April 14, 2012

An Episcopal Bridge Too Far

Christian Associates of Southwest Pennsylvania logo
I was upset to learn today that the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh—its bishop, anyway—signed on to a statement by Christian Associates of Southwest Pennsylvania (CASP) expressing opposition to the federal mandate that institutions with a religious affiliation must provide no-cost contraceptives to their female employees.

The actual press release has not yet been posted on the CASP Web site, but you can read it here. Video of a news conference held yesterday to publicize the statement is on the Web, however. The conference was hosted by  the Rev. Dr. Donald B. Green, executive director of CASP. The principal speakers were the Most Rev. Robert W. Duncan of the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh, and the Most Rev. David A. Zubik, of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh. (Duncan reads the body of the press release in the video, though he is difficult to understand due to an audio problem.)

Clearly, it is the Roman Catholic David Zubik who is the  primary backer of the CASP statement which is, frankly, nonsensical. The statement declares
Today, we speak together about two shared concerns: (1) the preservation of religious liberty as guaranteed in the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America, and (2) the moral imperative of providing healthcare for all, women, men, and children alike.
Calling on the federal government to broaden its exemption so that religious-affiliated organizations can avoid paying for contraception, the statement warns
Many religious institutions are now placed in the untenable position of (a) violating their consciences, (b) ceasing health insurance and paying ruinous fines, or (c) withdrawing entirely from providing the social services to the wider community that have long been a social justice hallmark of their ministry. Creating gaping holes in the public welfare safety net is in and of itself an immense injustice.
All this is so much nonsense intended to support the absurd position taken by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. I have written elsewhere why I believe the bishops are wrong. (In fact, I believe the exemption should be narrowed, not broadened.) Here, however, I want to concentrate on the statement itself.

The signatories—I will get to the matter of who they are in a moment—claim to be concerned with religious liberty (i.e., the liberty of churches to withhold benefits from employees so as not to offend their own consciences) and universal health care. Nowhere in the statement (or at the news conference) is anything said about how what is generally viewed as basic health care for women is to be provided for female employees of religious-affiliated organizations if their employers are relieved of their responsibility for providing it. The expressed concern for universal health care, therefore, seems less than sincere.

Even less credible are the choices the statement claims are available to religious-affiliated organizations. Religious institutions are not being asked to violate their consciences; they are being asked to abide by the law. (We all are “forced” to support governmental functions of which we do not approve and to which we may have serious moral objections—think fighting wars and applying capital punishment.) The option of “ceasing health insurance and paying ruinous fines” is doubly insincere. Were a hospital, say, to drop health care for its employees, it would soon find itself without employees. And if it managed to dodge that bullet, the fines imposed by the government would be, I submit, less than “ruinous.” Finally, the suggestion that churches might cease to provide social services if forced to provide contraception for employees is extortion, pure and simple.  The threat is a depressing indication that churches—the Roman Catholic Church especially—is willing to sacrifice absolutely anyone for the sake of its own precious doctrine. What, I wonder, would Jesus say?

Upset as I am about the CASP statement, I am that much more upset by the fact that my own bishop, Kenneth Price, was willing to lend his support to this horrible document. It is even more galling that our deposed bishop, now Archbishop of the Anglican Church of North America Robert Duncan, is so publicly associated with the statement.

I do not doubt that Duncan supported the statement with some enthusiasm, but his appearance at the news conference was largely dictated by the fact that he is the current chair of the Council of Bishops and Judicatory Executives of Christian Associates. Interestingly, although 26 judicatories of various churches are represented in CASP, the 18 signers of the statement represent only about 14 of them. Apparently, the thinking on this matter was less than uniform. Reputedly, some did not sign due to restrictions on what their representatives to CASP are allowed to do. The United Methodist Conference of Western Pennsylvania is not represented on the statement, however, because the United Methodist Church has a policy of supporting universal access to reproductive services. (Apparently, the Methodists know insincerity when they see it.)

It is not actually clear to me that Bishop Price had the right to commit the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh to the CASP statement, a matter that perhaps will need to be considered at the next diocesan convention. Certainly, he does not represent my own view in this case, and I know he does not represent the views of a number of fellow Episcopalians with whom I have discussed this matter.

Update, 4/17/2012: The press release is now on the CASP Web site here. A clearer, searchable version (though without the third page of subscribers, which was likely a last-minute addition) is here. These are the related news stories that I know about:


  1. Bishop Price's signature on this thing makes no sense at all. I read about this in the paper this morning and was horrified. It seems to be something that the Archbishop of all outdoors is complicit in. There is obviously something that I am missing.

