SOUTH BEND, Ind. — In October, the University of Notre Dame confirmed that it would provide spousal benefits to “legally married same-sex spouses.”

“On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear appeals from decisions striking down bans on same-sex marriage in several states, including Indiana,” read an Oct. 8 email notice from the university’s Office of Human Resources.

“This means that the law in Indiana now recognizes same-sex marriages, and the university will extend benefits to all legally married spouses, including same-sex spouses.”

The news shocked some Notre Dame faculty and alumni, but “Our Lady’s University” is among a growing number of Church-affiliated institutions that provide benefits to legally married same-sex spouses. Recently, for example, Catholic Health Initiatives, a Denver-based health-care network, announced that it will begin offering benefits to same-sex spouses and domestic partners, beginning in January 2015. CHI already made adult dependents eligible.

“CHI feels it is important to make health benefits accessible to our employees, their dependents and loved ones ... where possible,” read a statement CHI provided in response to the Register’s query.

 “Our goal of expanding coverage overall will continue to align more closely with the organization’s culture of supporting diversity and families,” the statement continued.

“The Catholic Church supports the position that fundamental rights of gay and lesbian persons must be defended, and everyone must strive to eliminate any form of injustice, oppression or violence against them.”

A CHI spokesman declined to offer further comment but confirmed that the health-care corporation was not compelled by law to provide this benefit, while Notre Dame cited changes in Indiana’s marriage law as the basis for its decision.

The Archdiocese of Denver issued a statement in response to a request for comment from the Register.

“The Archdiocese of Denver is aware that Catholic Health Initiatives, a health-care network that operates in 18 states, is in the process of expanding its benefits offerings to include same-sex partners,” read the statement from the archdiocese.

“The Archdiocese of Denver takes seriously its responsibility of ensuring the integrity of Catholic teaching on marriage in all Catholic institutions. For that reason, the archdiocese has reached out to CHI to discuss the moral issues raised by the decision.”

 

Mounting Pressures

Amid a fast-changing legal and social landscape shaped by a majority of U.S. states now permitting same-sex “marriage,” experts predict that Catholic institutions will face mounting pressure to accommodate such changes in their employee-benefits packages.

At present, however, legal scholars also say there are ample constitutional and statutory protections for Catholic institutions that seek to uphold Church doctrine on marriage. And canon lawyers contend that local bishops should be fully engaged on this issue, meeting with Catholic hospitals and universities to address these policy decisions.

“The government cannot force a religious organization to violate its sincerely held beliefs. Under the U.S. Constitution and federal law, they have the right to adhere freely to Church doctrine,” Kellie Fiedorek,  litigation staff counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, told the Register.

Gerard Bradley, a constitutional scholar at the University of Notre Dame’s law school, echoed that point.

“Among these legal protections for Notre Dame are the many exemptions for religious employers to our employment non-discrimination laws, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the protections for all employees who have a hand in maintaining and transmitting the university’s Catholic mission,” Bradley told the Register.

Bradley and other legal experts contacted by the Register noted that a 2003 document, issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), directed Catholic institutions to uphold Catholic teaching on marriage and sexual ethics.

“In those situations where homosexual unions have been legally recognized or have been given the legal status and rights belonging to marriage, clear and emphatic opposition is a duty,” states the CDF document, “Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions Between Homosexual Persons.”

“One must refrain from any kind of formal cooperation in the enactment or application of such gravely unjust laws and, as far as possible, from material cooperation on the level of their application. In this area, everyone can exercise the right of conscientious objection.”

Said Bradley, “Notre Dame seems to have forgotten, or ignored, the solemn warning of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.”

Bishop Kevin Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Ind., chastised Notre Dame in a column in the diocesan newspaper, which was released after the university announced its decision.

“As a Catholic university, it is important that Notre Dame continues to affirm its fidelity to Catholic teaching on the true nature of marriage as a union of one man and one woman,” wrote Bishop Rhoades.

“I have communicated to Notre Dame my conviction that this affirmation should also include efforts to defend the religious liberty of our religious institutions that is threatened in potentially numerous ways by the legal redefinition of marriage, including the government forcing our Catholic institutions to extend any special benefits we afford to actual marriage to same-sex ‘marriage’ as well.”

 

Varying Responses

In past years, Catholic dioceses and some Church-affiliated institutions have responded in a variety of ways to laws that require Church-affiliated charities or hospitals to provide spousal benefits to same-sex spouses or partners.

Back in 1997, then-Archbishop Cardinal William Levada of San Francisco faced an ordinance that required Catholic institutions that contracted with the city of San Francisco to provide benefits for same-sex domestic partners. He responded with a policy that avoided litigation, without explicitly providing benefits to same-sex partners.

The San Francisco archbishop negotiated an exemption or modification of the ordinance that in effect allowed Catholic employers with city contracts to provide benefits to “legally domiciled members of the employee’s household” without distinction to marital status or domestic-partner status. The designated beneficiary, for example, could be an adult child, an elderly parent or any person legally domiciled in the employee’s home.

In 2010, then-Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington faced a similar crisis, after the District of Columbia legalized same-sex “marriage.” 

But Archbishop Wuerl adopted a different solution and directed the Catholic Charities in his diocese to drop spousal benefits for new employees.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has also weighed in on the issue.

“It is not unjust to oppose granting to homosexual couples benefits that in justice should belong to marriage alone,” reads one portion of the 2006 USCCB document, “Ministry to Persons With a Homosexual Inclination.” 

Ben Nguyen, a canon and civil lawyer and an assistant professor of pastoral theology at Ave Maria University, explained why the USCCB took that position.

“Extending spousal benefits to a same-sex partner is really a form of legal recognition of a same-sex union,”  Nguyen told the Register.

“If a Catholic institution provides that type of spousal benefit, it is a betrayal of its Catholic identity. We can be creative about what we can do, but we can’t cross that line.”

 

Help Needed

However, the steady advance of “marriage equality” will put more pressure on Catholic employers, including the U.S. bishops, to uphold Catholic teaching on marriage while securing the future stability of Catholic charities, schools and hospitals.
Patrick Reilly, who leads the Cardinal Newman Society, a group that seeks to strengthen the Catholic identity of Church colleges, has raised questions about the number of Catholic universities that have begun to provide spousal benefits to the same-sex spouses or partners of employees, including Georgetown University.

But Reilly also contends that universities need help to protect their legacy in a world that has moved far away from a shared acceptance of the meaning and purpose of married love.  

“The Catechism provides a firm foundation of teaching on sexuality, but Catholic educators have no guidance on the practical decisions that they must make — navigating the narrow waters between compromising their Catholic mission and running afoul of the law,” Reilly told the Register.

However, Kurt Martens, a professor of canon law at The Catholic University of America (CUA), contends that Catholic institutions and local bishops already have the tools they need to make tough choices.

Even when the Catholic institution in question is a health-care network with hospitals in multiple dioceses, Martens said, bishops can find time to “sit together and have a comprehensive response that could be taken to a higher level. It is always good when bishops act together.”

In particular, Martens said, a local bishop should step in whenever a Catholic hospital or university adopts policies that appear to violate Catholic teaching.

He noted that CUA’s president, John Garvey, made a similar point during the debate over whether Church-affiliated institutions could adopt the Health and Human Services’ contraceptive mandate.

Martens recalled that Garvey asked, “How can we, as a Catholic institution, adopt the mandate, when it goes against what we teach our students? What we do and what we teach would be in conflict.”

“Isn’t that the same question here?” Martens continued. “If a Catholic university provides benefits to same-sex spouses, what they do and what they teach are in conflict.”