health care

Hot words in top 2012 religion stories

'Twas the Sunday night before the election and the Rev. Robert Jeffress was offering a message that, from his point of view, was both shocking and rather nuanced. His bottom line: If Barack Obama won a second White House term, this would be another sign that the reign of the Antichrist is near.

Inquiring minds wanted to know: Was the leader of the highly symbolic First Baptist Church of Dallas suggesting the president was truly You Know Anti-who?

"I am not saying that President Obama is the Antichrist, I am not saying that at all," said Jeffress, who previously made headlines during a national rally of conservative politicos by calling Mormonism a "theological cult."

"What I am saying is this: the course he is choosing to lead our nation is paving the way for the future reign of the Antichrist."

That's some pretty strong rhetoric, until one considers how hot things got on the religion beat in 2012. After all, one Gallup poll found that an amazing 44 percent of Americans surveyed responded "don't know" when asked to name the president's faith. The good news was that a mere 11 percent said Obama is a Muslim -- down from 18 percent in a Pew Research Center poll in 2010.

Could church-state affairs get any hotter? Amazingly the answer was "yes," with a White House order requiring most religious institutions to offer health-care plans covering sterilizations and all FDA-approved forms of contraception, including "morning-after pills." The key: The Health and Human Services mandate only recognizes the conscience rights of a nonprofit group if it has the "inculcation of religious values as its purpose," primarily employs "persons who share its religious tenets" and primarily "serves persons who share its religious tenets."

America's Catholic bishops and other traditional religious leaders cried "foul," claiming that the Obama team was separating mere "freedom of worship" from the First Amendment's sweeping "free exercise of religion." In a year packed with church-state fireworks, the members of Religion Newswriters Association selected this religious-liberty clash as the year's top religion-news story. Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, the point man for Catholic opposition to the mandate, was selected as the year’s top religion newsmaker – with Obama not included on the ballot.

The story I ranked No. 2 didn’t make the Top 10 list. I was convinced that the 9-0 U.S. Supreme Court decision affirming a Missouri Synod Lutheran church’s right to hire and fire employees based on doctrine could be crucial in the years – or even months -- ahead.

Here’s the rest of the RNA Top 10 list:

* The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life finds that religiously unaffiliated people – the so-called "nones” -- is America’s fastest-growing religious group, approaching 20 percent of the population.

* The online trailer of an anti-Islam film, "Innocence of Muslims,” allegedly causes violence in several countries, including a fatal attack on U.S. consulate in Libya.

* GOP White House candidate Mitt Romney's Mormon faith turns out to be a virtual non-issue for white evangelical voters.

* Monsignor William Lynn of Philadelphia becomes first senior U.S. Catholic official found guilty of hiding priestly child abuse, followed by Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City, Mo.

* Vatican officials harshly criticize liberal U.S. nuns, citing the Leadership Conference of Women Religious for its history of criticism of church teachings on sexuality and the all-male priesthood.

* Voters in Maine, Maryland and Washington affirm same-sex marriage. Minnesota defeats a ban on same-sex marriage, while North Carolina approves one.

* Episcopal Church leaders adopt ritual for blessing same-sex couples.

* A gunman described as a neo-Nazi kills six Sikhs and wounds three others in a suburban Milwaukee temple.

* Southern Baptist Convention unanimously elects its first African-American president, the Rev. Fred Luter of New Orleans.

Prof. Benedict addresses Catholic academia

In his latest address to American bishops visiting Rome, Pope Benedict XVI stressed that Catholic educators should remain true to the faith -- a reminder issued just in time for another tense season of commencement addresses. No, the pope did not mention Georgetown University by name, when discussing the Catholic campus culture wars.

Yes, he did mention the law requiring professors who teach Catholic theology to obtain a Canon 812 "mandatum (mandate)" document from their bishops to certify that they are truly Catholic theologians.

