O'Brien's quixotic fight

Recently, Cardinal-designateEdwin F. O'Brienwrote a stirring letter to all those who worship in the Baltimore Archdiocese, calling on their help to "regain our religious freedom." The impassioned call to arms suggests the federal government has dealt a "heavy blow" to Catholics and has "cast aside" the First Amendment.

What could have so angered the 72-year-old soon-to-be advisor to the pope to justify his call for prayer and fasting until "religious liberty" is restored? Remarkably, it was the recent decision of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Servicesthat requires future health insurance policies, including those administered by religious hospitals and charities, to cover contraception and sterilization.

The hierarchy of the Catholic Church opposes contraception as a tenet of faith, and that is its right. Nothing in the HHS regulations requires anyone to purchase or use a condom, ingest a single birth control pill, or submit to a vasectomy under any circumstances. Nor would it require Catholic medical facilities or institutions to provide them.

But as part of President Barack Obama's health care reform law, the agency did have to set some minimum standards for insurance policies, balancing cost against public health benefit. As it happens, reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies is a highly effective policy for improving the health of women and the outcomes for children. Ask any doctor; this is a medical fact.

So what appears to haveArchbishop O'Brienand others in Catholic leadership upset is that their employee health plans would now have to provide this benefit. The church would be paying — as part of its worker benefits package — for insurance coverage that includes contraception.

With all due respect, the problem with the clergy's outrage is that it's absurdly selective. Catholic dollars have already been used for these same services through something that's known as "salary." Under existing U.S. law, a person can use money from his or her paycheck to buy contraceptives, and one suspects that church employees have done so for generations.

Indeed, a poll released last month by the Public Religion Research Institute found that a greater majority of Catholics support contraception at no out-of-pocket cost than do other Americans. According to the poll, 58 percent of self-identified Catholics took this position, and when asked if the church should be exempted from the Obama administration's insurance-must-include-contraception rules, 52 percent of Catholic respondents said no.

Is paying for an insurance policy administered through a private company morally different from paying an employee directly? In both instances, whether to obtain or use contraception is still the decision of the employee and his or her beneficiaries.

Certainly,Archbishop O'Briencan argue that the benefit facilitates, perhaps even encourages, the purchase of contraception. That is, of course, the point. But in Maryland, the same services are financed through Medicaid, another program church dollars support through payroll taxes. And make no mistake, mandated health insurance coverage, or more specifically, the penalties for failing to comply with that requirement, amount to a tax — a point administration lawyers have made repeatedly, and successfully, in federal court.

Nevertheless,Archbishop O'Brienhas vowed that the archdiocese will not comply with the law. That's a pretty extraordinary level of protest considering that over the years, tax dollars originating from the church have been used for any number of purposes deemed morally wrong, from the death penalty to "enhanced interrogation" of terrorism suspects, without raising a similar ruckus.

What purpose will the church's action serve? If carried out to its logical conclusion, it means employees will have to buy health insurance on their own. And under the federal regulations, the policies will have to include contraception. To pay for it, they'll no doubt draw from their church-provided paychecks. The church, in turn, would be subject to a penalty to help offset the insurance cost.

In other words, it changes absolutely nothing — aside, perhaps, from fueling protests against what some deride as "Obamacare" and potentially endangering the health of millions of uninsured Americans if Congress or the courts reverse the president's groundbreaking health care reform law. Is there not a moral hazard in this, too?

Administration officials say they are looking to provide some compromise. Republicans, particularly all those men running for president on the reject-family-planning bandwagon, have seized the moment to portray Mr. Obama as anti-Catholic. Impassioned letters from U.S. Catholic bishops, including Archbishop O'Brien, have clearly reinforced that outrageous claim.

What's needed is some less inflammatory language and confrontation and some more dialogue and quiet reflection. The federal government has an important role to play in promoting public health and the greater good. The church leadership has a right to its beliefs.

In the meantime, Catholics ought to reply to the O'Brien letter and express their true feelings about contraception to their church. That growing chasm between the practices of U.S. Catholics and the doctrine of church hierarchy would seem a far greater threat to the institution's future than any health insurance policy or federal regulation.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
Related Content
  • Don't lock up children forever
    Don't lock up children forever

    Sen. James Brochin and Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott Shellenberger recently asked whether Maryland would break its promises to victims' families by eliminating life-without-parole sentences for youth under 18. The answer: No ("Will Maryland go back on its word?" March 18).

  • Bring back the death penalty in Md.
    Bring back the death penalty in Md.

    Baltimore's very own "Public Enemy No. 1" has been sentenced to life plus 240 years for a double murder ("Killer gets life plus 240 years, flips off top prosecutor," March 24).

  • Baltimore County is still in the dark ages on the death penalty
    Baltimore County is still in the dark ages on the death penalty

    Some years ago I took a course during which the subject of racist juries in Baltimore County was discussed. I had believed that we had come a long way from those Neanderthal days until I read the op-ed by State's Attorney Scott Shellenberger and professor Richard Vatz in which they attempt to...

  • Choose life and mercy — even for heinous crimes
    Choose life and mercy — even for heinous crimes

    While Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott Shellenberger and Towson University professor Richard Vatz have outlined many secular reasons for reinstating the death penalty ("Maryland should reinstate the death penalty," Jan. 6), I suggest that we let dead dogs lie and that we let the death...

  • Shellenberger and Vatz make a weak case for the death penalty
    Shellenberger and Vatz make a weak case for the death penalty

    Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott Shellenberger and Towson University professor Richard Vatz present the oft-heard argument in favor of reinstating capital punishment in Maryland ("Maryland should reinstate the death penalty," Jan. 6). They do not, however, present a compelling argument...

  • O'Malley overrode the public's will on the death penalty
    O'Malley overrode the public's will on the death penalty

    Good article regarding reinstating capital punishment in our state ("Maryland should reinstate the death penalty," Jan. 6). I agree that it was a big mistake ending it. I feel that the majority want to have the death penalty option, but Gov. Martin O'Malley has his own agenda, and the public be...

  • Killing each other won't make us safer
    Killing each other won't make us safer

    Reading Scott Shellenberger's and Richard E. Vatz's pleas for a reinstatement of the death penalty in Maryland reminds me of a proverbial ditty my mother was fond of during my childhood ("Maryland should reinstate the death penalty," Jan. 6).

  • The death penalty is dead; let's move on
    The death penalty is dead; let's move on

    Each one of the arguments raised in Scott Shellenberger and Richard E. Vatz's recent op-ed calling for reinstating the death penalty in Maryland was considered during the debate on capital punishment ("Maryland should reinstate the death penalty," Jan. 6).

Comments
Loading