A Cardinal Threat

Making the conservative rounds today is a column from Francis Cardinal George, the Catholic Archbishop of Chicago, that in the guise of a discussion of Lenten sacrifice, presents the now-familiar argument that the Obama administration is trying to destroy Church-affiliated institutions:

This year, the Catholic Church in the United States is being told she must “give up” her health care institutions, her universities and many of her social service organizations. This is not a voluntary sacrifice. It is the consequence of the already much discussed Department of Health and Human Services regulations now filed and promulgated for implementation beginning Aug. 1 of this year….

What will happen if the HHS regulations are not rescinded? A Catholic institution, so far as I can see right now, will have one of four choices: 1) secularize itself, breaking its connection to the church, her moral and social teachings and the oversight of its ministry by the local bishop. This is a form of theft. It means the church will not be permitted to have an institutional voice in public life. 2) Pay exorbitant annual fines to avoid paying for insurance policies that cover abortifacient drugs, artificial contraception and sterilization. This is not economically sustainable. 3) Sell the institution to a non-Catholic group or to a local government. 4) Close down.

This flat statement is rather odd insofar as several of the most important organizations representing Catholic hospitals, universities and social services agencies have gone out of their way to suggest they can live within the guidelines of the new regulations, particularly if something can be worked out to accomodate Catholic institutional employers that are self-insured (i.e., that are both employers and insurers). After reading Cardinal George’s ukase, I consulted the web page of the Catholic Health Association and saw no news of any impending closures of Catholic hospitals, though CHA does, naturally, suggest it needs to see what the administration is planning for self-insurers before making any final sign-off.

Perhaps acceptance of the administration policy is the contingency Cardinal George is referring to in his Doomsday Option 1 above: “breaking its connection to the church, her moral and social teachings and the oversight of its ministry by the local bishop.” It would appear the real action there would be by the “local bishop,” who would refuse to continue to exercise overight with respect to any Catholic institution that did not join the hierachy’s culture-war against the administration and the provision of contraceptives to employees. In other words, bishops would order Catholic institutions fully willing to continue functioning under the regulations to shut down or treat themselves as “secularized.” It’s pretty clear who the aggressor would be in this sort of action.

In weighing this threat and its gravity it is probably helpful to consider Cardinal George’s general views about the horror with which he considers any dimunition of episcopal power. In 2010, he prophesied:

I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square.

Like some of the conservative evangelicals who wail each Chrismas season of martyrdom for having to suffer the agony of seeing “Happy Holidays” emblazoned on Department store facades, Cardinal George seems to confuse limitations on his secular power–in this case, the power to prevent insurance companies from offering the option of contraceptives to employees of Church-affiliated but not Church-operated institutions–with active persecution. And he’s threatening to share his terrible suffering with the beneficiaries of Catholic hospitals, colleges and charities.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.