Margaret O’Brien Steinfels’s critique of the U.S. Catholic bishops’ refusal to accept the various forms of accommodation in the Department of Health and Human Services contraception-coverage mandate ignores a key point (“A Losing Strategy,” May 4). The incredibly narrow definition of a “religious employer,” which Steinfels herself criticizes, remains exactly as it always has been. What the Obama administration now suggests in its most recent proposed rule is that those institutions—other than houses of worship—that have a religious objection will be allowed to talk as though they are a religious employer, yet through their health plans they will have to act exactly like an atheist organization. Every employee of such organizations will automatically have to accept coverage for contraception, sterilization, and abortifacient drugs—and they must allow their teenage daughters to have this coverage as well, with “confidentiality”—whether the employee wants such coverage or not. The organizations can claim that they did not do this or agree to it, but the effect will be the same. Their decisions about benefits for their own employees will simply be taken away from them and given to others, potentially including hostile third parties like Planned Parenthood in the case of self-insured plans. Protecting a religious organization from being forced to act immorally, by depriving it of the ability to act at all, is no way to serve religious freedom. How could anyone rest easy with the government’s enshrining into law a definition of religious ministry so narrow as to exclude the work of the Good Samaritan, the model of caring for the stranger for the sole reason that the stranger was in need?
Mary Ann Walsh, RSM
The writer is director of media relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The Author Replies
I do not rest easy with the HHS mandate’s definition of religious ministry. But the complexities of providing religious exemptions from generally applicable laws or from funding actions that one finds morally objectionable are not usefully addressed by overheated rhetoric that dwells on protecting teenage daughters, fending off Planned Parenthood, and the equation of nonreligious organizations with “atheist” ones. Contrary to Sr. Walsh’s claim, the Obama administration has not proposed to force employees of accommodated religious institutions to accept contraception coverage. The idea is that such employees will be offered the coverage, which they are free to reject. Walsh’s letter suggests why the bishops’ claims to be negotiating with the government seem unconvincing: Is it a negotiation they want or a capitulation?
My question, as I hinted in the final sentence of my column: Do they know what they’re doing? I have my doubts.
Margaret O’Brien Steinfels
The More Things Change…
I was moved by the article “¿Vale la Pena?” (Joseph Sorrentino, April 20) and not at all surprised to see that the plight of farmworkers has not changed very much since the days when Cesar Chavez took up this cause. The simple irony continues to be that the people who work so hard to pick beautiful, nutritious produce for our tables are unable to afford the same for their own families.
Cathleen Kaveny’s column “Catholic Kosher” (June 1) is excellent. The morality-as-identity-politics phenomenon did not start with Archbishop William Lori’s comparison of the contraception mandate with forcing a kosher deli to serve ham sandwiches. Neither did it start over contraception. If memory serves, during the 1984 feud between Gov. Mario Cuomo and Cardinal John O’Connor of New York, Cuomo said he was personally opposed to abortion because he was Catholic, not because it was immoral. Likewise, when O’Connor criticized him, it was not primarily because Cuomo was defending an evil, but because he was violating Catholic teaching. Being “prolife” is often treated as a marker of Catholic identity rather than a genuine commitment to the unborn. Not, I suspect, to the same extent that natural family planning can be, but nonetheless in ways that Aquinas never would have been able to recognize. I also find it ironic that as more and more on the left begin to see the problems with many forms of identity politics—in some ways accepting a decades-old conservative argument—it is being utilized more and more adamantly on the right.
None of the Above
Regarding “Cup or Chalice?” (John R. Donahue, June 1): “Chalice” may not be the right word, but “cup” isn’t either. To contemporary ears, “cup” does not suggest wine: it suggests coffee or tea and a vessel with a handle. “Glass,” which we would usually use for a wine vessel, won’t do either, since we are not recalling an event at which a glass vessel was used. “Chalice” does sound too grand, but it may actually fit the Passover setting better. I don’t know if first-century Jews used special vessels for the cups of wine at Passover, but Jews of succeeding centuries certainly have.
We simply do not have an English word that is a perfect substitute for the Greek word. The new translator’s choice may not have been the best, but it avoids problems that “cup” presents.
Brian Abel Ragen
Saint Louis, Mo.
[See Letters, July 13, 2012, for a response to this letter.]