Catholic Culture Liturgical Living
Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

Catholic institutions cleared the path for the latest assault on religious freedom

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jun 24, 2016

As a result of the latest federal ruling against religious freedom—and pending the result of what seems an inevitable court challenge— Catholic churches in California are now required to provide abortion coverage in their employees’ health-insurance programs. The US Catholic bishops are rightly outraged. It's easy to blame the Obama administration, which has been so consistently hostile to the claims of religious freedom. But probe a little deeper, and you realize that the American Catholic bishops themselves deserve a goodly part of the blame, for a failure to implement a clear Vatican directive 25 years ago.

This week’s ruling from the Obama administration comes on a complaint lodged by the Catholic bishops of California, along with religious-freedom activist groups, against a ruling by California regulators. That ruling, issued in 2014, stipulated that health-care insurers must include abortion coverage. Predictably, the Obama administration sided with the abortion industry; it always does.

But take a closer look at the 2014 decision by California regulators. Why did the Department of Managed Care issue any ruling at all on the topic? A Los Angeles Times story answers that question: “The issue arose when faculty members at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and Santa Clara University objected to this limitation [the absence of abortion coverage] in their insurance plans.”

Notice that both Loyola Marymount and Santa Clara are Catholic universities; both are Jesuit institutions, in fact. And notice that the call for abortion coverage came from “faculty members”—not janitors or cafeteria workers, but professionals hired to instruct students at these Catholic schools. Finally, notice that neither of the schools balked at providing abortion coverage; it was left to the California bishops to lodge a protest.

Why are professors at Catholic universities demanding abortion coverage in their health-insurance plans? Didn’t they realize, when they joined the faculties of these religious institutions, that they were under some obligation to promote the schools’ Catholic mission—or, at a bare minimum, not to fight against that mission? Why hadn’t the schools made it clear to their faculty members that they were expected to respect the institutions’ Catholic identity? Why hadn’t the universities taken a stand, and fought against the state regulators who undermined that distinctive Catholic identity?

The sad truth, in answer to all those questions, is that Loyola Marymount and Santa Clara are not distinctively Catholic institutions, and do not serve an evangelizing mission. And that fact, in turn, points toward the failure of the American hierarchy to ensure that Catholic colleges and universities are truly Catholic.

In 1990, St. John Paul II issued his apostolic constitution on Catholic universities, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, underlying the importance of a fully Catholic academic tradition. Among the points stressed in that document were these:

  • Every Catholic University is to make known its Catholic identity, either in a mission statement or in some other appropriate public document, unless authorized otherwise by the competent ecclesiastical authority. The University, particularly through its structure and its regulations, is to provide means which will guarantee the expression and the preservation of this identity….
  • Catholic teaching and discipline are to influence all university activities, while the freedom of conscience of each person is to be fully respected.
  • All professors must exhibit not only competence and good character but respect for Catholic doctrine.

After nine long years of inconclusive discussions about the papal document, the US bishops finally announced in November 1999 a plan for “The Application of Ex Code Ecclesiae for the United States." The bishops’ document confirmed that Catholic universities should uphold their religious identity, and that faculty members must respect Catholic doctrine. Sadly, those standards, which are so clear on paper, have been routinely ignored in practice. So it has become commonplace to find avowed enemies of Church teachings on the faculties of Catholic schools, and rare—especially at the largest and most prestigious Catholic universities—to find administrators willing to fight to maintain their institutions’ Catholic identity.

Thus it may be shock, but it should not be a surprise, that California’s Department of Managed Care did not see it as a violation of religious freedom when they required Catholic universities to provide abortion coverage in their health-care plans. The schools themselves had hired teachers who supported legal abortion, and wanted abortion coverage in their benefits packages. The California bishops, the guardians of the Church’s mission, had not rebuked the schools for hiring these professors, or stripped the institutions of their Catholic identities. The universities themselves had meekly acquiesced to the regulators’ demands.

The “culture of death” has been steadily pushing, and encountering little or no organized resistance from the largest Catholic universities. Administrators and the bishops who theoretically watch over them have excused their inaction with appeals to religious freedom, and claims that they cannot force the consciences of dissident scholars. Now, with one final push—and an active assist from within the institutions—the state has arranged to force the conscience of all Catholics.

This federal ruling—so disastrous, so unjust, but so sadly predictable—was issued just as the US bishops began their annual Fortnight for Freedom. “Hold firm, stand fast, and insist upon what belongs to you by right as Catholics,” the bishops’ statement proclaims. Yes, and one of the things that belongs to us by right as Catholics is the existence of authentically Catholic universities, which serve the mission of the Church and promote her teachings.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

Sound Off! supporters weigh in.

All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a current donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!

  • Posted by: Thomas429 - Jun. 28, 2016 7:07 PM ET USA

    Spot on! Another problem is that "Catholic" institutions often feed at the federal trough. The folks that pay the piper get to call the tune.

  • Posted by: dmva9806 - Jun. 25, 2016 12:02 PM ET USA

    Shrink, what is there wonder about? The assembled bishops will never "feel comfortable" (per Cardinal McCarrick) in heading off incipient misbehavior nor even vigorously condemning practical apostasy. The only "cure" for rogue "Catholic" institutions is that they will gradually lose all semblance of Catholicity and become merely secular like such formerly Protestant institutions as Harvard and Yale.

  • Posted by: WNS3234 - Jun. 24, 2016 11:30 PM ET USA

    England had a similar experience with civil authority when Henry Tudor was at the helm. Roman legal protocols were incrementally applied to Christians & Christian Church into the 4th Century. Fisher, More, Lawrence, Sixtus, et al. are witnesses to the response defiance evokes from civil authority set to do something. This is a harrowing situation that will force great changes no matter what response is given by the Bishops of California. Interdiction anyone?

  • Posted by: james-w-anderson8230 - Jun. 24, 2016 6:39 PM ET USA

    The Bishops routinely refuse to protect the Eucharist from desecration by allowing prominent politicians who aid and abet abortion to receive the Eucharist. They even punish the occasional priest who tries to protect the Eucharist. Why should the Bishops care about schools?

  • Posted by: shrink - Jun. 24, 2016 3:22 PM ET USA

    I wonder if the bishops are more interested in padding the lifestyles of gay clergy than they are in protecting your rank&file laity. Rewind 50 years, and thank Theodore Cardinal McCarrick (to intimates, "Uncle Ted") for his contribution; he and Ted Hesburgh spearheaded the LandO'Lake declaration in the 1960s, which gave entree to the wholesale sell out of Catholic higher education. Ex Corde came out 25 years later in response. US Bishops were mute in the 1960s, 1990s, and now. One does wonder.