The bishops: One way on a two-way street

  • Article by: JOHN LESCH
  • Updated: February 10, 2012 - 7:47 AM

From marriage to contraception, the tax-exempt Catholic Church wants to run the public agenda.

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Catholic bishops.

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Election years are precarious times to be Catholic.

On Sunday, my priest took time out of our order of worship to announce that the bishop was funding a political campaign to address whom I may, or may not, marry.

A week earlier, I heard Catholic clergy bemoan equal access to contraceptive health care for non-Catholics.

Remember 2004, when, in the midst of a heated election season, Catholic bishops said they would deny communion to Democratic nominee John Kerry because he supported a woman's right to choose?

As far as I know, the Catholic Church's tax-exempt status hasn't changed. But as we find ourselves in another presidential election year, the bishops' desire to fund a political campaign begins anew.

Here in Minnesota, the church has an opinion on your choice of spouses, whether you are Catholic or not, and they're willing to make political expenditures to vindicate that opinion.

Nationally, they seek to restrict female employees' access to birth-control coverage in bishop-controlled hospitals, and have called on Congress to reverse President Obama's decision on the issue.

Obama has championed women's health by stopping insurance companies from discriminating based on gender and affording greater access to mammograms and preventive services. This includes the 98 percent of Catholic women who, according to the Guttmacher Institute, have used contraception.

No one begrudges a bishop's role in squaring away his own flock. But when he runs a large hospital upon which a city relies for jobs and health care services, he need not be wagging his finger as you walk in the emergency-room door.

If I want to hear moralizing, I'll go to church. If I want to access legal health care, I'll go to my health care provider. And I think my conscience is adequate to understand the difference between the two.

The church, with one hand, waves the bus of government through the intersection of Church and State, and into your choice of spouses; with the other hand it seeks to halt otherwise free access to contraceptive health care for its employees.

In lamenting the requirements for equal birth-control coverage for women, a spokesperson for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops bewailed, "Government has entered the sanctuary."

Is it ironic that this holy hand-wringing comes just as those same bishops seek to stand in your polling booth on the issue of marriage?

Bishops should not be able to hide a large public-service-delivery institution behind a "church" label. The days of humble nuns toiling thanklessly in the halls of shoestring-budget, one-room hospitals are long gone.

These days, the only difference most people see between a religious hospital and a secular one is the name.

Major religiously affiliated hospitals have joined the big leagues, with multi-million-dollar revenue streams, much of it directly out of government coffers. They have long since abandoned the vows of poverty and chastity embraced by their founders.

As they play in the same health care multiplex market as everyone else, they should play by the same rules.

To suggest that this is a matter of church conscience is absurd. Individuals have consciences. Institutions do not.

The pilgrims fled England because they prized individual conscience over the Church of England's mandates. The founding fathers recognized this and ensured that the First Amendment afforded individual freedom from religion.

Catholic or non-Catholic, our hard-won freedoms cannot afford another election-year intrusion.

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John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, is a member of the Minnesota House.

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