Insurance Coverage: A Litmus Test for Institutional Catholic Communities

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Sep 08, 2014

The University of Notre Dame, which had been fighting the HHS Mandate to provide contraceptive insurance in student health-care programs, has now reversed field. Despite having claimed that such coverage would constitute scandal, the University now intends to offer it. At least two observations are in order.

The first concerns the nature of scandal. Within Catholic communities today, from parishes to universities, moral decisions are too often influenced by the desire to avoid upheaval. Thus a pastor might choose not to preach against contraception or same-sex marriage because he knows this will be upsetting to many, or a university president might permit an LGBT club to operate with student fees because a prohibition would trigger significant discontent among faculty and students. It is often argued that to precipitate such reactions is to “cause scandal”.

But the essence of scandal is not that it upsets people but that it is a participation in evil which is at once an abuse of moral authority and an inducement to sin. For example, a parent who acts against the truth in the family, by either his words or his actions, scandalizes his children even if they are not well-formed enough to be upset. This is because he acts as an unreliable guide in general and fosters some sin in particular. The same applies to all of us in that we all have at least some moral influence over others, but especially to those in acknowledged positions of moral authority, such as teachers, pastors, administrators, policemen, politicians and judges.

Expressing the truth may well upset people. In their passion they may reject not only our message but our moral authority. This happened to Our Lord Himself. But this can never constitute scandal in the true sense of the term, for scandal depends for its evil on a betrayal of the true and the good in an abuse of trust. It is not a negative response to the good that constitutes scandal but an intrinsic abuse of moral authority which, through commission or omission, encourages another to sin.

“Temptations to sin are sure to come,” said Our Lord, “but woe to him by whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung round his neck and he were cast into the sea, than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin” (Lk 17:1-2). We should take to heart his very next words: “Take heed to yourselves; if your brother sins, rebuke him” (17:3). Such a rebuke is, then, the opposite of scandal, no matter how much it may upset our brother.

A Test for Spiritual Health

In any community that has been allowed to slip spiritually, affirmation of the truth and implementation of the good will create considerable outcry and distress. This is an inevitable consequence of taking back lost ground. But such situations can reveal the relative health of a community to those who bear responsibility for its leadership.

For example, in some Catholic universities the effort on the part of administrators to eliminate coverage for contraception has met with harsh resistance from faculty and staff. Indeed, in one of the more egregious examples, at a Jesuit university, the faculty senate even overruled a university president when he moved to strike abortion coverage from the health plan. These incidents tell us much about the “Catholicity” of the institutions in question. (They also serve as a simple concrete test of whether the Church’s mandate to Catholic universities in Ex Corde Ecclesiae has been successfully implemented over the past quarter-century.)

The same is true in a parish. If a CCD teacher clearly articulates Catholic teaching on marriage, for example, or if a junior priest does so from the pulpit, and this precipitates a public outcry, then there is a great deal of moral and spiritual work to be done! How much past scandal must there have been in such communities if the people expected to hear anything less than the full truth! After all, the real scandal in such cases lies in silent acquiescence with evil, not in an “upsetting” effort to inculcate truth, combat sin, and foster virtue. Our Lord was not afraid to lose followers by affirming the truth (see, for example, His instructions on the Eucharist in the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel).

Nothing is easier or more misleading than to single out particular points of praise for any community. In the very nature of things, every human community will cherish some goods. But we focus on a random selection at our peril, for the question of spiritual and moral health nearly always hinges on how a community differs from the cultural norm. In Catholic parishes, dioceses, religious communities, social services, charities and clubs in any culture, the neuralgic points will most often be found where common cultural practice and Catholic teaching most obviously part company. In the modern world, these points lie along the fault line of human sexuality.

We have to realize there is no particular virtue in loving our friends or acting as our friends do. As Our Lord said, “even sinners do the same” (Lk 6:32-33). No, the test of Christianity has always been found in how we deal with those aspects of the true and the good which are contradicted within our own communities. Therefore, a starting point for the assessment of spiritual and moral health is to see whether particular Catholic communities are capable of recognizing the inversions of naughty and nice which plague our larger secular culture.

Insurance coverage for contraception, sterilization and abortion is a massive inversion of naughty and nice. As such it provides a simple litmus test for Catholic identity. In the United States, at least, most Catholic entitities are facing the issue at this very moment. Each response will be a telling indicator of spiritual health. 

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: the.dymeks9646 - Sep. 09, 2014 7:44 AM ET USA

    Perhaps the preferential option for the poor can take on a new meaning here. If our church leaders are indeed rich with the knowledge of the truth, then their preference should be to proclaim it to the poor, rather than preferring to avoid conflict within their entitled circles. The faculty and students at Notre Dame should surely understand that the real audience here is not them.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Sep. 08, 2014 9:38 PM ET USA

    I think I can sum it up more succinctly..., Notre Dame is continuing its downward spiral... Damning itself and the students who come to it for an allegedly "catholic" education.