Many American bishops have cited a "growing recognition on the part of Catholic colleges and universities of the need to reaffirm their distinctive identity in fidelity to their founding ideals and the Church's mission. ... Much remains to be done, especially in such basic areas as compliance with the mandate laid down in Canon 812 for those who teach theological disciplines," said Benedict, who taught theology at the university level in Germany.

"The importance of this canonical norm as a tangible expression of ecclesial communion and solidarity in the Church's educational apostolate becomes all the more evident when we consider the confusion created by instances of apparent dissidence between some representatives of Catholic institutions and the Church's pastoral leadership: such discord harms the Church's witness and, as experience has shown, can easily be exploited to compromise her authority and her freedom."

Benedict's remarks to the bishops of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming came during the fourth of five Vatican visits by Americans reporting on life in their dioceses. His January address, to the bishops of Washington, D.C., Baltimore and the U.S. Armed Services, made news with its focus on threats to religious liberty. It came shortly before Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said the Obama administration would not withdraw its rules requiring the majority of religious institutions to cover all FDA-approved forms of contraception in health-insurance plans offered to employees, as well as to students.

Now, the pope has emphasized the need for Catholic educators to remain faithful in the same timeframe as Georgetown University's announcement that one featured speaker during its commencement rites will be none other than Sebelius -- a liberal Catholic who last year warned abortion-rights activists that "we are in a war" to protect women from conservatives.

Conservative Catholics protested -- see -- claiming that the Jesuit school's invitation represented yet another violation of the 2004 U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops policy stating: "Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions." The University of Notre Dame ignited a 2009 firestorm by granting President Barack Obama an honorary doctor of laws degree.

While it's easy to focus on this new commencement controversy, Benedict's address represents another skirmish in more than two decades of conflict between Rome and liberal Catholics entrenched on many college and university campuses. At the heart of the conflict is a 1990 "apostolic constitution" on education issued by Pope John Paul II entitled "Ex Corde Ecclesiae (From the Heart of the Church)."

That document contains numerous statements that trouble American academics, including this one: "Catholic teaching and discipline are to influence all university activities, while the freedom of conscience of each person is to be fully respected. Any official action or commitment of the University is to be in accord with its Catholic identity."

"That captures pretty much everything," noted Patrick J. Reilly, president of the conservative Cardinal Newman Society.

Thus, in his address to the visiting American bishops, the pope stressed that Catholic universities are supposed to be helping the church defend its teachings, in an age in which they are constantly be under attack.

The goal, said Benedict, is for Catholic schools to provide a "bulwark against the alienation and fragmentation which occurs when the use of reason is detached from the pursuit of truth and virtue. ...

"Catholic institutions have a specific role to play in helping to overcome the crisis of universities today. Firmly grounded in this vision of the intrinsic interplay of faith, reason and the pursuit of human excellence, every Christian intellectual and all the Church's educational institutions must be convinced, and desirous of convincing others, that no aspect of reality remains alien to, or untouched by, the mystery of the redemption and the Risen Lord's dominion over all creation."

So a bishop talks theology in a bar ...

"Atheocracy" is not the kind of word that gets tossed around very often in bars. Nevertheless, Bishop James Conley recently defined that term and defended its use while speaking in a pub in the heart of Denver's trendy Capitol Hill neighborhood. The goal, as always, was to use this "Theology on Tap" forum for an informal, frank encounter with young Catholics and others who might be curious.

"America today is becoming what I would call an atheocracy -- a society that is actively hostile to religious faith and religious believers. And I might add -- the faith that our society is most hostile toward is Christianity in general, and Catholicism in particular," said Conley, who is serving as apostolic administrator of the Archdiocese of Denver until Pope Benedict XVI names a new archbishop.

"I think we all recognize that there is a new mentality in America, one that has grave risks for all believers -- and puts in jeopardy all faith-based movements for social change and renewal. An atheocracy is a dangerous place -- morally and spiritually. ... We risk becoming a nation without a soul, a people with no common purpose apart from material pursuits."

What happened next was as ironic as public discourse gets there days.

Although Conley was speaking in an isolated part of Stoney's Bar and Grill, some patrons in the establishment began making snide remarks. Eventually, one man aimed obscene remarks at the bishop.

