WASHINGTON (EWTN News/CNA) — U.S. bishops’ spokeswoman Sister Mary Ann Walsh blasted the Department of Health and Human Services for interfering in the work of religious hospitals that want to opt out of providing free contraceptives.

Government “must not stick its proverbial camel’s nose under the church tent,” Sister Walsh said in an Aug. 8 Huffington Post editorial. “Now, however, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has gone beyond nuzzling its nose where it does not belong.

“It has plunked itself right in the middle of the sanctuary. It is trying to define what a religion does and does not do.”

Her remarks come in the wake of the department’s Aug. 1 announcement that new health-care plans must cover contraceptives and sterilizations under regulations for preventive care created in response to the 2010 health-care legislation.

Sister Walsh said that although the mandate provides an exemption for religious employers — which is at least “a tacit acknowledgment that this violates the Constitution’s cherished respect for religious liberty” — there is still “a catch.”

“The church agency can only claim exemption if it primarily serves people of its own faith,” she explained. “It also must meet other requirements, such as employing mostly people of its own faith.”
What this means, she said, is that the department “is setting itself up to determine what constitutes church ministry and who Jesus meant when he referred to serving ‘the least of my brethren.’”

The spokeswoman noted that Catholic hospitals, charities and educational institutions provide about $30 billion worth of service annually in the country and that no one “presents a baptismal certificate at the emergency room.”

“The hungry do not recite the Creed to get groceries at the food pantry,” she added. “Students can pursue learning at The Catholic University of America, Villanova or any other Catholic college without passing a catechism admissions test.”

“The commitment to serve those in need, the sick, the hungry, the uneducated, is intrinsic to Catholicism,” she underscored.

She added that Catholic hospitals admit about 5.6 million people annually, “one out of every six persons seeking hospital care in the United States,” with Catholic Charities serving more than 9 million people a year.

“No federal rule says the Church must limit its service to Catholics if it is to be true to its teaching,” she said, adding that the department “doesn’t get the parable of the Good Samaritan, who helped the stranger simply because he was in need.”

Sister Walsh also noted that Catholic colleges and universities teach 850,000 students annually, which include Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, atheists, agnostics “and members of any other religious or irreligious group you can name.”

She added that, for the time being, the department has “given itself wiggle room” by saying that the public in the next two months can suggest an “alternative” definition of a “religious employer.”

“That’s good because health-care reform ought to increase access to basic care, not push religious groups to either violate their principles or abandon service to those in need, whatever their religious beliefs.”

“Meanwhile, the sanctuary is getting crowded. It is time,” she added, for the department “to remove itself.”

But this isn’t the only Catholic health-care issue at stake in recent days.

Ethical Directives and Mergers

Amid debate over the merger of non-Catholic hospitals with a Catholic health group, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., has emphasized his commitment to ensuring that Catholic hospitals follow ethical directives.

“If something calls itself a Catholic ministry, it is the responsibility of the bishop to ensure as best we can that that indeed is an accurate title,” the archbishop told a meeting of the Rotary Club of Louisville.

“As the debate continues, be assured of my commitment to preserving Catholic identity and of continued good communication with Catholic health-care initiatives,” he added in his archdiocese’s newspaper, The Record.

He emphasized that all Catholic directives on health care must be followed, the Louisville Courier-Journal reported. In a brief interview with the Courier-Journal, he said he could not foresee a situation in which the hospitals operate under Catholic ownership without also following Catholic ethical directives.

The proposed merger would combine University of Louisville Hospital, Jewish Hospital & St. Mary’s HealthCare and the Lexington-based St. Joseph Health System, which is owned by the Denver-based Catholic Health Initiatives.

Catholic Health Initiatives would have a controlling ownership stake and, with St. Joseph Health System, would appoint a majority on the board of the new entity. Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear must approve the merger.

Both Archbishop Kurtz and Bishop Ronald Gainer of Lexington must give approval for the combined entity to be officially a Catholic institution, as is planned.
Catholic hospitals account for 20% to 29% of admissions in Kentucky. Catholic Health Initiatives said that the merger will create a new entity that will improve access and expand services, while providing an infusion of $320 million.

“This network will combine the faith-based and academic heritages of the partners,” Archbishop Kurtz said in the Aug. 4 issue of The Record.

“For many years, the Catholic health-care ministry has served millions of citizens of all religious faiths in a way that is consistent with our deeply held Catholic religious and moral beliefs. This has been a successful and valuable exercise of our being good citizens and of our rightful exercise of the religious freedom upon which our blessed country was established,” he said.

He acknowledged the right of community members to ask how health care is provided, but he said dialogue should be “respectful” and “fair.”

“When Church teaching is caricatured and sound provision of services is dismissed as bigotry, no one is truly served.”

He explained that Catholic moral teaching, including the ‘”Ethical and Religious Directives” for Catholic health care, is informed by “a concern about the dignity of the person and the common good.” He praised the directives as “very pastoral” in their vision of the human person and of true care for that person.

Abortion does not serve mothers, children or families, and Catholics “do not see this as a legitimate health-care service,” he added.

“Does it truly serve the common good to require us or any health-care provider to violate important issues of conscience or principle in order to provide for the health of persons within our community?” he asked.

Critics have said that Catholic restrictions on end-of-life decisions, emergency abortions and tubal ligations could curtail health care.
Honi Goldman, who helped coordinate a newspaper ad with hundreds of signers protesting any merger with medical restrictions, said she admires the archbishop for making his position clear.

She told the Courier-Journal the concern arises “whenever you mix religion with public funds.” She said she opposes “religious policy mandated in what is a public hospital.”

State Rep. Tom Burch, co-chair of the interim legislative joint Committee on Health and Welfare, also opposes the merger.

“As a conscientious Catholic, I have an obligation to my constituents and to the people of Kentucky (to see that) that they do not fall under dictates that they do not believe in,” he said.

Dr. Edward Halperin, dean of the University of Louisville School of Medicine, told the Courier-Journal that elective abortion, medically indicated abortion if the mother’s health is in danger and tubal ligation will continue to be available from his faculty at some location.

He noted that faculty doctors in other cities who work at Catholic-affiliated hospital universities perform some procedures in Catholic hospitals and some in non-Catholic hospitals, the doctors’ offices or university-owned buildings.

During the question-and-answer portion of Archbishop Kurtz’s Rotary talk, he was asked if he could guarantee that the University of Louisville would have “complete control over its services within its University Hospital.”

He said the hospitals’ owners would need to be “sensitive and understanding and living within the context of the ‘Ethical and Religious Directives.’”

“I’m not implying that there won’t be dialogue with the bishop,” he said. “There certainly will be.”