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February 1, 2012

When common ecumenical witness is needed -
Distinguishing legal from biblical justice -
HHS ruling on contraceptives coverage protested -
Why go on pilgrimage?

In this edition:
1. Reaction to HHS rule on contraception coverage.
2. Archbishop Gomez on HHS rule.
3. Pope on religious liberty in America today.
4. Current quotes to ponder:
a) Why go on pilgrimage to a holy place?
b) Overcoming ecumenical inertia.
5. Ecumenism: When common witness is needed.
6. How confessors treat penitents.
7. Distinguishing legal from biblical justice.
8. Catholics, Jews: Teaching About Each Other.

1. HHS Contraceptives Rule and Religious Liberty

A rule the Obama administration announced Jan. 20 constitutes a denial of religious freedom, Catholic leaders said. The rule, announced by the Department of Health and Human Services, requires most health insurance plans in the U.S. - including those provided by many Catholic employers -- to cover fully the cost of contraceptives and sterilizations for employees.

The church's intense objections to the new rule are being heard everywhere, it appears. And unless the situation somehow is resolved soon, it is safe to say that the conversation about this rule and its religious-liberty implications has only begun!

Catholic bishops, hospitals, schools, charitable organizations and others had requested exemption from the HHS requirement when it first was proposed. Instead, Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said in announcing the final rule that nonprofit groups objecting to the rule on religious grounds will be given an additional year "to adapt to this new rule."

Under the rule, after Aug. 1 this year, new or significantly altered health plans will be required to provide all FDA-approved contraceptives, without co-pays or health insurance deductibles, to women requesting them.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, discussing the new HHS rule in a Jan. 20 fact sheet, said it mandates "coverage of sterilization and contraceptives (including long-lasting injections and implants, and 'morning-after' pills that may cause an early abortion) in virtually all private health plans."

Sebelius said the "proposal strikes the appropriate balance between respecting religious freedom and increasing access to important preventive services." She said her department will "work closely with religious groups during this transitional period to discuss their concerns."

What that comment by Sebelius about working with religious groups might mean in practice is unclear. But an editorial in the Jesuit-published America magazine urged that both the church and the administration "leave no stone unturned" in finding "a workable solution" to this issue.

To be exempt from the rule's requirement, a religious organization needs to meet four criteria. First, its purpose must be "the inculcation of religious values." Second, it needs primarily to employ people "who share its religious tenets." Third, it needs primarily to serve people "who share its religious tenets." And fourth, it must be "a nonprofit organization" under the Internal Revenue Code.

I found it noteworthy that E.J. Dionne, the well-known Washington Post columnist who is a Catholic, a liberal and tends to be a strong supporter of the Obama administration, wrote Jan. 30 that the new rule represented a "botched" decision. Dionne thought the administration "should have done more to balance the competing liberty interests here." He said the administration "would do well to revisit" a compromise that had been proposed.

Under the rule, a Catholic hospital employing numerous nurses and others who are not Catholic would not be exempt. What about colleges and universities? Michael Galligan-Stierle, president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, said that "as it stands, it is unlikely that any Catholic college or university will be exempt."

Galligan-Stierle expressed a measure of hope that Catholic organizations could persuade Congress to take action to "rescript" the new rule.

Concerns also were expressed by the president of Catholic Charities USA, Father Larry Snyder. Obviously, Catholic Charities agencies nationwide serve the poor and suffering of any faith and no faith; often the first goal is simply to feed people, not to inculcate religious belief.

Father Snyder explained that Charities agencies "are first and foremost Catholic institutions -- a manifestation of the Gospel call for charity and justice for all people. As such, remaining faithful to Catholic teaching is not a matter of choice, rather it is essential to our identity." However, said Father Snyder:

"With the existing restrictive definition in this mandate, the ministry of Jesus Christ himself would not be considered a religious entity."

The president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan of New York, said that "in effect, the president is saying we have a year to figure out how to violate our consciences." Forcing Americans "to choose between violating their consciences and forgoing their health care is literally unconscionable. It is as much an attack on access to health care as on religious freedom," he said.