On top of that, the management said some workers complained about serving the bishop and the crowd that came out to hear him on a cold weeknight. It seemed that allowing a bishop to talk theology while sharing a few beers with his flock was too controversial for some customers and bar staffers.

The story spread quickly in the Catholic blogosphere.

"It's a business decision and it's acceptable for them to make that decision," said Jeanette DeMelo, spokesperson for the archdiocese, in a statement to Catholic media. "The bar has a right to be what it is, a sports bar with a non-controversial atmosphere, which allows anyone and everyone to feel at home -- except Catholics in collars."

Lost in the shuffle was the content of the bishop's lecture, which he called "Atheocracy and the Battle for Religious Liberty in America." It opened with the faith-based frenzy swirling around Denver quarterback Tim Tebow and proceeded into discussions of G.K. Chesterton, the German martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, President John F. Kennedy, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and others.

The key, according to the bishop's printed text, is that it's getting harder to defend universal concepts of morality and human rights in a society in which far too many politicians, academics, jurists, media stars and others have traded neutrality on traditional forms of religion for openly hostility.

Recent popes have called this trend "practical atheism." Pope Benedict XVI openly addressed this issue during a gathering of world religious leaders last year in Assisi, noted Conley.

"The enemies of religion … see in religion one of the principal sources of violence in the history of humanity and thus they demand that it disappear," argued the pope. "But the denial of God has led to much cruelty and to a degree of violence that knows no bounds, which only becomes possible when man no longer recognizes any criterion or any judge above himself. ...

"The horrors of the concentration camps reveal with utter clarity the consequences of God's absence. … The denial of God corrupts man, robs him of his criteria and leads him to violence."

What the pope was describing, according to Conley, is the "moral and political landscape of an atheocracy." This trend then influences public debates on issues ranging from abortion to the care of the elderly, from same-sex marriage to the new U.S. Department of Health and Human Services rules that require religious institutions to include free health-care coverage of contraceptives, sterilizations and abortifacient drugs known as "morning-after pills."

The stakes are high, stressed Conley, which means that these issues must be discussed openly -- even if some are offended.

"Without God, there is no basis for morality and no necessary protections for man," he said. "The strong decide what is right or wrong -- even who lives and who dies. ... That is where we seem to be heading in America today. A lot of people would argue that we are already there."

Gagging the military chaplains 2.0

Every now and then, bishops write letters for their priests to read to the faithful during Mass. In 1996 the Catholic Archdiocese for the Military Services sent a letter to its chaplains instructing them to urge their flocks to back the "Project Life Postcard Campaign" in support of the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act.

Father Vincent Rigdon wanted to follow this order in rites at Andrews Air Force Base. But there was a problem. Pentagon officials had issued a gag order against chaplains preaching sermons that mentioned this anti-abortion effort.

The standoff ended up in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, which in 1997 backed Rigdon and an Orthodox Jewish chaplain.

"What we have here," concluded Judge Stanley Sporkin, "is the government's attempt to override the Constitution and the laws of the land by a directive that clearly interferes with military chaplains' free exercise and free speech rights, as well as those of their congregants. On its face, this is a drastic act. ...

"The chaplains in this case seek to preach only what they would tell their non-military congregants. There is no need for heavy-handed censorship."

That settled that, for a decade or so.

However, debates about military chaplains have a way of living on -- in part because chaplains work in a church-state minefield that requires them to answer to the government, as well as to God.

Thus, the Pentagon powers that be flinched again when the current leader of the military services archdiocese sent a pastoral letter to his chaplains to be read -- from pulpits -- during Masses on Jan. 29.

In it, Archbishop Timothy Broglio joined with most of America's Catholic bishops in blasting new U.S. Department of Health and Human Services rules that will require the vast majority of religious institutions to include free coverage of all FDA-approved contraceptives in their health-insurance plans. This would include sterilizations and the abortifacient drugs known as "morning-after pills."

