While the long-term consequences of yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling in favor of Hobby Lobby are unclear, it was no victory for religious liberty as the concept has been understood for hundreds of years. Rather, the decision was another radical expansion of corporate power by the Roberts court, and a permission slip for CEOs to use religion as a pretext to refuse coverage of birth control.
The implications are vast. Even though the ruling applies specifically to “closely held” corporations rather than publicly traded ones, 90 percent of American businesses are classified as closely held.
These corporations don’t have souls. They are legal entities created by humankind, not living beings created in the image of God. Endowing these artificial institutions with the same religious freedom that you and I have is both theologically troubling and legally dangerous. While the ruling itself addressed only contraception coverage and explicitly was not applied to related issues such as vaccination coverage and LGBT discrimination, it could set a legal and cultural precedent for assertion of a corporation’s “religious” right to discriminate or to deny coverage of crucial healthcare services.
The Hobby Lobby decision is also a threat to the health of women workers, and a blow to pro-life and pro-choice Americans who share a common-ground commitment to reducing abortion. I’ve read well-reasoned analysis predicting that the ruling will not jeopardize access to contraception, but there is no guarantee of that outcome. In fact, shortly after the ruling was announced, a federal court of appeals granted an injunction against the contraception-coverage mandate for a television network. Keep in mind that the IUD contraception methods Hobby Lobby specifically objected to are the most effective means to prevent unintended pregnancy, have been shown to significantly reduce the abortion rate, and can be prohibitively expensive for working women. As unintended pregnancies increase, so do abortions.
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If you want to see the power of faith to serve the common good, there are few better places to look than our nation’s religious hospitals and healthcare facilities. Their generous commitment and humble service show that the teachings of our faiths are truly life-giving, not just letters on the pages of Scripture.
Unfortunately, some of these providers and the people they serve are being directly harmed by politicians blocking Medicaid improvements in 24 states. Mercy Health, one of the largest Catholic health care systems in the country, just laid off 220 people thanks in part to this immoral obstruction. People are not only being denied health insurance, but also being prevented from providing healthcare.
The impact of Medicaid refusal is measured not only in illnesses untreated and thousands of lives cut short, but also in jobs lost and economic hardship. It’s unconscionable.
In state after state, faith leaders are taking this issue head-on. In Virginia, the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy and allies hold weekly prayer vigils for Medicaid expansion in front of the state capitol in Richmond. And last week, when State Sen. Phillip Puckett (D) resigned his office in apolitical tradeoff that allowed Republican lawmakers to block Medicaid expansion, they swiftly and publicly condemned the move.
Last month, clergy leaders of Missouri Faith Voices shut down the state Senate with a massive demonstration in favor of immediately closing the Medicaid coverage gap, and FPL recently held a press conference call with key faith leaders from Georgia, Florida and Missouri – as well as the head of the Catholic Health Association – lifting up this same message.
As people of faith, we know that every person matters in the eyes of God. Sooner or later, the extremist politicians who are depriving their constituents of healthcare will get the memo too.
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Joseph Fiorenza, Archbishop Emeritus of the 1.3 million-member Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, is a former president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (1998-2001). A leading social justice voice in the Church, Fiorenza spoke with Catholic Program Director John Gehring about the ways Pope Francis is setting a new tone and shaking up the Catholic conversation.
In your opinion, what has been the most important change Pope Francis has brought to the Church and why are most people responding to him so positively?
The Pope seems to want a Church that is inclusive and out in the world, a Church going to the peripheries, a Church that is involved in the truly human problems that are affecting so many, especially the problems of poverty. He is also demonstrating a desire to enter into dialogue with an open spirit, not only among Catholics, but all people of goodwill who want the world to be more fair and just and peaceful. And even with those who may be our opponents he wants to find points where we can agree. Even when we don’t agree we should show respect and dignity. Bishops have a lot to learn from him, especially his lifestyle. He has made a deliberate effort to distance himself from the imperial court of Rome. Bishops have to take a close look at ourselves to see how we can live more simply.
Pope Francis has faced criticism from some Catholic conservatives. The editor of First Things wrote that the Pope’s “naïve” and “undisciplined” rhetoric has been “used to beat up on faithful Catholics.” Bishop Tobin of Providence, RI expressed reservations that the Pope was not talking more about abortion. Archbishop Chaput of Philadelphia acknowledged in an interview with the National Catholic Reporter that “the right wing of the church”…“generally have not been really happy about his (Francis’) election.” Why do you think he has faced this resistance?
The Pope’s very clear teaching condemning the “economy of exclusion” and the structures of sin that are involved strikes at the heart of some conservative Catholics who are so wedded to the unfettered free market that they think the Pope’s talk is naïve. Well, the Pope sees it as realistic. The poor of the world who suffer from that type of economic philosophy see it as realistic. The Pope is on a steady course. He is not naïve. He knows what he is doing.