Sister Carol Keehan, president of the Catholic Health Association of the United States, said Jan. 20 that the association was "disappointed that the definition of a religious employer was not broadened" in the government's announcement of the final rule.

The challenge "for many groups remains unresolved," Sister Keehan said. There is a need, she added, "for an effective national conversation on the appropriate conscience protections in our pluralistic country, which has always respected the role of religions."

2. Los Angeles Archbishop on HHS Rule

Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles was just one of many U.S. church leaders protesting the rule the Obama administration announced Jan. 20 that will require most religious organizations and institutions to include coverage for contraceptives and sterilization in their health insurance plans.

"It is hard not to see this new mandate as a direct attack on Catholic consciences and the freedom of our Catholic institutions. The mandate does not promote any civil liberties, and it does not advance any significant public health goals," Archbishop Gomez wrote Jan. 27.

"The government," said Archbishop Gomez, "justifies the mandate by arguing that employers who do not provide these services are discriminating against women." However, he added, "access to free contraception has never been a basic human right. And there is no evidence that birth control has any effect on women's health; pregnancy is not a disease for which 'preventive medicine' is required."

The Department of Health and Human Services "justifies denying exemptions to Catholic charities, hospitals and colleges because it says they are not really 'religious' institutions," Archbishop Gomez said. In his view, that may be the new mandate's "most troubling part."

His reason for saying this, he explained, is that "in effect, the government is presuming it has the competence and authority to define what religious faith is and how believers should express their faith commitments and relationship to God in society. These are powers our government has never before assumed itself to have."

It is clear that "now is a time for Catholic action and for Catholic voices," Archbishop Gomez wrote. He asked lay leaders to "step up to their responsibilities for the church's mission -- not only to defend our faith and our rights as Catholics, but to be leaders for moral and civic renewal, leaders in helping to shape the values and moral foundations of America's future."

3. Pope Asks Laity to Address Liberty Issues

Some U.S. bishops making their required "ad limina" visits to the Vatican this year pointed out, Pope Benedict XVI said, that in the U.S. "concerted efforts have been made to deny the right of conscientious objection on the part of Catholic individuals and institutions with regard to cooperation in intrinsically evil practices."

Others, said the pope, spoke to him "of a worrying tendency to reduce religious freedom to mere freedom of worship without guarantees of respect for freedom of conscience."

It is interesting that these remarks by the pope to bishops from the U.S. mid-Atlantic region came in a speech one day before the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued its ruling requiring coverage for contraceptives and sterilizations in health care plans in the U.S., even those offered by religious employers who object to providing such coverage.

Pope Benedict accented the church's "critical role" of "countering cultural currents which, on the basis of an extreme individualism, seek to promote notions of freedom detached from moral truth." He insisted at the same time, as he often does, that the church "proposes her moral teaching as a message not of constraint but of liberation and as the basis for building a secure future."

To address current trends in society, "an engaged, articulate and well-formed Catholic laity" is needed, Pope Benedict said. Lay people "endowed with a strong critical sense vis-a-vis the dominant culture" are needed "to counter a reductive secularism that would delegitimize the church's participation in public debate about the issues that are determining the future of American society," the pope said.

Thus, he said, "the preparation of committed lay leaders and the presentation of a convincing articulation of the Christian vision of man and society remain a primary task of the church" in the U.S.

The pope told the mid-Atlantic bishops that the church's witness "is of its nature public: She seeks to convince by proposing rational arguments in the public square." He rejected any notion that due to "the legitimate separation of church and state" the church must remain "silent on certain issues" or that the state itself is free to choose whether to engage, "or be engaged by, the voices of committed believers in determining the values which will shape the future of the nation."

The pope said there is "no doubt that a more consistent witness on the part of America's Catholics to their deepest convictions would make a major contribution to the renewal of society as a whole."

Every culture has at its heart, whether this is "perceived or not," a certain "consensus about the nature of reality and the moral good, and thus about the conditions for human flourishing," Pope Benedict said. He observed that in America this consensus -- "enshrined in your nation's founding documents" -- was based "in a worldview shaped not only by faith but a commitment to certain ethical principles deriving from nature and nature's God."

