Conscience and Public Policy

Catholic Institutions Under Pressure

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By Father John Flynn, LC

ROME, NOV. 22, 2009 (Zenit.org).- The transition to a post-Christian society in many countries is bringing with it increasing pressure on believers who work in publicly funded institutions. One of the latest cases involves a same-sex marriage bill in Washington D.C.

As a Nov. 1 article published by the Washington Post explained, an analysis of the proposal to legalize same-sex unions reveals that the clauses meant to protect religious liberty "are woefully inadequate and provide protection that is more illusory than real."

The proposed rules, the Post detailed, provide no meaningful protection against a loss of government benefits for refusing to recognize same-sex marriages. As well there is a lack of protection for individual dissenters, other than authorized marriage celebrants, who have a religious objection to facilitating same-sex marriage ceremonies. This includes caterers, musicians and photographers.

As a result the Archdiocese of Washington declared that it will not be able to continue providing the social service programs it now runs, the Washington Post reported Nov. 12.

The archdiocese fears, for example, that it could be obliged to provide employee benefits to same-sex married couples.

According to the article, Catholic Charities currently provides services for 68,000 people in the city. In addition to the public funds it receives for such activities, the archdiocese provides another $10 million from its own resources.

Washington's Catholic leader, Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl, penned an opinion piece for the Washington Post's Web site, published Nov. 17.

In it he pointed out that while the Catholic Church does not agree with redefining marriage, all that they are asking is that the bill provides a more equitable balance between the different interest groups.

Archbishop Wuerl stated that the archdiocese and Catholic Charities are committed to continuing to provide services, but the provisions of the new law on same-sex marriages could restrict their ability to carry out this desire.

This cut no ice with the editorial writers of the Los Angeles Times, who in a Nov. 18 editorial urged Washington, D.C. officials to stand firm. As well, they urged the federal government to take a stronger stance regarding federal funds and faith-based groups, specifically in regards the possibility not to hire people who do not share their religious views.

Abortion obligation

Meanwhile in Australia, last month marked a year since the passage in the state of Victoria of legislation that denies doctors the right to conscientious objection in cases of abortion.

According to Nicholas Tonti-Filippini, a bioethicist based at the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family in Melbourne, at least two doctors with a conscientious objection to abortion have refused to refer patients to another practitioner so they could procure an abortion.

''We're waiting to see if anyone will take action,'' said Tonti-Filippini, according to an article published Oct. 10 in the Age newspaper.

As the article explained, along with the decriminalization of abortion last year the new law obliges doctors with a conscientious objection to abortion to disclose their belief and to also refer a patient on to another practitioner with no such objection.

On Oct. 22 this year, the Catholic bishops in the state of Victoria issued a pastoral letter on the topic of the 2008 Abortion Law Reform Act.

In their letter the bishops noted that in addition to negating the right of doctors to abstain from cooperating in abortion the law also overrides the conscientious objection of nurses.

"A certain kind of hypocrisy now prevails in hospitals," the letter stated. "In one room a premature baby will be saved with great effort and the best technology. In another room an unborn infant, perhaps older than the premature baby, can be killed with impunity."

The bishops also pointed out that women seeking an abortion have no access to accurate information about what happens to their child or the risks to themselves.

Deeper problems

"We should not see the legalization of abortion in Victoria as an isolated problem, but a symptom of a much deeper cultural problem of increasing secularization and relativism," the letter warned.

"Laws such as the Abortion Law Reform Act 2008 represent a direct threat to the entire culture of human rights because the theory of human rights is based on the affirmation that the human person cannot be subjected to domination by others," the letter continued.

Archbishop Denis Hart of Melbourne presided over an ecumenical prayer service held in St. Patrick's Cathedral on Oct. 25, in reparation for abortion. In his homily he pointed out that since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion.

"Since it must be treated as a person from the moment of conception, the embryo must be defended in its integrity, cared for and healed as far as possible like any other human being," he affirmed.

Further north, in the country's capital of Canberra, Catholic leaders are concerned over the proposed sale of Calvary Hospital by the Little Company of Mary Health to local government authorities.

As the Canberra Times reported on Oct. 29 Cardinal George Pell of Sydney is worried that the government's motives are ideological and driven by anti-Christian elements.

The article also noted that earlier the vicar-general of the Canberra Archdiocese, Monsignor John Woods, said there was concern that the Church's mission to provide health care would be compromised by the sale.

As Angela Shanahan wrote in the Australian newspaper on Oct. 31, there is a suspicion that the government, under the control of a green-Left coalition, "simply wants to get the Catholic Church out of public health care in the national capital."


She cited a report chaired by former Greens' assembly member Kerrie Tucker, who recommended that the hospital be taken out of Catholic hands or sold to the government because it won't do abortions, elective sterilizations or the "full range of reproductive services."

Health workers

The United States, of course, has been through these debates earlier this year when the Obama administration rescinded rules protecting health workers who do not wish to take part in abortions.

In February the Department of Health and Human Services gave notice that it was undoing the rules, reported the New York Times, Feb. 28.

In a statement dated March 23 the Office of the General Council of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops declared that: "Protection of the basic right of conscience takes on even greater urgency when members of the healing professions are subjected to pressure, or risk being pressured, to participate in the taking of innocent human life, conduct which is directly inimical to the role and function of medicine."

The statement also pointed out the fundamental contradiction between the position of the federal administration in committing itself to a policy of "choice" as regards abortion, while at the same time removing the possibility of choice for nurses, doctors, and hospitals not to provide or facilitate abortions.

Archbishop Raymond Burke, prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signature, addressed the theme of the culture of life in the current political context in a dinner held Sept.18.

"While true religion teaches the natural moral law, the observance of the moral law is not a confessional practice," he observed. "It is rather a response to what is inscribed in the depths of every human heart," he said.

"If Christians fail to articulate and uphold the natural moral law, then they fail in the fundamental duty of patriotism, of loving their country by serving the common good," he affirmed. Thus, violating the rights of conscience not only is an affront to believers, but also a denial of the fundamental principles that should guide a secular society.