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Religion, Ethics, and the 2012 Election

Wednesday, Sep. 12, 2012

Tom Reese, S.J., research fellow at the Woodstock Center at Georgetown University, referred to the topic of his recent lecture at SCU--"Religion, Ethics, and the 2012 Election"---as the kind of thing one isn't supposed to talk about at the dinner table but the subject everyone wants to talk about.

In his recent presentation, Reese, the former editor of America magazine, began with an analysis of religious voting patterns in the 2012 Republican primaries. Reese pointed out that the two Catholic candidates in the primary, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, received between them about 60 percent of the evangelical vote, while the Catholics went 50 percent for Romney. Similarly, while only one third of evangelical voters think Mormons are Christians, two thirds of Catholic voters think they are.

Reese speculated that these numbers reflect "more about culture than religion." Republican Catholics tend to be better off, better educated, and live in the suburbs, and "Romney looks like one of their neighbors or the boss who hired them," he observed. By contrast, evangelicals tend to be lower income, less educated, and come from small towns. "Romney looks like the boss who fired them," Reese said.

Reese stressed that Catholic clergy do not come out in favor of one candidate or another, unlike many of their evangelical peers. They do, however, take positions on the issues, one of which, during this campaign season, has been religious liberty.

Religious liberty issues have been part of the discussion on the state level for some time, Reese explained. For example, he cited the decision by the Massachusetts and Washington D.C. dioceses to withdraw from the adoption field when state and district law required that they place foster children with gay married couples. In D.C., Catholic Charities also decided not to continue to provide spousal benefits for any of their employees because if they did, they would have had to provide them for gay married couples, as well.

On what is traditionally thought of as the more liberal side of the ledger, the Church has opposed efforts by some of the states to outlaw transport, shelter, or other aid for undocumented immigrants. The Church, Reese said, was guided by the idea of the Good Samaritan and did not want to have to ask people about their immigration status before giving them a spot in a homeless shelter or taking them to Mass. Cardinal Mahoney of Los Angeles went so far as to tell his priests to break the law and accept going to jail rather than refuse services to the undocumented.

This was the atmosphere in which the controversy over the contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act exploded in January. Twenty states, Reese pointed out, already had such contraceptive mandates, and Church institutions had variously responded by dropping drug coverage, self-insuring, or complying. This year, the federal government decided to include contraception as one of the preventive services of the Affordable Care Act, for which no copayments can be required.

There was an exemption for religious employers, which defined "religious employer" as

• An employer that has inculcation of religious values as its main purpose

• An employer that primarily employs persons who share its religious tenets

• An employer that primarily serves people who share its religious tenets

• A religious organization that is not required under the Internal Revenue Code to file a 990 information return

Reese believes that if the administration had stuck with just the final part of this four-part definition, the controversy would have been avoided, but the other elements raised hackles, not only among the bishops but also among both conservative and liberal Catholics. They were interpreted as the government telling Church institutions to violate their beliefs.

In February, the administration revised the mandate: Religious institutions would not be required to pay for insurance with contraceptive coverage, but insurance companies would be required to provide this insurance for free, on the theory that it was more cost-effective anyway for the companies to pay for birth control than to pay for labor and delivery.

That revision has not pleased the bishops, for a number of reasons. They see it as an accounting gimmick rather than a solution. An attorney for the US Council of Catholic Bishops also suggested that the exemption should extend to anyone with a moral objection to the mandate, not just religious employers. "If I quit this job and opened a Taco Bell," he said, "I'd be covered by the mandate," implying that it would be unfair to ask him, even as a private employer, to participate in a public program that violated his beliefs.

The Catholic Health Association at first welcomed the administration's revision and said it was willing to work with the administration on refining it. But later, CHA proposed a total exemption from the mandate for religious hospitals and universities, with the federal government picking up the tab for contraceptive coverage.

Reese suggested another approach to the controversy. Even in pre-Vatican II days, Catholic moral theologians have made a distinction between formal cooperation with evil and material cooperation with evil. If people cooperate formally, it means that they agree with the goal of the evil person and their action is in service of that goal. Formal cooperation is never acceptable. In material cooperation, a person does not agree with the goal, but might be under coercion or compulsion. A classic example would be the bank teller who stuffs the stolen money into the robber's sack because the robber is holding a gun to her head. In that case, the cooperator is not seen as guilty. Church institutions, Reese argued, could frame the contraceptive mandate issue as one where they are being compelled to material cooperation.

Reese is a distinguished visiting scholar at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. He is a frequent commentator on Catholic issues, with recent appearances on NPR and "The Colbert Report."

Tags: religion and ethics