However, the pope commented, "today that consensus has eroded significantly in the face of powerful new cultural currents which are not only directly opposed to core moral teachings of the Judeo-Christian tradition, but increasingly hostile to Christianity as such."

4. Current Quotes to Ponder

Why Go on Pilgrimage to a "Holy Place"? "Pilgrimage, as we know, is one of the hallmarks of the Christian life. [A] key element of a pilgrimage [marks] it out from a holiday of any kind. On pilgrimage we travel in order to strengthen the touch of faith in our lives. We want to touch -- the rocks that mark the key places in the Holy Land, the statue of St. James at Compostella, the foot of the statue in St. Peter's, for in reaching out with our hands we open our inmost spirit to a renewal of grace in a holy place." (From the Jan. 29 homily by Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster, England, given at the Venerable English College in Rome to mark the 650th anniversary of the founding on that location of an English and Welsh hospice)

Overcoming Ecumenical Inertia: "When we meet together and pray together, the suspicions of the past dissolve, and we reach the heart of the ecumenical movement, which is a spiritual movement. Of course, we overcome inertia by what we do together. We can have many notional ideas of what we want to do, but do we actually do them? In every village and every town, everywhere, there ought to be some things which Christians are doing together. It may be a prayer group; it may be an expression of social concern for the poor and needy; it may be joint services, especially at key times. Time and time again, together, we must proclaim the dignity of the human person." (From Jan. 22 remarks by retired Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor of Westminster, England, who spoke in the Anglican cathedral of Chester, England)

5. Ecumenism: Why Witness Together?

Given present-day difficulties and challenges, the united witness of Christians of different denominations is all the more needed, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin said in remarks Jan. 19 during a service in an Anglican church south of Dublin during the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

It frequently is said that through their divisions, Christians weaken their witness to a divided, troubled world and lose credibility in the eyes of 21st century citizens. Outlining the reasons a united witness by Christians is needed at this time, Archbishop Martin said:

-- "Our common witness is all the more needed today at a time when change and diversity could lead to further social division.

-- "Our common witness of Christian caring is all the more needed as many of our brothers suffer the effects of our economic crisis and social change.

-- "Our common witness to Jesus Christ is needed to respond adequately to the spiritual hunger of many.

-- "Our common witness to Jesus Christ is more necessary if we wish to be heard and appreciated and understood in -- and contribute to the common good of -- a society which is becoming increasingly secularized."

Archbishop Martin thinks the Christian presence in society should be characterized by humility, along with a desire to engage humanity's common cause and a willingness to serve.

For example, he said, the Christian response to oppressive poverty is not only to do things "for" the poor, but to change "ourselves" in order to be known for "living a genuine Gospel style of life" that contrasts with "a society that entraps."

The archbishop added, "Not only can we Christians do that together, we can do it better together."

6. How Confessors Treat Penitents

The behavior and attitudes of priests as confessors should not be negative or aggressive. During the sacrament of reconciliation, confessors also should exercise control over their facial expressions and gestures, avoiding any appearances of shock or condemnation, said Bishop Gianfranco Girotti, regent of the Apostolic Penitentiary, a Vatican court that handles issues related to the sacrament of reconciliation.

Bishop Girotti's comments appeared Jan. 28 in L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper.

When people open their hearts in the sacrament of reconciliation, it is because they see the priest as "God's minister, and if instead they find in him severity, not mercy, or doubts and obscurity, and not the light of truth, they will have been truly deceived," the bishop stressed.

A confessor should instill a healthy fear of God, but not terror. Moreover, the confessor should condemn the sin, not the sinner, the bishop said. He urged confessors not to place the "embrace of the merciful Father" on a "backburner."

Catholic News Service reported the bishop's comments in a Jan. 29 story by Carol Glatz of its Rome bureau.

