Is Cardinal Dolan’s Threat to End Catholic Charity to the Poor for Real?

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Catholic Charity

Neftali /

May 24, 2012; Source: Christian Post

The implications of the litigation launched by several Catholic organizations and dioceses against the federal government’s inclusion of contraceptive coverage in required health insurance are not trivial. The Christian Post, a well-regarded news venue, warns in its headline that the “Catholic Church Might End Charity to [the] Poor Over [the] Contraception Mandate.” The Post’s headline appears to be based on its interpretation of this comment that Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the top Roman Catholic official in the U.S., gave to MSNBC:

“If these mandates click in, we’re going to find ourselves faced with a terribly difficult decision as to whether or not we can continue to operate. As part of our religion, it’s part of our faith that we feed the hungry, that we educate the kids, that we take care of the sick. We’d have to give it up because we’re unable to fit the description and the definition of a church given by, guess who? The federal government.”

It’s hard to imagine that Cardinal Dolan’s own flock would allow the Church to abandon its historic social calling card. The federal government has given the Catholic Church options for compromise that both sides might see as somewhat unpalatable, but that’s what compromise is.  Compromise means finding solutions that achieve a greater good even if both sides have to accept something less than what they would ideally have wanted. Remember, the federal government’s compromise offer would make sure that the Catholic institutions don’t pay a cent for contraception or abortion, regardless of whether the majority of their Catholic and non-Catholic employees agree or disagree with the Church’s position.

Given that offer, why would the Catholic Church scotch all of its historic non-sacerdotal functions? The letter that Catholic Democrats sent to Cardinal Dolan last fall about his response to the Ryan budget is actually a wonderful tabulation of the linchpins of the Catholic social justice tradition, and noted the work of Msgr. Geno Baroni as the “Godfather” of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development’s (CHD) support of anti-poverty community organizing. Those of us who had the experience of working with Msgr. Baroni at the National Center for Urban Ethnic Affairs, and later during his stint as HUD Assistant Secretary for Neighborhood Development, remember what CHD stood for and still means as a reflection of the Catholic social justice tradition. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) are two of Baroni’s disciples in Congress, but they also reflect the values and mission of the Catholic Church in responding to the nation’s social problems. Cardinal Dolan would toss that history and tradition by spurning a reasonable compromise?

We should all remember the original name of CHD at its founding: the National Catholic Crusade Against Poverty. Would Cardinal Dolan go to the mat over the contraception mandate, even with the federal government’s proffered compromise, and eliminate CHD’s $74.4 million in grants, $59 million in government contract work, and $31.2 million in policy work in 2010? Is that what the Cardinal really means to say to the federal government and to America’s poor?—Rick Cohen

  • William Maddocks

    Cardinal Dolan is acting like a thug. This is the same manner in which the Catholic Church treated many of the victims and families who were devastated by the clergy sexual abuse scandals. Shame on Cardinal Dolan who neither listens to reason or the vast majority of the churh’s communicants and carries forth a right wing fundamentalist agenda that makes Christian fringe groups giddy.

  • JR

    This article totally ignores the fact that many religious organizations self-insure, and would therefore be forced to provide abortifacients, contraceptives, and abortion coverage to their employees. “That’s what compromise is” is an incredibly lame excuse: there can be no compromise on matters of faith. The First Amendment protects against such intrusion.

    I am an avowed atheist, but even I am offended at the government’s offer.

  • Clark McCain

    It is easy to lose sight of the fact that through the HHS mandate, the federal government establishes the definition of a religious institution. This hasn’t happened before. There is a lot of noise about contraception but the really important fact is getting lost in that noise. If government is able to define which organizations are religious (and which aren’t), then do we really have freedom of religion? Cardinal Dolan is in a difficult situation and he’s used here an inartful way to describe it. Hopefully, the circle within the White House which values reproductive freedom more than religious freedom will find a face-saving way to get out of this mess. It would be a shame if the courts have to do it for them.

  • Cory J

    Rick, I unfortunately gave you more credit than I should have in the past. Your response is short sighted and uninformed. Compromise is good for some disagreements, not ethical stances. For you to also add that Catholic institutions don’t pay a cent for the mandate is not accurate. In all your other reporting, you play scenarios out to the end, and in this case, having the Catholic institutions pay the insurance companies that pay for contraceptives is convenient for you to miss. To also play out your ‘compromise’ claim, should we as a society ‘compromise’ on everything from right to wrong, we would have no constitution or laws. I am starting to see the trend that you are not fully living up to the NPQ slogan to promote an active and engaged democracy, if so, you would support the freedom of the church to stand by their beliefs, not compromise.

  • rick cohen

    Hi Cory: this is my second try at a response as my first one mysteriously disappeared. I’m sorry you have concluded that you gave me more credit than I apparently deserved. As you know, the contraceptive mandate is one where plenty of people disagree, including within the Catholic church and among Catholic organizations. The disagreements are strong, yet among Catholics who agree and disagree, both sides consider themselves good and loyal Catholics. For those of us who are not Catholic but reached their maturity at a time when social justice progress was virtually synonymous with the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, the Cardinal’s statements are quite concerning. To many of us who came to the New Testament late in life, the powerful message of the Catholic church has been in its commitment to the poor. It is a religious and institutional statement that is unlike that of any other religion. It is why some of us came to be so influenced by some priests and nuns in our communities because they lived lives of commitment to helping the poor. Having been in government in Hudson County, New Jersey, I can tell you that the movement for social progress there, such as it was, was often keyed to the activism of Catholic priests and of Sisters of Charity, St. Joseph, and others. It would be a sad day to see the church reject the compromise position offered by the Obama Administration, one that many Catholic leaders have accepted as reasonable and worth discussing, and as a consequence gut the Catholic Church’s admirable charity for the poor. Reasonable people can differ on this, Cory, and your comments published here reflect NPQ’s online contribution to living up to our slogan of promoting an active and engaged democracy. Thank you for your willingness to comment.

  • rick cohen

    JR, that’s a very interesting point. I’d love more readers to weigh in on the self-insured dynamic. I believe that nonprofits choosing to self-insure is a growing phenomenon in the sector, not just among religious organizations. Whether one is an avowed atheist or not, we wonder if the Obama Administration has a response to the self-insurance question. Any Obama Administration takers reading this column?

  • rick cohen

    Dear William: It is true that at the same time that Cardinal Dolan has drawn a line in the sand over the ACA’s contraceptive mandate, there is a trial going on of Msgr. William Lynn, a top aide to the late Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua in Philadelphia, over a matter of covering up for priests that were involved in child abuse. Some people have suggested that the ethical power of the Catholic Church, both in its service to the poor and in its opposition to the contraceptive mandate, have been undermined by the apparently (and unfortunately) practices of some church higher-ups in dismissing the seriousness of these problems and of behaving with somewhat lackluster energy in ridding itself of the priests who were allegedly involved, often for years or even decades, in abuse. Do NPQ readers see a connection between these issues, or is the issue of the sexual abuse scandals involving many dioceses, including some that have sued the federal government over the contraceptive mandate, completely separate and severable from Cardinal Dolan’s and the church hierarchy’s position on the Obama health insurance requirement?

  • no longer a catholic

    Doesn’t surprise me. I was a little girl who emigrated here during our revolution in 1956. The catholic church held many people hostage by giving them donated furniture that the refugees had to pay for. Nothing was free. Located educated people in janitorial positions with a “you owe us x amount of dollars now”. The miss use of so called charity was disgusting. This happened in Buffalo NY.