Pope Francis makes it clear that he is opposed to abortion, but that can’t be the only thing we talk about. What he said early on in his papacy struck the heart of people who make abortion the whole agenda. The Pope is saying we have to oppose abortion but there must be a broader agenda. Some pro-life advocates don’t like to hear that and think if you take the focus off abortion you weaken your position. The Pope is saying you weaken your pro-life position when you don’t take a broader view of issues that attack human life. Some people think there are only sins that are intrinsic evil, but the Pope is saying the economy has built in a structure that strongly impacts against the humanity of people and that is an evil too. Some pro-lifers don’t want to hear intrinsic evil entering into the conversation when it comes to the economy. By broadening the focus, he is strengthening our preaching against abortion.
As someone who is a leading voice in the Church on economic justice issues, do you think we will see a more robust emphasis on economic justice from the U.S. hierarchy because of Pope Francis?
If you take the “Gospel of Joy” (the Pope’s Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium) as guidance, I can’t help but think that will cause the bishops of this country to be more sensitive to the problems of the poor than they have been. That will take a while because there is an element in the church… some of the bishops of my time see these things more clearly than some of the new bishops who have come along in recent decades. But I’m hopeful that with Pope Francis they will broaden their views about the many ways human life are under attack.
Bishop McElroy of San Francisco has written in America magazine that the “substance and methodology of Pope Francis’ teachings on the rights of the poor have enormous implications for the culture and politics of the United States and for the church in this country…These teachings demand a transformation of the existing Catholic political conversation in our nation.” Do you agree? Talk about what this “transformation” might look like?
I agree completely with him. He is a young bishop but a bright light in the conference, and we would do well to listen more carefully to what he is saying. There has been discussion about some limited revision of Faithful Citizenship. (the U.S. bishops’ political responsibility statement.) The last time it didn’t include enough about what Pope Benedict said about economic justice in Caritas in Veritate. Hopefully, we will begin to see in Faithful Citizenship more emphasis on what Francis is saying about the poor. That will be a sign of how well Francis’ influence is taking root among the bishops of the United States.
Over the past several decades, the late Cardinal Bernardin’s vision of a Church that is known for “a consistent ethic of life” seems to have diminished some as U.S. church leaders put greater emphasis on fighting issues like civil same-sex marriage. Research from scholars like Robert Putnam of Harvard University and others shows that young Christians have left organized religion in part because of the perception that Church leaders are too cozy with a narrow conservative political agenda. Do you see this as a challenge for U.S. Catholic bishops?
I think there is truth in that perspective. A lot of young people are far more attracted when they see the Church opposing the death penalty, for example, where we have seen great progress and much more so than in my generation. I also think when young people see we are in the streets working with the poor I think that will make a difference.
How is Pope Francis different from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and the late Pope John Paul II?
I think he has a broader view. He comes from Latin America and has seen first hand the effects of globalization on his own people.
There is a lot of anticipation for the October Synod at the Vatican. Do you think there will be changes regarding the availability of Sacraments for divorced and remarried Catholics?
We should be guided by the spirit of the Gospel in a way that upholds the dignity or marriage. Hopefully, there will be a consideration of ways to have a path that includes these people (divorced and remarried) in the life of the Church but in a way that is not in conflict with the Church’s teachings on marriage.
Pope Francis has fully embraced the teachings of the Second Vatican Council for the laity to take an active role in Church life. What role do you see the laity playing in implementing the Francis agenda?
I hope they will be up front and strong about implementing that agenda in their parishes and dioceses. The “Gospel of Joy” can be their diocesan plan. If that becomes the starting point I think lay people will make a very positive contribution.
Some Catholics have expressed disappointment that Pope Francis has allowed the oversight of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious to continue. Are you hopeful for a positive resolution in that tense situation between Rome and women religious?
I think if Pope Francis had stopped the process it would have been perceived as him disagreeing with Benedict so I’m not really surprised the oversight (of LCWR) continued. But my hope is there is much more dialogue going on, and I hope they have a chance to meet with Pope Francis. Hopefully, there will be more voices coming forward among bishops who want to get this issue resolved. The Church has grown and been strengthened in this country because of women religious. They have been doing what Pope Francis has been talking about in the streets of the world, in the prisons. They have done that far more effectively than anyone else in the church.
As someone who has been a Church leader for many years you can take the long view. Are you hopeful about the future of the Church?
I am hopeful as long as we continue to support what Pope Francis is doing and what he is trying to achieve. We have to take what he is saying seriously. We need bishops who reflect his style, and lay people have to be involved so that this Francis era is not just a passing moment but salt and light for our church for many years to come.
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As the immigration reform debate reaches a critical moment, 30 prominent Catholic leaders have released a letter calling on House Speaker John Boehner and other members of Congress to pass comprehensive reform that protects immigrant families and includes a path to citizenship. Signers include heads of religious orders, presidents of Catholic universities, priests, women religious and lay people from across the country.
