CINCINNATI — Jesuit Father Michael Graham, president of Xavier University, made headlines last week when he announced that contraceptives and sterilizations would no longer be covered under university health insurance.

“As a Catholic priest and as president of a Catholic university, I have concluded that, absent a legal mandate, it is inconsistent for a Catholic institution to cover those drugs and procedures the Church opposes,” said Father Graham in an April 2 letter to the Xavier community.

The three-paragraph letter came amid a national debate over a mandate of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and was distributed as an internal message. However, a faculty committee response to the announcement, written by faculty committee chairwoman Shannon Byrne, was sent to The Cincinnati Enquirer in an email — along with Father Graham’s letter — according to the newspaper. The email, originally from Byrne, reportedly raised questions about the decision and invited faculty to a meeting on April 12.

Father Graham, president of Xavier since 2001, said the HHS mandate requires coverage that the Church “finds morally problematic” and the issue of religious freedom will likely be decided in court.  He mentions the filing of several lawsuits along these lines.

(EWTN, the owner of the Register, filed such a lawsuit on Feb. 9, looking to cease the federal government’s mandate and to have the issue ruled in court as unconstitutional.)

“In the last several months, as this issue has evolved, I have reviewed what our own health-insurance plans cover and reached out, either on my own or through our Office of Human Resources, to other Catholic institutions, whether universities or hospitals, both here in the Cincinnati region and elsewhere,” said Father Graham.

He directed Humana, the insurance carrier for university employees, to end coverage for contraceptives and sterilizations, “except for cases of medical necessity for non-contraceptive purposes,” effective on July 1.

According to Debora Del Valle, director of public relations for Xavier, the decision applies to university employees who get their health insurance through the school.  Del Valle said by email that Xavier’s McGrath Health and Wellness Center does not give contraceptives to students and she is unaware of any groups that do. She declined to comment on campus reaction to the decision.


Shared-Governance Issue Raised

Also dated April 2, Byrne’s letter to Father Graham on behalf of the faculty committee said that the committee was aware that the president’s decision was “in keeping with Church doctrine and the will of the U.S. Catholic bishops.”

“There are faculty and staff at Xavier, including practicing Catholics, who believe the Church should reconsider its position on birth control; nevertheless, to cover the costs of prescriptions and procedures that are currently contrary to Church teaching might call into question our Jesuit Catholic identity, which is at the heart of the Xavier community,” said the letter.

The letter did laud the exception for cases of medical necessity. 

“It will be an important and compassionate qualifier for faculty and staff to hear that the change, in order to comply with Church teaching, will not jeopardize a person’s health,” the letter added. 

Byrne also mentions that the timing of the decision is “somewhat confusing,” citing the Supreme Court’s pending June ruling on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (which authorized the HHS mandate), along with the possibility that the decision of Catholic institutions being exempt could last until winter.

“We can only assume U.S. Catholic bishops decided to compel Catholic institutions that are not already mandated by state law to provide this coverage to come out publicly against it,” said the committee letter.

Byrne expressed the committee’s displeasure that “shared governance” was not part of the decision-making process. Sections of Xavier’s faculty constitution and handbook were included in the letter, with highlighted selections noting faculty as “full participants in the shared governance of the university” and the role of the school’s benefits committee.

“This was an opportunity for meaningful discourse, community understanding and education into Jesuit and Catholic principles that may not be well known to non-Catholics at Xavier,” the letter said.

“By not inviting faculty to participate in a dialogue, you ignored the principles of shared governance that we have been led to believe were of value to the university.”


Catholic Identity

In a brief blog post by the Cardinal Newman Society about the Xavier decision, Dan Andriacco, director of communications for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati said, “we’re delighted.”

“We’ve been in extensive communication about this issue,” Andriacco told the Cardinal Newman Society, which is a nonprofit organization that seeks renew and bolster Catholic identity in the higher-education landscape.

Patrick Reilly, the president of the society, said that the Xavier development tells him that “Catholic college leaders are responding to the bishops’ very clear statements, which are directed not only at the Obama administration regarding the religious-freedom issue, but also at Catholic institutions — that the Church expects them to not provide contraception coverage if at all possible.”

“Kudos to him and to anyone who was involved in this decision,” said Reilly about Father Graham.

Reilly said that it was not clear if Xavier was aware of the contraception coverage previously, and, ideally, it would not have been there to begin with.

“Given the awareness that has resulted from the HHS mandate, it would be incumbent on every Catholic institution to review their plans and to do everything reasonable to get out of such coverage,” said Reilly.

Reilly mentioned that in many states there is pressure for an insurance company to cover such procedures, and there is a financial motivation for insurers to cover an abortion, since it is less expensive than a pregnancy.

Patrick Lee, the director of the Institute of Bioethics at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, was also pleased with the Xavier decision. 

He called attention to the long-term health and relationship problems that go along with contraception distribution and Church teaching on the issue, along with natural law and reasoning.

“When we are a Catholic school or a Catholic hospital, we are operating as part of the Catholic Church and, really, with a mission, with an apostolate,” said Lee. The “apostolate is, of course, to teach and to heal, but also to do that in the context of bearing witness to the truth of the Gospel.”

Register correspondent Justin Bell writes from Boston.