LOS ANGELES — Abortion coverage in health-care plans is about to get the axe at Loyola Marymount University, but the step taken by the Jesuit college’s administration to follow Catholic teaching has raised protests from many of the faculty.
“LMU can either be a great American Catholic university in the Jesuit and Marymount traditions or it can be an institution that demands obedience to and conformity with Catholic doctrine; it cannot be both,” stated a letter written by a group of faculty to the school's president, David Burcham, and the board of trustees' chairwoman, Kathleen Aikenhead. The letter was an internal document anonymously obtained by the Register.
Abortion coverage in LMU health plans entered the limelight over the summer after a Catholic tenured professor, James Hanink, who teaches philosophy, learned from the Human Resources Department that LMU covered elective abortion in its health plans. Hanink told the Register that he believed “bureaucratic incompetence” was the reason the administration did not realize abortion coverage was not required under state law.
“The university has a certain institutional vocation. Critical to the vocation today is to stand fast to the basic good of human life,” Hanink said. “But the university has failed to do so.”
Hanink pointed out that the university dropped this coverage back in 1988. He said he found it troubling that abortion coverage silently re-entered LMU health-care plans at some point between 1988 and 2013, but without any public discussion or putting up a fight against the insurance companies making abortion a covered benefit.
He added that discussion about the HHS mandate at LMU has been next to nothing.
“It’s as if a great campaign of national urgency never existed,” he said.
Just a few days after RenewLMU, an alumni association concerned with LMU’s Catholic identity, sent a letter outlining members' concerns about the faculty and abortion coverage, President Burcham and Aikenhead announced that LMU was canceling elective abortion coverage. An Aug. 15 letter from Burcham and Aikenhead obtained by the Register said LMU officials had been misinformed by its “health-care consultants and carriers” about the legal need to provide abortion coverage and were taking corrective action pending approval from the board of trustees.
Burcham and Aikenhead stated that canceling abortion coverage “flows directly from our values as a Catholic university in the Jesuit/Marymount traditions.”
However, the move has provoked faculty unrest. According to one source, President Burcham was met by a very hostile faculty senate when he addressed the matter in person.
Jennifer Pate, president of LMU’s faculty senate, explained that the body itself had no position on the abortion coverage. However, she said two issues for the faculty senate are that the normal procedure (going through the university’s comprehensive benefits committee) was not followed and that not much explanation was given.
“We actually have people in favor of removing the coverage who are also not happy with the fact that we didn’t follow the standard process,” Pate said.“The only language I’ve seen [justifying the change] is because of our religious affiliation.”
Other faculty members have stated that, regardless of the process, their primary objection is that they do not understand why a Catholic university would remove elective abortion from its insurance policy. The internal letter from some faculty to Burcham, Aikenhead and the board states, “It has been tricky to discern any clear philosophy behind either the process or the substance of the decision.”
The letter alleges that the substance of the decision — removing abortion coverage — violates the requirement that the university be a place where women “can achieve wholeness as persons,” citing Ex Corde Ecclesiae, Pope John Paul II’s apostolic constitution for Catholic colleges and universities, to make that claim.
Dropping abortion coverage over the university’s respect-for-life concerns, it continues, would violate social-justice principles, impose economic burdens on women and their families, particularly “the lowest paid women on campus, who are also mostly likely women of color.” It also alleged that the decision would violate employees’ “freedom of conscience” and harm the university’s ability to recruit a diverse faculty. The letter appealed to the 1967 Land O’Lakes statement that argued the participation of non-Catholics in the Catholic university community was “most desirable, and indeed, even necessary, to bring authentic universality itself.”
The letter says the “most troubling aspect” of the decision to remove abortion coverage is “[t]he evident lack of a consistent or well-articulated vision for the university and its Catholic mission.”
Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society, a watchdog of Catholic identity on Catholic campuses, told the Register that arguing for abortion coverage from Ex Corde “is absurd.”
“Ex Corde Ecclesiae says that every action, every policy or commitment of a university must be in accord with its Catholic identity,” he said.
The document states that a Catholic university's “institutional fidelity” to the Christian message “includes a recognition of and adherence to the teaching authority of the Church in matters of faith and morals.” It adds that Catholic university members are called to “a personal fidelity to the Church,” while non-Catholic members “are required to respect the Catholic character of the university, while the university in turn respects their religious liberty.”
Reilly said that a letter leaked to the Cardinal Newman Society from LMU’s “LGBT Faculty and Staff Network” also argues for abortion coverage from alleged Catholic teaching. But he said the letter showed misguided notions of tolerance and a “philosophy of relativism” were being substituted for Catholic teaching “as if they’re Catholic” in order to promote abortion.
“Clearly there is a deliberate attempt to distort the meaning of a Catholic university for a pro-abortion agenda,” he said. “However, on some level, the fact that they believe they can make such arguments indicates the sort of confusion that we find in many Catholic universities about what it means to be Catholic.”
David Luke, ’93, president of RenewLMU, said the years of abortion coverage and the faculty revolt over removing it highlight the main concern of his organization: that LMU has a “Catholic-identity problem.”
Luke said the faculty letter illustrates why Ex Corde called for Catholic universities to have a majority Catholic faculty.
“Not only does Loyola not have a majority of Catholic faculty, but this vocal faculty opposition raises the question of whether they have enough faculty that respect Catholic teaching and belief,” he said.
Back in April, the Register reported that three out of four candidates submitted for final consideration to head LMU’s Bioethics Institute had positions at odds with Catholic teaching on abortion and the dignity of human life. The administration subsequently decided to accept none of the candidates, and it instead selected Roberto Dell’Oro, a Catholic and former member of the Ethics/Theologian Committee of the Catholic Health Association of the United States, for the post.
RenewLMU has made its own petition to the board, urging them to follow the guidance of Ex Corde and ratify the decision of Burcham and Aikenhead to follow the example of other Catholic colleges and universities in excluding abortion coverage from health plans.
Pate said her main concern is that the university conduct a dialogue on Ex Corde Ecclesiae and how Catholic identity, academic freedom and intellectual diversity all work together.
“There hasn’t been a lot of communication yet, so we are hoping the things that happen as a result of this board meeting are: What are the goals? What are we trying to accomplish? What is the purpose of the change, and what are the expectations as a result of the change?” she said. “We really haven’t gotten that much information at all.”
Reaching a Resolution
If the board approves Burcham and Aikenhead's decision, then abortion coverage in all LMU health plans will cease on Jan. 1, 2014. A statement to the Register from LMU said that the board of trustees has decided to take up the issue of abortion coverage in LMU health plans “because they are the guardians of LMU’s Catholic mission and identity.”
It stated, “After hearing from members of the entire LMU community, the board will discuss the issue and determine a course of action that is in keeping with LMU’s institutional commitment to Catholicism, as well as its commitment to diversity and being a place of welcome for all, at its October board meeting.”
Luke said he hoped the board would take these events as a wake-up call that LMU’s Catholic identity and vision needs shoring up. He said RenewLMU’s alumni were committed to working with the board and administration to improve that.
“I do believe President Burcham is trying to do the right thing, and I am hopeful the board will support him in that effort,” Luke said. “If that is the case, I think Loyola will have taken a positive step forward.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.