Faith Debates: Free Contraception, New Liturgy

Catholics leaders are roiled by President Obama's heath care overhaul that will require insurance plans to cover free contraceptives. And some priests and parishioners are wondering if a new liturgy, one moving closer to Latin, will bring people closer to God. Host Michel Martin speaks with Michael Sean Winters of the National Catholic Reporter.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Coming up, you talked back to us. You've been letting us know how you feel about some of those stories we've brought you this week, and we'll give you those comments - a sample, anyway - as well as some updates in just a few minutes.

But first, it's time for Faith Matters. That's the part of the program where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality. Today, we want to take a look at a number of developments affecting members of the Catholic Church in the U.S. and, frankly, people who are not Catholic.

For example, regulations issued in connection with the Obama administration's health care overhaul will require insurance plans to cover contraceptives for women. The mandate does allow for some religious institutions to opt out, but it doesn't cover many Catholic universities, hospitals and charities - which, as I'm sure most people know, affect many more people and serve many more people, including people who are not Catholic.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which is the official organization of the Catholic hierarchy here, called this rule, quote, "an unprecedented attack on religious liberty."

Here to tell us more about this, along with other news, is Michael Sean Winters. He is a writer for the National Catholic Reporter. He's also a fellow with Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies. He's with us once again. Welcome back. Thanks for joining us once again.

MICHAEL SEAN WINTERS: Good to be here, Michel.

MARTIN: So let's start with this issue of exempting religious institutions from parts of the health care law. Could you just please lay out for us - as briefly as you can - what's at the center of this debate?

WINTERS: On August 1st, the Department of Health and Human Services issued new mandates of what has to be covered in insurance plans. And among those procedures that have to be included are contraceptive coverage, sterilization and some post — some drugs, morning-after pills, that the church considers abortifacients.

The conscience exemption from those was exceedingly narrow, and it doesn't include most Catholic organizations, because it said those organizations were exempt if they primarily only served co-religionists. And Catholic schools serve many non-Catholics. Catholic hospitals take everyone. Catholic charities serve everyone. We don't - in the Catholic Church, we don't help the poor because they're Catholic. We help them because we're Catholic, you know, as Cardinal Hickey once said.

MARTIN: Right. So the restriction would apply to institutions whose primary constituency, if you will, are people who are - who share the same religious background, and the bishops are upset because their institutions like hospitals, universities and schools...

WINTERS: Exactly.

MARTIN: ...serve people from many more diverse backgrounds. But, you know, dozens of Catholic hospitals and universities currently offer contraceptive coverage now as part of their health insurance packages. That's part of the administration's argument.

Here's a clip of a nurse at Dominican hospital in Santa Cruz, California. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: We've always had contraceptive birth control included in our health care benefits. It's something we've come to expect for ourselves and for our family. They may be Catholic, but who they employ are not necessarily Catholic.

MARTIN: You know, what about that argument? There are other religious groups who have a similar issue, like the Salvation Army, for example, which as many people may or may not know, is a religious denomination.

WINTERS: Right, right.

MARTIN: But most of the people they employ are not - don't adhere to their - to that faith. And so they are, you know, in the world. They obviously operate under their own, you know, allegiances within the denomination, but they don't have the same requirement of those they employ who do not share their faith. What about that argument?

WINTERS: Well, I think there's two parts to this. One is, it is true that at the state level, certain state laws mandate contraception coverage, and the church works out an arrangement at the state level. That doesn't mean that we're just going to say, well, then we might as well have it at the federal level. That would be like saying, you know, the Republicans took the governorship of Pennsylvania and Ohio, so the Democrats should give up the governorship of New York. That just doesn't make sense to me. And what's different here, obviously, is this is a federal mandate, not a state mandate.

The second part of that is, you know, every club gets to set its own rules, you know, and in the Catholic Church, we don't take referenda on these rules. And so the church is pretty consistent on some of its teachings. And I think that's served the Catholic Church pretty well over time, but we don't take a poll. I mean, we know from looking at the polls, many Catholic women do use contraception, but that doesn't mean that the church endorses it.

And I think the hierarchy looks at an issue like this and they say, you know, attitudes change for reasons that no one can foresee, but we're not going to give up what we think is the truth just because a poll says that our people are not with us on that.

MARTIN: No. But I do have to go back to the question that you just raised, which is that if the Catholic Church is willing to negotiate this matter on a state-by-state level, why isn't that an appropriate guideline for how this issue is navigated on an - on a federal level? Why isn't it? I mean, if it's simply a matter of first principles and core principles and is non-negotiable, why can the Catholic Church negotiate these matters on a state-by-state basis?

WINTERS: I think the history of accommodation between church and state - and not just in this country, but every country in every century - is always kind of complicated, and people try to make accommodations. But then there are these moments - and this is one such moment - where, all of a sudden - and I think here, it's because it's happened at the federal level - people do start engaging the first principles that are involved here in a way that, if you're just a local bishop and you're dealing with, you know, a state official in California, it may not dawn on you that there are these kind of underlying concerns. So I think there's a bit of a tipping-point argument here.

MARTIN: Well, how do you think this is going to - what are the next steps here to look for as to how this issue is to be resolved? As you know, the Obama administration is also under pressure from its, you know, core Democratic constituencies who feel that it is absolutely essential to hold the line.

The core principle for them is extending health care coverage, particularly for the things that people need and want the most, to as many people as possible. They see that's their first principle. And as you - as we discussed, the Catholic bishops have issued some very strong language in opposition to this. What's the next step in this conflict and this conversation?

WINTERS: We're all waiting for the president to make a decision. He did meet with Archbishop Dolan, who's the archbishop of New York and the president of the Bishops' Conference, in November and, after that meeting, Archbishop Dolan said that he thought it went very well.

