Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington, facing a new District of Columbia law mandating health coverage for partners of gay employees in agencies that take taxpayer dollars, has decided to drop coverage for all spouses of Catholic Charities employees rather than be forced to insure same-sex couples.
The announcement follows last month's decision by Catholic Charities to end its longstanding foster care and adoption program because the new statute would have compelled the agency to place children with qualified gay applicants.
Catholic Charities is the church's main social welfare agency and it receives $22 million a year from the District to help run a range of programs for the needy in the capital.
The church policy dropping spousal coverage for future hires at Catholic Charities was crafted in response to the District's new gay marriage law, set to go into effect this week. (Currently just 10 percent of Catholic Charities' 850 employees have a spouse on their policy, and they will be grandfathered in.)Catholic Charities did not want to drop or reduce services beyond the adoption and foster care program, so the archdiocese decided that it would drop all spousal coverage for employees so that it could still take government funds for other programs and not risk that it would wind up insuring a gay couple.
"This was a very tough decision," said archdiocesan spokesperson Susan Gibbs. "The preference would have been no change, but without religious exemption protections in the same-sex marriage law, Catholic Charities was put into a tough situation. A lot of options were considered, but this one seemed to be the most straightforward and the best fit."
Still, the decision has prompted an outcry from many quarters since it smacks of cutting off someone else's nose to save one's own face.
By dropping all spousal coverage, the archdiocese maintains a clear conscience as far as church doctrine goes because it would not have to provide benefits to gay couples whose lifestyles the church considers sinful. And its action reinforces its displeasure that the D.C. City Council passed the law without an exemption for religious organizations -- not that the council members are likely to take a guilt trip given that they easily passed the law despite strenuous objections from many church and religious freedom advocates.
But the move comes at the expense not only of gay couples but also the church's credibility on health care reform at a time when the Catholic hierarchy has made affordable, universal health care a top legislative priority.
"For decades, the church has been at the forefront of worker benefits, so this move cuts against their understanding of social justice and health benefits to all possible," Robert W. Tuttle, a church-state expert at Georgetown's law school, told the Washington Post
. "But obviously, you can see they felt there was a real conflict between those values. They feel they weren't left with much of a choice."
Still, two questions puzzle critics of the move.
One is why the Washington archdiocese did not push for a more creative -- some would say humane -- alternative that was engineered a few years ago in San Francisco by Archbishop William Levada, a solidly orthodox churchman who went on to become the Vatican's chief doctrinal officer and a top lieutenant to Pope Benedict XVI.
In 1996 the city of San Francisco said it would not fund social service agencies -- like the local Catholic Charities -- that did not provide health benefits to domestic partners. Levada instead successfully pushed Mayor Willie Brown to allow insured employees to designate anyone legally domiciled in their residence as their health care co-beneficiary -- be they a child, a parent, an aunt, a close friend or, yes, a gay or lesbian partner.
Levada took plenty of heat from the right. It clearly didn't hurt his career, given his subsequent promotion to Rome. And he was straightforward in firing back at critics. In a letter
to the conservative Catholic magazine "Crisis," Levada wrote:
"Is it really a matter for an employer to exclude a person from benefits on the basis of activities that are sinful? Even prostitutes, alcoholics, embezzlers -- I won't rehearse the whole catalogue -- need health insurance. The problem arises when we are asked to single out and recognize a category based on such activity as part of our employee benefits. This is what our agreement with the city of San Francisco has changed, and in a way that broadens the scope of health benefits for uninsured children, elderly persons, and so many others whose lack of health insurance is genuinely a national scandal."
(In defense of the Washington archdiocese, the District of Columbia City Council was intransigent in negotiations, and could have rendered the whole argument moot by including a religious exemption, as often happens.)
The second main objection to the new health policy of the Washington archdiocese is that it does not explain why divorced and remarried employees can put their wife or husband on their insurance when their relationship is also considered illicit in the eyes of the church.
The Daily Dish's Andrew Sullivan -- a gay Catholic and blogger extraordinaire
-- put the question
with characteristic clarity:
"Catholic doctrine is very clear: a remarried person is not remarried in the eyes of the Church, and for the Church to employ such a person would be to recognize a civil marriage that violates one of its core principles. There are infinitely more of these individuals than there are gay Catholics or gay non-Catholics who might want to help the homeless or serve the poor or provide foster care for an abandoned child. Catholic Charities might -- Heaven forfend -- have to provide spousal benefits to a member of a heterosexual couple violating Church doctrine about matrimony in exactly the same way. And almost certainly, they already do all the time."
"Have Catholic Charities ever considered shutting down their entire city contracts for the needy because of the chance that this might happen or might have already happened? Of course not. So why this glaring inconsistency on the question of homosexuals -- unless it is driven by animus against them?"
On the other hand, the Archdiocese of Washington is being consistent, at least with Catholic Charities, since its new health care policy won't cover any spouses, whether second or third, gay or lesbian.