Symposium addresses issues of faith
Panel discusses religious freedom, faithful citizenship
Bishop David Zubik said that following our consciences and living our faith in public should be something that is expected. Keeping our faith out of the public sphere, he noted, was something never envisioned by those who wrote the U.S. Constitution.
He spoke of the need to stand up for religious freedom during a symposium on religious liberty and the Year of Faith Aug. 13 at St. Paul Seminary in Crafton. He will lead a similar symposium Aug. 20 at 7 p.m. at St. Richard in Richland Township.
The bishop pointed out that never before in the history of our country has the federal government tried to force religious organizations to violate their conscience the way it is doing through the Health and Human Services mandate. We cannot as a church and religious people accept this mandate on moral and religious grounds, he said.
"We cannot stand¬†by and allow anyone, particularly the government, to interfere at such a level of free exercise of the religious freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment of the Constitution," he added.
The HHS mandate would force virtually all private health insurance plans nationwide to provide coverage for abortifacients, sterilization services, contraceptives and related counseling. The mandate offers no clear religious exemption for church-related entities, including Catholic hospitals, universities, social service agencies, outreach to the poor and care for the elderly.
The bishop noted that the U.S. bishops are not against universal health care and have supported the need to share health care resources for decades, particularly when it comes to serving the needs of the poor. They have advocated for preventive health care, he said, and have strongly encouraged women's access to testing for various diseases.
The church does not believe, however, that pregnancy is a "disease" and contraceptive measures should have to be paid for by the church.
"The HHS mandate requires us to make available what we consider morally wrong," he said.
Bishop Zubik said the symposium was not a forum to debate politics or to support a particular party, but it was simply a chance to learn about the issues.
Joining the bishop at the symposium were Helene Paharik, director of the Department for Human Dignity and newly named associate general secretary; retired Superior Court Judge Maureen Lally-Green, associate general secretary; and Rita Ferko Joyce, chief counsel for the diocese.
In pointing to the U.S. bishops' document, "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship," Paharik said the role of the church is to be a voice for the voiceless. It cannot tell people who to vote for, she noted, but it helps them form their consciences.
Issues confronting citizens in this election year, she said, include abortion, the attempt to force Catholic ministries to violate their conscience, efforts to redefine marriage, the economic crisis and immigration reform.
The panel noted that while the HHS mandate is currently the focus, other issues could soon come to the forefront. They mentioned an Alabama law that prohibits priests from ministering to undocumented immigrants.
Joyce stated that the issue is further clouded because the width of religious exemptions offered by the mandate is "extremely narrow."
Lally-Green said attacks on religious freedom are fairly new. Governments traditionally, she said, have not forced religions to go against their beliefs. She pointed to the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act and other measures the legislative and executive branches have taken to protect religious organizations against discrimination.
Also presented were decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court that respected religious liberty and recognized religious exemptions based on conscience.
The panel closed its presentation by listing legal procedures addressing the issue. The Diocese of Pittsburgh, along with Catholic Charities and the Catholic Cemeteries Association, filed a lawsuit against the HHS mandate on May 21. It was one of 12 suits, involving some 43 plaintiffs, filed nationally.
They summed up the presentation with the words, "Let us see the world through the eyes of faith and not judge the faith through the eyes of the world."
A variety of written questions were answered by Bishop Zubik and the panel members.
Paharik said the best way to fight for religious freedom is "to pray, learn and live our faith." Websites affiliated with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (www.usccb.org), Pennsylvania Catholic Conference (www.pacatholic.org) and the Diocese of Pittsburgh (www.diopitt.org) are great sources of information on the topic, she said.
Joyce said citizens must be informed on the topic, be willing to convince others to examine it and be proactive in letting their legislative representatives know their feelings.
Bishop Zubik expressed a concern that, in the quest to ensure health care coverage for all, some may end up losing it. He noted that the "boomerang" effect could impact agencies such as Catholic Charities, which served some 81,000 people locally last year, and other Christian organizations.
He said again that religious freedom is not just a Catholic issue. In doing so, he related how members of Christian Associates of Southwestern Pennsylvania once viewed the issue along those lines, but ultimately 19 of them signed a document voicing opposition to the mandate.
Lally-Green answered a question regarding civil penalties for those who defy the HHS mandate and the possibility of the government taking over Catholic schools and hospitals. She said the fines would be so significant that they would force the organizations to go out of business.