A source told me that the president told him the archbishop and the other bishops will be very pleased with his decision. That then produced this counter-reaction, and you've seen a lot of pro-choice and women's organizations who come at the issue very differently.

You know, I was speaking to a woman who's a member of the pro-choice caucus in Congress, and she said, you know, I'd feel differently if it was a conscience exemption for Viagra. You know, and it is a shame, I think, that this issue has come up in the context of contraception coverage for a variety of reasons.

But I do think, at the end of the day, the bishops are on pretty solid ground in saying, you know, we built these institutions. Why are you trying - you know, now, you people like the ACLU who are defending the wall of separation between church and state can't jump over that wall fast enough to tell us how to run our schools and our...

MARTIN: Except that these institutions also receive, you know, federal support and federal dollars and tax considerations because they serve communities beyond their own. I mean, there is that, also, part of the argument.

WINTERS: Although that's actually not part of this issue.

MARTIN: Okay.

WINTERS: This is universal mandate under the Affordable Care Act.

MARTIN: All right. So to be continued. Clearly, there's more to cover on this.

WINTERS: We're waiting.

MARTIN: Okay. We're talking with Michael Sean Winters of the National Catholic Reporter. We're talking about a couple of important stories in the news that affect Catholics and others.

This is fascinating to me. This past Sunday, some Catholic parishioners began implementing the new English liturgy. Let's listen to Reverend Chester Snyder of St. Joseph's Church in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania run through the new version with parishioners.

(SOUNDBITE OF CATHOLIC SERVICE)

REVEREND CHESTER SNYDER: Let's practice it. The Lord be with you.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: And with your spirit.

SNYDER: Lift up your hearts.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: We lift them up to the Lord.

SNYDER: Let us give thanks to the Lord, our God.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: It is right and just.

SNYDER: You're pretty good at this.

MARTIN: Well, that wasn't part of the liturgy, but this is the - Michael, explain, kind of, what's the news here?

WINTERS: This is a new translation of the Mass. I think one of the confusions is some people say, oh, because it's - the object of this new translation was to be more faithful to the Latin, there's a sense that somehow we're going back to the pre-Vatican 2 Latin. That's not the case.

What's being translated here is the post-Vatican 2 Mass in Latin. This is not a retrenchment to the old Mass at all.

MARTIN: So what's the criticism? What's the pro, what's the con? I hate to put it in such crude terms, but what's the pro and what's the con?

WINTERS: I think the pro is that the language is more elevated, and certainly more faithful to the Latin. I mean, this was much easier for the Spanish and the French, because their languages were closer to Latin. And so now I would say that the English is actually going to be much closer to the English — to the Spanish and French translations. And in this country, you know, bilingual Masses are going to be the wave of the future. So that would be the pro.

The con is we - the other language was a little bit more accessible — and the critics would say it was more pedestrian, and that's not appropriate for a liturgy — and people were familiar with it. And everybody likes, you know, things that are familiar.

MARTIN: Do you mind if I ask your opinion about this? I know we invited you here as a reporter...

WINTERS: Right.

MARTIN: ...to give us the — to tell us what the news is. But do you mind if I ask your opinion?

WINTERS: Yeah.

MARTIN: On the one hand there, I can see the point, I mean, that some people think that the whole purpose of making the language more accessible - which was the whole point of Vatican 2, which was to bring people closer to their faith, but so they could really understand what was being said and develop that deep connection to it.

WINTERS: Yeah.

MARTIN: And then others say, well, the whole purpose of the liturgy is to be lofty, to create a sense of transcendence, something bigger than the self and the day-to-day. Of course, it also, I have to say, does do away with all the gender - no more of this gender neutral. It's he.

WINTERS: Right, right.

MARTIN: It's he. No doubt about that. What's your take on it? Do you mind if I ask you?

WINTERS: I mean, you know, I usually go to a Latin Mass, and so I haven't really been paying that much attention. But - no. I did, last Sunday, actually go to a Mass, and the people you just played in that tape were much better than the congregants where I worshipped at the University of Maryland.

I actually think it's a great opportunity because, you know, take some of the words that have been cited as clunky and unhelpful. One of them is ineffable. God is now described in the liturgy as ineffable. And people say, well, people don't know what ineffable means. I said, well, then we have to do a better job teaching people who God is, because understanding that he's always greater than our preconceptions of him is a pretty essential component to it. And so if they don't know what ineffable is, explain it.

MARTIN: But aren't you teaching people what ineffable is, as opposed to what God is? I think that's the core of the argument, isn't it? It isn't really a grammar and...

WINTERS: Explain God without using the word ineffable. That's a pretty important thing to know about him. You know, another one of the questions is the word consubstantial. Now, this is a translation of the Greek homoousios, and it was the central debate at the Council of Nicea in 325. You know, it's worth revisiting that debate. It was an important debate. We have a kind of cultural remnant of that. When someone says it doesn't make an iota's worth of difference, in Greek, it was homoousios versus homoiousios. There was an iota in there.

But it matters whether or not you think Jesus is God or whether he's just a lot like God. And in 325, it was - many bishops were heterodox, and it was the people of Gangra who said, well, wait a minute. If we're praying to Jesus and he's not God, are we idolaters? That's worth re-teaching our people.

MARTIN: So these are things that are worth learning, in your view?

WINTERS: Absolutely.

MARTIN: All right. That's one view. That's Michael Sean Winters' view, from a guy who goes to a Latin Mass voluntarily. Thank you, Michael Sean.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WINTERS: The music is better.

MARTIN: Thank you, Michael Sean. Michael Sean Winters is a writer for the National Catholic Reporter. He's also a fellow with Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies, and he was with us here in Washington, D.C.

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