Was Jesus’ ministry religious? Not according to federal agency

| September 15, 2011 | 0 Comments

One night several years ago, my wife and I were walking along a downtown Chicago street when we encountered a woman in obvious distress standing alone on a corner. She was scared and crying and told us she recently lost her job and her apartment. She didn’t know where she could go for help.

We gave her a few dollars for something to eat and then pointed her in the direction of the nearest Catholic Charities shelter. What we didn’t do is ask if she were Catholic before we helped. And, I’ll bet my last dollar that Catholic Charities didn’t ask her religious affiliation either before extending a helping hand. The agency, as staffers will tell you, doesn’t help people because they’re Catholic; it helps people because it is Catholic — fulfilling the Gospel mandate to help anyone in need.

Integral part of faith

Service to others — non-Catholics included — is an integral part of our faith. Catholic Charities, for example, helped more than 9 million people in 2009 regardless of their religious, social or economic backgrounds, according to Catholic Charities USA. Service to others also extends to other Catholic agencies and organizations: Catholic elementary, middle and high schools; Catholic colleges and universities; Catholic hospitals and nursing homes — all of them provide service to a wide spectrum of people.

This is why the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops takes exception to the Department of Health and Human Services’ recently proposed mandate that would require nearly all employers to provide sterilization procedures and contraceptives — including some that could cause an abortion — to women at no cost as part of their health insurance plans.

The mandate, part of new health care reform measures, outlines only a very narrow exemption for religious organizations — one that would not cover many Catholic Church-sponsored ministries.

For an organization to be exempt requires that it “(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 nonprofit organization” under specific sections of the Internal Revenue Code.

Under this narrow definition, many Catholic organizations wouldn’t qualify for an exemption because they don’t proselytize or don’t restrict their service to only fellow Catholics in need.

Two attorneys for the USCCB, Anthony Picarello Jr. and Michael Moses, noted such shortcomings in a recent Catholic News Service story: “Under such inexplicably narrow criteria — criteria bearing no reasonable relation to any legitimate (let alone compelling) government purpose — even the ministry of Jesus and the early Christian church would not qualify as ‘religious,’ because they did not confine their ministry to their co-religionists or engage only in a preaching ministry.”

The attorneys added: “The government has no business engaging in religious gerrymanders, whereby some churches are ‘in’ and others are ‘out’ for regulatory purposes based on who their teaching calls them to serve, how they constitute their workforce or whether they engage in ‘hard-nosed proselytizing.’”

Speaking out

The U.S. bishops are asking Catholics to voice their objections to the mandate on contraception and sterilization and to push Congress for legislation that would protect conscience rights as health care reform measures are implemented.

The bishops have set up a website — http://www.usccb.org/conscience — where visitors can learn more about the issue and send comments to Congress as well as voice their views on the Department of Health and Human Services’ “interim final rule” during a 60-day comment period that ends Sept. 30.

The time to act is now. Catholics need to speak out on this issue in the interest of religious liberty. Otherwise, church-sponsored ministries will be faced with several choices that are really not choices at all: violate their moral sensibilities, stop providing benefits to employees, limit who they employ and serve, or close their operations altogether.

The HHS may not understand the importance of the church being able to provide services as it always has done in the past. But the woman on the Chicago street corner and millions of other people in need across the country certainly do.

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Category: Editorials, Featured