This Obama administration move, he argued, "strikes at the fundamental right to religious liberty for all citizens of any faith. The federal government, which claims to be 'of, by, and for the people,' has just dealt a heavy blow to almost a quarter of those people -- the Catholic population -- and to the millions more who are served by the Catholic faithful. It is a blow to a freedom that you have fought to defend and for which you have seen your buddies fall in battle."

However, it was another passage that seems to have triggered alarms at the Army office of the Chief of Chaplains.

"We cannot -- we will not -- comply with this unjust law," stressed Broglio. "People of faith cannot be made second-class citizens. ... In generations past, the Church has always been able to count on the faithful to stand up and protect her sacred rights and duties. I hope and trust she can count on this generation of Catholics to do the same."

Soon after this letter was distributed, the Army chaplaincy office emailed senior chaplains asking them not to read it during Mass. Instead of obeying their archbishop, priests were told they could briefly mention the letter and place copies at chapel exits. Only Army leaders objected to Broglio's message.

The archbishop then talked with Secretary of the Army John McHugh, who -- according to the military services archdiocese -- backed away from the gag order. In turn, Broglio agreed that the "we cannot -- we will not -- comply" reference, with its hint at civil disobedience, would be removed from the text if and when it was read by Army chaplains. The line remained in printed copies.

The controversy simmered all week, with leaders on both sides backing away from further conflict.

By Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney was hinting that the Obama administration might be willing to work with religious groups to see "if the implementation of the policy can be done in a way that allays some of those concerns."

Also, Carney said he didn't know if President Obama had prayed about the HHS rules controversy, but "he did consult with some religious leaders about it. ... When you seek to find the appropriate balance ... you have to weigh all of these factors, including the need to provide services to women and, obviously, the issue of religious belief."

The pope, the president and religious liberty

Pope Benedict XVI cut to the chase when meeting with the visiting bishops from Washington, D.C., Baltimore and the U.S. Armed Services. The pope mentioned "religious freedom" in the third sentence of his Jan. 19 remarks at the Vatican and he never let up -- returning to this hot topic again and again.

The bottom line, he said, is that America's once strong political consensus has "eroded significantly in the face of powerful new cultural currents which are not only directly opposed to core moral teachings of the Judeo-Christian tradition, but increasingly hostile to Christianity as such."

It doesn't matter if these attacks originate in "radical secularism," "radical individualism," a "merely scientific rationality" or suppressive forms of "majority rule," said Benedict, during one in an ongoing series of meetings with American bishops. Catholic leaders must strive to defend church teachings in ways that reach all believers in their care -- including Catholic politicians.

Within a matter of hours, these American bishops had good cause to reflect on one Benedict passage in particular.

While he didn't name names of cite issues, the pope noted that of particular Vatican concern are "attempts being made to limit that most cherished of American freedoms, the freedom of religion. Many of you have pointed out that concerted efforts have been made to deny the right of conscientious objection on the part of Catholic individuals and institutions with regard to cooperation in intrinsically evil practices. Others have spoken to me of a worrying tendency to reduce religious freedom to mere freedom of worship without guarantees of respect for freedom of conscience."

The next day, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius -- a liberal Catholic -- announced that the Obama administration would not back down on its new rules requiring the majority of church-based institutions to include all FDA-approved forms of contraception in the health-insurance plans they offer to employees and even students. This would include, with no out-of-pocket payments, sterilizations and the contraceptives -- abortifacient drugs -- commonly known as "morning-after pills."

"Scientists have abundant evidence that birth control has significant health benefits for women and their families, it is documented to significantly reduce health costs and is the most commonly taken drug in America by young and middle-aged women," announced Sebelius. The administration's decision was made "after very careful consideration, including the important concerns some have raised about religious liberty."

In a concession that further infuriated her critics, she said some religious institutions could apply for a one-year delay in complying with the rules.

The president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was not amused.

"In effect, the president is saying we have a year to figure out how to violate our consciences,” said Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York, in an online video. "To force American citizens to choose between violating their consciences and forgoing their healthcare is literally unconscionable. It is as much an attack on access to health care as on religious freedom."