Bishop Girotti asked, "Isn't it true, perhaps, that at times confession takes on the semblance of a prosecuting tribunal rather than a celebration of forgiveness" -- that the conversation assumes "inquisitorial or, in any case, indelicate tones?" But a confessor is first and foremost a father who welcomes, listens and engages in dialogue, he said.

In the sacrament of reconciliation people seek "comfort, advice and forgiveness," said the bishop. Often they bring up problems in personal life or relationships, concerns related to contraception, separation or divorce, and difficulties between a parent and a child. He encouraged confessors to relate to "the penitent's pain and listen with much patience."

This, Bishop Girotti said, "has nothing to do with being lax or permissive." Instead, "it focuses on the inner liberation of the penitent" - on the person's feelings of remorse and repentance, and on facilitating the reception of God's judgment, grace and mercy.

7. Distinguishing Legal From Biblical Justice

A memory of the life and words of Martin Luther King Jr. ought to rouse Christians in the 21st century to bring "biblical justice into our world," Bishop George Murry of Youngstown, Ohio, said Jan. 16 in a homily in Phoenix, Ariz. The bishop distinguished legal justice from biblical justice in his Martin Luther King Day homily, stating that:

-- "Legal justice gives to each person what he or she is due because that person has rights that are identified and written into laws."

-- "Biblical justice is rooted in the covenantal relationship between God and his chosen people."

The early Christians "instinctively grasped" this distinction, Bishop Murry said. While "legal justice reflects the action of the law," the early Christians knew that "biblical justice reflects the action of God, who has given us all that we have not because of anything we have done but simply out of love."

Thus, the early Christians "realized that if anyone was hungry or thirsty, naked or a stranger, sick or in prison, they had a responsibility to feed, refresh, clothe, welcome and visit him because that is what God had done for them," Bishop Murry explained. (The text of his speech appears in the Feb. 2, 2012, edition of Origins, CNS Documentary Service.)

The bishop urged his hearers to think about the example given by heroic people and why a memory of them is valuable. Heroic people do "not want simply our admiration." Instead, Bishop Murry said, they want "to inspire us to act in the same heroic way and, in the process, achieve new heroic goals."

He cautioned against growing comfortable merely with the memory of a heroic person's words and example.

Two ways the memory of King "should rouse us" to foster biblical justice were spelled-out by Bishop Murry.

1. He called for "the confrontation and intolerance of racism." He said racism is "an insidious disease that needs to be named and challenged."

2. He called for the promotion of equal opportunity.

Equal opportunity is essential to the biblical view of justice, Bishop Murry indicated. But he said equal opportunity will come about only if "we commit ourselves to advance equal opportunity for every American at every turn," meaning:

-- "In the way we vote.

-- "In the company we keep.

-- "In the place where we choose to live.

-- "In who we hire or recommend to be hired.

-- "In our response to tax levies to support better schools.

-- "In our care and concern for the poor.

-- "In how we educate our children to see the world.

-- "And, in our unfailing defense of the life of the unborn."

8. Catholics, Jews: Teaching About Each Other

There is still a lot of work to be done when it comes both to teaching accurately in Catholic schools about Jewish beliefs and practices, and in Jewish schools about Catholic beliefs and practices, according to participants in the semi-annual consultation of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the National Council of Synagogues. The consultation met Dec. 5 at New York's Jewish Theological Seminary.

Rabbi Gilbert Rosenthal, executive director of the National Council of Synagogues, summarized concerns of both Jewish and Catholic participants in the meeting when he said:

"We can learn much together by learning much from each other. Today, our religious textbooks need to let the voices of other believers tell us directly who they are and what they believe."

Father Dennis McManus of Georgetown University in Washington, a consultant for Jewish affairs to the U.S. Catholic bishops, stressed the need for in-depth formation of Catholic religious education textbook editors. These editors often control the final expression that will shape the understanding of both students and teachers in Catholic settings about Jews and Judaism, he said.

Rabbi David Sandmel of Catholic Theological Union in Chicago urged that Catholic and Jewish teachers be brought together to develop interfaith projects and shape joint curricula for use in schools.