The Trouble With Catholic Bishops

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A Troublesome Servant

by Ryan McMaken

Clearly, it is not by harshness or by severity, or by overbearing methods that social evils are removed. It is by education rather than by formal commands, by persuasion rather than by threats.

~ Saint Augustine

We could all learn a lesson from the New York State bishops. Several Catholic and Baptist organizations are suing New York State over the "Women’s Health and Wellness Act" because it mandates that all employers, including religious organizations like Catholic hospitals and Catholic nursing homes, provide coverage for contraception to their employees through their health programs. The New York Catholic bishops’ lobbying arm, the New York Catholic Conference, one of the parties involved in the suit, is claiming that the Women’s Health and Wellness Act is unconstitutional and is in violation of the First Amendment since it infringes on a religious organization’s right to conduct business in a fashion consistent with its own religious beliefs. In essence, according to the plaintiffs, the Constitution’s stipulation (as currently understood by some of the lawyers in black robes) that there shall be "no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof" is being disregarded. If this were all there were to the matter, all I would be able to say to the plaintiffs would be "What else is new?" and "Good luck," but this is not all.

The parties in the suit make it clear that they "do not want the entire law scrapped. They support mandatory coverage for mammograms, Pap smears, and bone density screenings for osteoporosis, which are also included in the law." In other words, the bishops have no problem with forcing unfunded insurance mandates on everybody else, they just want appropriate exemptions for their own organizations.

The Bishops, through their Catholic Conferences in various states have long been pushing for unfunded insurance mandates in the name of Catholic Social Teaching (a concept that does not necessarily translate into active political lobbying), presumably under the portions of the teaching that involve what is called "options for the poor." Now, compassion for the poor is always a good thing (in spite of some Social Darwinist screeching to the contrary), but if the bishops think that they are bringing more and better health care to people through this route, they should examine the fruits of such policies.

For example, in recent decades unfunded insurance mandates have become increasingly popular as over 1,500 such mandates have passed through state legislatures. Much of this is due to the fact that such legislation is an easy way for state legislatures to buy votes from their constituents without actually spending any money. One might ask how anyone could be opposed to coverage for mammograms, pap smears, etc., but the reality of mandating such procedures is that it simply increases the costs of paying for any coverage at all. Also, one should not be deluded into thinking that such mandates apply to "essential" procedures. Sperm bank deposits, in vitro fertilization, and even wigs for cancer patients are all procedures that must be covered by insurance companies under various state laws. The cost of buying even basic insurance coverage has thus predictably skyrocketed. The average annual premium in California, a state with relatively few unfunded mandates, is $1,538 for a single policyholder. The cost in New York State, on the other hand, where laws like the Women’s Health and Wellness Act are acclaimed, is $3,589. Is this what the New York Catholic Conference defines as compassion for the poor? The result of mandating every procedure under the sun is that many people will find themselves without coverage at all. Small businesses especially, will be unable to provide coverage in a state like New York where costs of providing health plans to employees are no less than astronomical.

Additionally, the contraception mandate, that the bishops have such a problem with, will still apply to private companies even if the suing religious groups get their exemption. How many Catholic merchants will then be forced to pay for contraception through their group plans? How many Catholic employees and policyholders will have to pay for others to receive insured contraception? Why is it alright for New York State to mandate these people to act against their consciences, but it is unacceptable that the managers of religious hospitals should be made to do it?

The lesson to be learned here is that if you play with fire, you’ll get burned. For decades, the Church (and many other religious organizations) have engaged in active lobbying efforts to increase the role of government in the lives of Americans through the misnamed "affordable" housing programs, healthcare mandates, and various forms of welfare assistance. Apparently, nobody stopped to think that a government that continually grows in power might someday outgrow its handlers (assuming that the handlers ever had control in the first place). Of course, this is not to imply that the Church has no right to self-preservation through defensive lobbying. Any large organization that doesn’t have a lobbyist can be sure that its political enemies will have plenty of them (this is a lesson Microsoft is not likely to soon forget). Indeed, attempts by government to clamp down on both individual and institutional religious freedoms are far more frequent than most people assume. Nevertheless, it seems that the Church has been all too naïve in its hope that even when government has great power over industries where the Church has been vocally pro-government like health care, that the Church will somehow be exempt from the abuses of power that are sure to result.

The worst part is that through their acceptance of the interest group game, they have conceded (even if they don’t know it) that the morality of government really does come down to who can swing the most votes or who can make the most credible threats against legislators. The social scientist Theodore Lowi wrote years ago that democracies tend to degenerate into a situation where the rule of law becomes an amoral contest between the organized and the unorganized. In other words, highly organized interests with highly paid lobbyists will be represented in government and legislation. Unorganized interests without lobbyists like, say, the average citizen, will not be represented. Under such a regime, limitations on serving the organized interests (like the Constitution) go right out the window. When lobbyists for religious organizations decide to play ball in such an atmosphere, how can they claim immunity on moral grounds? Is there some Commandment that makes it okay for governments to harass dry cleaners but not bishops? One could trot out the First Amendment, but a constitutional amendment is a pretty weak reed on which to hang a religious principle.

It is not at all a sure thing that the Baptists and Catholics bringing this suit will win. Should they lose, the Church will be forced to act against its own doctrines, and we will all ask from where this arbitrary power came. We will be forced to conclude that the power came from our own willingness to concede the care of the poor and our own power as individuals to government bureaucrats. The Church is by no means the only organization to have fallen victim to this miscalculation, but should they lose on this issue, they will surely not be the last to foolishly put their trust in supporting a power that would eventually abandon them. At such times, the words of George Washington are more appropriate than ever: “Government is not reason, it is not eloquence, it is force. Like fire, it is a troublesome servant and a fearful master."

Ryan McMaken [send him mail] is editor of the Western Mercury.

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