The New York Times carried an article last week on the dispute that is emerging between Democrats in Congress and the White House over Obama’s consideration of the Catholic bishops’ appeal to widen the religious health care exemption to make it possible for non-ecclesial, religiously affiliated institutions (like Notre Dame) to deny contraception coverage to its employees. In the article, the bishops are quoted making their case as follows:
Under the government’s narrow criteria, the bishops said, “even the ministry of Jesus and the early Christian Church would not qualify as ‘religious,’ because they did not confine their ministry to their co-religionists.” Moreover, the bishops said, “the exemption is directly at odds with the parable of the Good Samaritan, in which Jesus teaches concern and assistance for those in need, regardless of faith differences.”
First of all, the issue is not over how and to whom religiously affiliated institutions minister, but it is about who is doing the ministering. If non-Catholics are being employed to teach or doctor in a religiously affiliated institution, why should they be denied coverage for services that have been deemed medically necessary by a board of medical experts for all citizens? If the bishops are so scared of being defined out of their “religion” by the state, maybe they should divest themselves of “secular” ministry completely.
Secondly, the story of the Good Samaritan is about providing for those in physical need regardless of the religious or ethnic identity of either the victim or the minister. It seems to me that it is precisely this kind of ministry that health care legislation is aimed at supporting. It is the bishops who are asking for the right to walk by those in need, if they have deemed that their needs are not really needs at all. It is the bishops who are the “bad” Samaritans in this parable by opting out of their obligations as members of a pluralistic society.
Given that claiming exemption from “secular” authority hasn’t worked out too well for them in the past, I’m not so sure the bishops really want to spend their dwindling moral capital trying to do the same now.