  2. The president has, when this all began, made the compromise offer of having the INSURANCE companies offer free birth control rather than asking the religious institutions to pay for birth control.

    The only way religious institutions are affected is if their employees choose to take advantage of that benefit. It is unhelpful and unChristian to keep lying and saying that they are being required to pay for birth control when they are not.

    I believe that this uproar is more along the lines of being opposed to anything a democratic president and congress propose since these groups tend to affiliate with the republican party exclusively (excepting their willingness to take government funds for their activities from both democrats and republicans.)

    That and the fact that they know their followers don't listen to them nor abide by their dictates regarding sex and birth control and that really ticks them off so they want to gain control in other ways. Sad.

  3. I agree entirely with Lionel's comment. The first thing I looked for, in today's news story, was whether Bishop Price was foolish enough to join the herd of sheep following Zubik. Bishop Price's action is upsetting and at best overly simplistic. Garry Wills in the NYReview of Books, and others, have articulately explained that the Bishops' statement turns religious liberty on its head. It is the right of individual to religious liberty, without coercion by religious entities attempting to restrict access, which must be protected. Instead the bishops are attempting to coerce everyone to comply with their views in the false guise of protection of liberty. The Catholic Bishops are deliberately allowing themselves to be used as tools of the Republican extreme right in their intense desire to defeat Obama, and allowing themselves to be used to protect the richest one percent under the camouflage of a manufactured social issue. Was Bishop Price's signature authorized by the diocesan council? Shouldn't the council register its disagreement and disapproval of Bishop Price's action? Is it possible that Bishop Price understood what he was supporting? What are the candidates' positions on this issue?

  4. My impression is that the Standing Committee knew nothing of the Christian Associates statement. Surely, Diocesan Council was equally ignorant.

    I have to say that I have never really thought about the freedom of the bishop to express his or her opinion in public. The obvious problem in this case, of course, is that the endorsement appears to commit the diocese to a position.

    It is interesting that nothing on the diocesan Web site addresses the statement. Perhaps the diocese (Diocesan Council?) should repudiate it.

  5. Even though I agree that the argument about religious freedom is a red herring, I think there is value in serious discussion of the limits of religious freedom. Harvard professor Michael Sandel has argued that the Constitution's special protection of religious liberty indicates the different role that religion plays in public life as contrasted with other voluntary associations. When the government limits religious freedom, it must establish that there is a compelling public interest that is being served. I think that argument needs to be made more forcefully and persuasively in this situation, as the argument for the insurance mandate needs to be made. That argument was made for restricting the religious freedom of Quakers by forcing them to finance through their taxes the military. I was not happy about that, but I accepted that the argument was made.

  6. I expressed my displeasure with this to Bishop Price today (he was at St. Andrew's for confirmation). He says that he signed the statement as an individual, not as a representative of the Diocese or of the Episcopal Church, and that he made that clear to Don Green. He said that Episcopal Church polity permits him to state his own opinion publicly, but that it would require action of Diocesan Convention for him to make such a statement on behalf of the Diocese, and that he assumes that Episcopalians would understand that. Unfortunately, the news article does not make that clear. It does not actually state that this represents the position of the various denominations, but it could easily be misinterpreted that way.

    Bishop Price said that the statement was hashed out over a period of time, but he was not present for much of that discussion. He said that the original proposal by Bishop Zubik was quite a bit more radical (calling for the elimination of the health care mandate completely).

    He says that one of the advantages of being an Episcopalian is that we are allowed to disagree with each other. I accept that, and I exercised my prerogative by expressing my disagreement with the statement.

    Bill Ghrist

  7. I am totally disappointed in Ken Price -- shocked as well. And as to signing as an individual - that won't play in the media.

  8. I remember when Jeanie Wylie Kellerman was Editor of the Witness and said she was personally opposed to abortion. She picked up a great deal of flack for that but she had the courage to say what she believed and, while I, as a feminist, was disappointed, as an Episcopalian, I was proud of her courage.

    I will not pretend for a minute that I am pleased with Bishop Price's statement. I think he is sadly misinformed about what is at the heart of this issue. It remains for Episcopalians - especially bishops, but all the members of the baptized - who understand the issue clearly to speak out and sign statements.

    The overwhelming majority of Episcopalians who do so will not only make the opinion of one bishop one of a clear minority but it will stand as a witness to the diversity of The Episcopal Church.

  9. I can't imagine why he would sign such a thing in any capacity, individual or diocesan. Has he missed out on Lambeth '30?


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