The letter, organized by Faith in Public Life, references the teachings of Boehner’s Catholic faith about justice for immigrants, and is running as a full-page ad in Thursday’s edition of Politico. Also on Thursday, bishops who serve on the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) Committee on Migration are gathering on Capitol Hill to hold a mass urging lawmakers to pass legislation that would provide a path to citizenship for all aspiring Americans.
Bishops participating include Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami; Bishop Elizondo; Bishop John Wester of Salt Lake City; Bishop Oscar Cantú of Las Cruces, New Mexico; and Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, Arizona.
It’s outrageous that Boehner and other House leaders have procrastinated and obstructed for so long while immigrant families are broken apart, but faith leaders are not going to give up until reform becomes a reality.
The text of the letter and list of signers is below:
Dear Speaker Boehner,
We write to you as fellow Catholics with heavy hearts and a profound sense of urgency. As the House of Representatives still delays passing comprehensive immigration reform, mothers are torn apart from children, migrants are dying in the desert and our nation is weakened.
Mr. Speaker, how can we fail to act?
Legislative obstruction in the face of preventable suffering and death is not only a failure of leadership. It is immoral and shameful. The eyes of our God — who hungers for justice and commands us to welcome the stranger and bind the wounds of those left by the side of the road — are on us.
Are we deaf to the cries of families and aspiring Americans separated by a broken system?
We stand with U.S. Catholic bishops who will celebrate Mass on Capitol Hill this week, and who come once again to advocate for humane and practical immigration reform.
Will you pray with us that the House of Representatives puts aside partisanship and passes comprehensive reform?
Pope Francis reminds us that a “globalization of indifference” prevents us from seeing that every migrant, regardless of status, has inherent human dignity. As Catholics who share your commitment to the sanctity of life in the womb, we must not be complicit in the suffering of migrants dying in the shadows. Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, who has called justice for immigrants a “pro-life” issue, spoke during a Mass on the U.S.-Mexico border last month of the “unmarked graves of thousands who die alone and nameless.”
Is our nation so callous that we fail to weep for those nameless lost? We pray that you and your colleagues in the House have the moral courage to show real leadership and act.
Rev. Larry Snyder
Catholic Charities USA
Rev. Thomas H. Smolich, S.J.
Trinity Washington University
Rev. Daniel Groody, CSC
Director of Immigration Initiatives, Institute for Latino Studies
University of Notre Dame
Rev. Stephen A. Privett, S.J.
University of San Francisco
Donna M. Carroll
Rev. Kevin Wildes, S.J.
Loyola University New Orleans
Rev. Clete Kiley
Director for Immigration Policy
Rev. Charles Currie, S.J.
Rev. Drew Christiansen, S.J.
Distinguished Professor of Ethics & Global Development
Rev. Michael U. Pucke
St. Julie Billiart Parish
Hamilton County, Ohio
Rev. Anthony Kutcher
National Federation of Priests’ Councils
Sr. Simone Campbell, SSS
NETWORK, A Catholic Social Justice Lobby
Stephen F. Schneck
Director, Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies
The Catholic University of America
Sr. Sally Duffy, SC
SC Ministry Foundation, Cincinnati, Ohio
Moya K. Dittmeier
Conference for Mercy Higher Education
Rev. Leonir Chiarello, C.S.
Scalabrini International Migration Network
Center for Migration Studies of New York
Francis X. Doyle
Associate General Secretary (retired)
U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops
Rev. Fred Kammer, S.J.
Director, Jesuit Social Research Institute
Loyola University New Orleans
Rev. John Baumann, S.J.
PICO National Network
Christopher G. Kerr
Ignatian Solidarity Network
Franciscan Action Network
Sr. Pat McDermott, RSM
Institute of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas
Sr. Carol Zinn, SSJ
Leadership Conference of Women Religious
Sr. Patricia Chappell
Pax Christi USA
Francis J. Butler
Drexel Philanthropic Advisors
Catholic Program Director
Faith in Public Life
Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns
Christopher J. Hale
Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good
Rev. Sean Carroll, S.J.
Kino Border Initiative
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Since 1996, low-income Missourians with a past drug-related felony conviction have been barred for life from eligibility for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), a crucial lifeline that helps struggling families put food on the table.
While most states have modified or removed their lifetime SNAP bans in recent years, Missouri has kept theirs in place—until now.
After faith groups like Metropolitan Congregations United and Metro Organization for Racial and Economic Equity (affiliate organizations of Gamaliel) engaged the faith community to end this cruel policy, the Missouri legislature recently passed a bill by overwhelming margins that would make people who have served their time eligible for nutrition assistance again if they have completed a substance abuse program or been ruled to not need such treatment.
Rolling back wrongheaded “tough on crime” policies that grew out of the war on drugs isn’t just smart criminal-justice policy, it’s critical to ensuring that former offenders have a chance to rebuild their lives and support their families.
The bill is now on Gov. Jay Nixon’s desk, and he is expected to sign it in the coming weeks, giving at-risk individuals and their families the food they deserve.
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