouses of its 40,000 employees spread across seven Midwestern and southern states, despite such relationships being forbidden by Catholic teaching.
Archbishop James Johnston Jr. of Springfield-Cape Girardeau was quick to rebuke Mercy, suggesting in a public statement that it had been “led astray by strange teachings,” and submitted to pressure from government.
But Mercy, which was started by the Sisters of Mercy, has $5 billion in assets, and is run by a board that includes seven nuns and one bishop, Howard Hubbard of Albany, said it had merely acted in line with new government rulings. Spokeswoman Sonya Kullmann told the Springfield News-Leader, “As a Catholic health ministry, Mercy has followed the Church’s position on this issue in the past. However, in line with recent changes in government regulations, we will extend benefits to all legally married spouses effective this spring.”
Archbishop Johnston took Kullmann’s comments apart line by line, starting with the fact Mercy had neither consulted him before its decision nor advised him afterwards. He added, “God’s plan for marriage is not a matter of ‘the Church’s position…but rather, one of God’s own Word.”
As for complying with unspecified “government regulations,” he said “no believing Christian worthy of the name should violate God’s law because of ‘regulations.’ Our ancestors refused to abandon the faith even when subjected to the cruelty and torture of the Roman Empire, but in our age unspecified ‘regulations,’ government funds, and fear of public ridicule is sufficient in order to secure the compliance of some.”
What can bishops do with hospitals and, for that matter, colleges and universities, that disobey Church teachings on same-sex “marriage,” contraception or abortion?
Dr. John Haas, president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center, says, “Not a heck of a lot.” The local dioceses do not often own these institutions so that they generally wield only moral authority. Various orders of sisters often own them and boards independent of the bishop run them. One thing Rome can do is order the institution to stop calling itself Catholic. As well, the bishop can remove the institution from the diocesan directory of member organizations. This has the effect of removing it also from protection of the diocese’s non-taxable status. But a hospital or university can apply for such status independently and many have done so already.
Dr. Haas told LifeSiteNews that Archbishop Johnston was on the mark. “There cannot be a same-sex spouse in the Catholic understanding of ‘spouse,’ so there cannot be spousal benefits.”
What could Mercy itself have done? Plenty, said Dr. Haas. Faced with a District of Columbia anti-discrimination ordinance newly applied to sexual orientation, the archdiocese removed spousal benefits from all extended benefits plans. The San Francisco archdiocese, on the other hand, reworked its plan to cover one additional adult sharing the domicile with the employee, thus covering maiden aunts, dependent adult children and, without affirming a same-sex “marriage,” the employee’s partner. Several other dioceses and some universities have followed suit.
But some nominally Catholic hospitals and universities have done the same as Mercy, including Denver’s Catholic Health Initiatives system and Notre Dame University.
Could Catholic or Christian institutions avoid providing extended benefits to same-sex spouses by dismissing employees who enter into homosexual relationships? They could try, said Richard Thompson, president of the Chicago-based Thomas More Law Center, but “whether they would be successful could depend on the details.”
The precedent is there: in 2012 the Supreme Court ruled that the Hosanna Tabor Evangelical Free Church could fire and hire on the basis of an individual’s adherence to doctrine. But a lower court ruled against a Catholic charity over the same issue because it already employed non-Catholics.
A crucial detail would be whether the employer has a written contract with its employees specifically requiring them to follow Church moral teaching. Also important is the kind of work being done, and who is doing it. Catholic parochial schools have successfully fired teachers after they “came out,” because they could argue that teachers must set a moral example for their students. But could a Catholic charity argue that its clients are equally impressionable?
Katie Short, legal director of the Life Legal Defence Fund, told LifeSiteNews that Congress has provided some legal protection to religious institutions. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act prohibits states and local governments from infringing on religious freedom.
But religious freedom is still being overshadowed in legal rulings by discrimination, said Short. “Discrimination is America’s original sin,” and though that sin was committed against Black Americans, now discrimination against any kind of minority apparently trumps religious freedom. She called anti-discrimination laws “the biggest threat to freedom” facing Americans. “Especially religious freedom, but freedom of conscience generally.”
Thompson agreed. The drive to end discrimination against sexual minorities could be used to force Christian pastors to officiate at same-sex weddings. “Chaplains in the armed forces, for example, already serve military personnel of other faiths than their own. Will they now be required to marry gays?”
Already, he said, Catholic businessmen were considering quitting rather than providing services to homosexuals. “Same-sex marriage poses a huge problem to Catholic and other religious organizations,” said Thompson. It’s a problem that will be worsened considerably if the U.S. Supreme Court rules, in a case currently before it, against the right of states to legislate against same-sex “marriage” and for heterosexual unions.