Pro-Vatican Catholics were united in their opposition to the new regulations, which also drew fire from conservative Protestants and Jews. At the same time, the struggle provided fresh evidence of painful divisions among American Catholics, including the reluctance or refusal of many Catholic institutions to defend church teachings. For example, a mere 18 Catholic colleges -- out of nearly 250 nationwide -- united for an earlier protest of the proposed HHS regulations.

"Some Catholics will hear this news with mixed or negative emotions, including many bishops," noted Dr. Patrick Whelan, of the Catholic Democrats organization. "At the same time, we know Catholic women, and by extension their families, use oral contraception at the same rate as the overall population. For over half a century, since the issuance of Humanae Vitae, Catholics and Catholic theologians have taken issue with the Church's teaching on birth control."

Meanwhile, a cardinal long admired by progressive Catholics added his voice to the chorus of those who were outraged.

"I cannot imagine that this decision was released without the explicit knowledge and approval of President Barack Obama," said retired Cardinal Roger Mahoney of Los Angeles, on his weblog. "I cannot imagine a more direct and frontal attack on freedom of conscience than this ruling. ... For me the answer is clear: we stand with our moral principles and heritage over the centuries, not what a particular Federal government agency determines."

Hemlock, health care and Catholic choices

The "Your Life, Your Choices" booklet didn't cause trouble at the Department of Veterans Affairs until late in President George W. Bush's second term. That's when critics spotted an odd detail in this guide for end-of-life medical decisions. It urged aging veterans to seek expert advice from one group -- Compassion & Choices. It helps to know that this organization was created in 2005 through the merger of two groups, Compassion in Dying and End-of-Life Choices and that, until 2003, End-of-Life Choices was known as the Hemlock Society.

The Bush White House pulled that edition of "Your Life, Your Choices," but a revised version -- minus the plug for Compassion & Choices -- has been restored to the website. Conservative critics remain worried.

"Obviously, the Catholic church and our bishops have been strong advocates of health-care reform, especially when it comes to making the system more accessible for the poor and needy. That's a no-brainer," said John Haas, president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center and a member of U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops task force on health care.

"But this VA issue shows why we just don't trust the government when it comes to helping people make all the moral and religious decisions that come at the end of life. ... The Hemlock Society? Catholics would rather do our own counseling, thank you very much."

It's easy for outsiders to get lost in the details of the sprawling packages of legislation now being debated on Capitol Hill. However, Haas stressed that critical questions remain unanswered about how efforts to reform America's health-care system will affect hot-button issues such as abortion, stem-cell research and health-care rationing for the elderly and chronically ill.

Thus, a letter from the U.S. bishops to Congress and the White House pledged support for accessible, affordable, universal health-care reform that truly "protects and respects the life and dignity of all people from conception until natural death."

In the headlines, it is easy for these concerns to be crunched into shouted questions in health-care forums about taxpayer-funded abortions and fears that government "death panels" will micromanage critical decisions in nursing homes.

But calmer, quieter voices inside the Washington Beltway still want to know more about the proposed Center for Health Outcomes Research and Evaluation, which legislation sponsored by the late Sen. Edward Kennedy claims would "collect, conduct, support and synthesize research comparing health outcomes, effectiveness and appropriateness of health care services and procedures."

While striving to avoid risky specifics, President Barack Obama has said it will be impossible to expand health-care services without tough-minded reforms that cut costs. This is especially true when discussing care for the elderly.

"That's where I think you just get into some very difficult moral issues. But that's also a huge driver of cost, right? I mean, the chronically ill and those toward the end of their lives are accounting for potentially 80 percent of the total health care bill out here," said Obama, in a much-quoted New York Times interview.

"I think that there is going to have to be a conversation that is guided by doctors, scientists, ethicists. And then there is going to have to be a very difficult democratic conversation that takes place. ... That's part of why you have to have some independent group that can give you guidance."

