AVON – A full house of approximately 300 people filled the hall at the Church of St. Ann on Nov. 10 for “A Forum: The Catholic Church in the Public Square.” It was designed to discuss issues of religious freedom, rights of conscience and the First Amendment.
Written questions from the audience were posed to panelists Michael C. Culhane, executive director of the Connecticut Catholic Conference, and Jim Vicevich, a WTIC-AM radio talk show host, Roman Catholic and avowed Libertarian. Chris Keating, capitol bureau chief of the Hartford Courant, served as moderator.
When it comes to government actions that affect religion, “this is a very complex issue,” Mr. Vicevich said. “It’s not just the Catholic Church that is involved.”
Many of the questions dealt with the federal Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. It contains provisions that mandate services the Church opposes, such as birth control and what are called abortive agents.
One of the questions, Mr. Vicevich said, is can this mandate “be extended to private corporations run by deeply religious people? It’s not just the Church that’s under attack here.”
He predicts a long legal battle as various challenges to the ACA go before the U.S. Supreme Court.
“The ACA gives to a religious employer an exemption” that contains four criteria, Mr. Culhane said. “January 1 is when these mandates will take effect for us.”
Among the criteria is that most of the employees and most of the people served by that religious employer must be of its specific religion. This creates a problem for Catholic schools and charitable organizations that have a history of serving people in need, regardless of whether they are Catholic or not.
The Archdiocese of Boston, for example, ceased offering adoption services because a provision of the federal law requires that same-sex couples be eligible to adopt a child. That mandate flies in the face of Church teaching.
“The administration has a problem on its hands” with what he labeled an “unenforceable mandate” because cardinals, bishops and priests have publicly stated that they will not comply with these restrictions, Mr. Vicevich said. He questioned whether the federal government really wants to throw clergy into jail for following their religious beliefs.
“The Church has made its position clear,” he added.
Mr. Culhane spoke of all the glitches that have arisen with the implementation of the ACA and said, “I’m perplexed with how this is going to end.” He added that the Church has not taken a stand on the implementation but is focusing its efforts on the mandates that conflict with the Catholic faith.
Mr. Vicevich also said that inner-city Catholic schools are the only hope for a better life for many poor children. These schools have long opened their doors to students of all races, faiths and cultures. The federal mandate, as it now stands, would remove the religious exemption from those schools because of that.
Mr. Culhane said that, apart from the mandates that affect freedom of religion in this law, the Church supports the concept because it would benefit the poor. “Since 1919, the Catholic bishops have supported universal health care,” he said.
He also noted that the ACA is not as simplistic as some people would like to believe. “Its complexity is beyond belief. The ACA is over 2,600 pages,” said Mr. Culhane.
In response to another question, he said Connecticut consumers can ask their health insurance carriers to opt out of specific provisions of their policies that they object to on religious grounds.
Another questioner wanted to know about the “Catholic vote.” Mr. Culhane said there are 381 parishes in Connecticut and it’s not that simple. Individual Catholics have different political philosophies. Mr. Vicevich took it a step further.
“I don’t think there is any such thing as a Catholic vote. There hasn’t been for a long time,” he said.
He added that, even within parishes, not everyone agrees with official Catholic doctrine and teaching. There are Catholics who are pro-choice even though the Church is passionately pro-life.
He suggested that the “Catholic vote” is simply a creation of the media. He believes that “people vote according to their self-interest,” based upon their social and economic status.
He did agree that there are single-issue voters and “there are single-issue Christians who will not vote for someone who is pro-life” because they see that stance as an attack on women.
In reality, he said, there are few pro-life candidates to be found in either political party anywhere in New England, and they tend to skirt the subject because they know they will face heavy political opposition.
“You can’t run for office today if you’re pro-life because immediately you’re demonized,” Mr. Vicevich said. “You won’t get elected.”Yet many public opinion polls indicate that the majority of Americans are pro-life.
He named some avid pro-life candidates serving in elected office on the national level, but added that they did not call much attention to that position during their campaigns.
He then offered an opinion that he said many in the room might find upsetting, the belief that abortion is still wrong even if the woman was impregnated by an act of incest or sexual assault. What did that unborn baby do to deserve such a fate? Doesn’t it have the same right to life as any other unborn child?
Mr. Vicevich questioned whether a person can profess to be a true Catholic while refusing to accept the doctrine on the right to life. If that doesn’t work for you, then find another church, or “club,” as he called it.
“If you don’t want to be a Catholic, don’t bring everyone else down with you. Please don’t go out there and tell people you’re Catholic when you’re not. Catholics believe that life begins at conception. They have for 2,000 years,” he said.
“If you changed the rules for every generation it would be a mishmosh right now.”
Another questioner asked how people can restore a sense of outrage over government intrusions on religion and how Catholics can stop those on the political left who favor such intrusions from controlling the debate.
“I don’t think the left controls the debate. If they do, it’s because you let them,” said Mr. Vicevich.
Mr. Culhane added that “it would be nice if we could have a flame or two in our bellies on some of these issues.”
Why doesn’t the Church officially endorse political candidates who follow Catholic principles?
The simple answer, said Mr. Culhane, is that it is prevented from doing so by Internal Revenue Services rules for tax-exempt organizations as well as the policies of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. The Church is allowed to conduct legislative surveys and hold candidate forums.
The forum was co-sponsored by the Defenders of the Faith Ministry at St. Ann as well as two Simsbury parishes, St. Catherine of Siena and St. Mary.