The president recently went further, according to Twitter postings from a conference call with 1,000 rabbis. Obama reached out to these religious leaders, stressing, "We are God's partners in matters of life and death."

No one doubts that millions of Americans want help while making decisions about end-of-life medical issues, stressed Haas. The question is whether most would prefer to face these ultimate issues with help from government experts or from their own pastors, rabbis, priests, hospice workers and other religious counselors.

"The Catholic Church has a highly developed body of teachings and traditions to help guide people through these kinds of decisions," said Haas. "We believe that hospice care is normal and good. We believe that it's right to die a good death, with an emphasis on the relief of pain and suffering. ...

"But let's be clear. We think the government has an agenda on these kinds of issues and it's not the church's agenda. When it comes to dying, controlling costs is not our primary goal."

Catholic pain in health-care fight

In Catholic debates, it always helps to be able to quote the official Catechism of the Catholic Church. Consider, for example, this reference to health care in its chapter on the biblical instruction, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."

"Life and physical health are precious gifts entrusted to us by God," notes the catechism. "Concern for the health of its citizens requires that society help in the attainment of living-conditions that allow them to grow and reach maturity: food and clothing, housing, health care, basic education, employment and social assistance."

The implication is that governments -- as a matter of social justice -- should help citizens obtain basic health care, according to a letter sent to Congress and the White House by the Domestic Justice and Human Development Committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Health care is a human right, not a privilege, argued Bishop William F. Murphy.

"All people need and should have access to comprehensive, quality health care that they can afford, and it should not depend on their stage of life, where or whether they or their parents work, how much they earn, where they live, or where they were born," wrote Murphy.

But there's a problem. The letter stresses that the church will support accessible, affordable, universal health-care reform if it "protects and respects the life and dignity of all people from conception until natural death."

Try telling that to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sibelius, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, surgeon general nominee Regina Benjamin, Vice President Joe Biden and other Catholics who play strategic roles in Washington, D.C., right now -- while rejecting Catholic teachings on many critical health-care issues.

That's the political reality that the bishops are facing, said Leonard J. Nelson III, a health-care law specialist at the Cumberland School of Law at Samford University.

For the bishops, Catholic teachings on the sanctity of human life are crystal clear, from birth to death, from abortion to euthanasia. Yet the bishops also support health-care for all -- rich and poor. It's getting harder and harder to keep these issues woven together.

"The bishops have been talking about social justice and health care for years and years and now the political climate has changed around them," said Nelson, author of the new book, "Diagnosis Critical: The Urgent Threats Confronting Catholic Health Care."

"The politicians who are in command are ready to pass some kind of health-care reform and they have all kinds of reasons to include abortion in that package. ... That's the fix that the bishops are in."

Meanwhile, he said, leaders of Catholic hospitals and health-care systems will almost certainly face challenges in the near future.

For starters, they could be pressured to join networks and cooperatives that have no reason to follow the bioethical guidelines detailed in the "Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services" adopted by the U.S. Catholic bishops. It will be hard for Catholic leaders to cooperate with government approved health-care programs and receive government funds while declining to offer services such as contraception, sterilizations and referrals for abortions.

Catholic leaders also know that another life-and-death issue looms in the background. As President Barack Obama noted in a recent New York Times interview, it's impossible to cut or control costs without government efforts to shape health care in the final years of life.

"That's where I think you just get into some very difficult moral issues," said Obama. "But that's also a huge driver of cost, right? I mean, the chronically ill and those toward the end of their lives are accounting for potentially 80 percent of the total health care bill out here."

The Catholic bishops, noted Nelson, have not addressed these end-of-life scenarios -- yet. Will government agencies or advisory boards be given the power to decide whether patients facing Alzheimer's or Parkinson's disease receive expensive medications? Who will decide whether elderly patients have a high enough "quality of life" to continue receiving medical care?

"Productive people in the middle years of life are always going to get the health care they need," said Nelson. "The big threats to the sanctity of life come at the very beginning and at the end. If you're going to defend the church's teachings on health care, you have to focus on those threats. The bishops have to find a way to do that."