Mercy Sister Mary Ann Walsh is director of media relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is picky when it comes to religious exemptions from its rules implementing the nation’s new affordable health care bill. Right now HHS has such a narrow standard as to who operates a religious ministry, Jesus himself couldn’t pass muster. 

HHS has a very limited definition of which Church organizations can be exempted from having to pay for contraceptives, sterilization and other services that violate Church teaching.  

Amazingly, to establish what HHS deems true religion, the agency turned to a definition concocted by the American Civil Liberties Union for a law in California. (For the record, a list of church-state lawsuits suggests ACLU does not look kindly on religious organizations’ active involvement in the public sphere.) 

Following the ACLU lead, HHS argues that a religious exemption should be available just to some religious institutions, and only if they primarily serve and hire persons who share their tenets and restrict their charitable efforts to the inculcation of religious values. 

Meeting basic needs

Here Jesus loses out. His chief teaching about serving one’s neighbor highlights the Good Samaritan, who took care of a woebegone stranger by providing medical care, food and lodging. Jesus did not say anything about checking the man’s religious affiliation beforehand. There was no catechism test afterward. The point of the story is to help anyone who needs help. 

Jesus met needs that were not necessarily catechetical. For the disconsolate father Jairus, Jesus raised his daughter from the dead. For the worried military leader whose servant had a paralyzing illness, he offered a cure. For the wedding couple at Cana, he turned water into wine. He met basic human needs. The Church practice to give help when and where it is needed marks the work of religious institutions from clinics, hospitals and nursing homes to soup kitchens, food pantries and Catholic schools and universities. The goal is to help people because they are fellow children of God, whether or not they pray beside you on Sunday. 

Poor understanding

As the law reads now, to follow HHS rules and qualify for an exemption, many Catholic institutions would have to violate their very mission and refuse service to non-Catholics. They’d have to fire hard-working employees. To maintain their religious integrity, they could be forced to stop providing employee insurance benefits. Or they’d have to close down, a step that would not benefit a nation where one out of six persons seeks hospital care in a Catholic institution. It would also hurt the millions who receive social services and counseling through Catholic Charities; bread, milk and cereal from parish food pantries; and other types of assistance from Church-run agencies. 

You’d have to be pretty removed from American reality not to know that Catholic Charities, Catholic hospitals, Catholic schools and many other Catholic charitable organizations serve more than Catholics. Such service is part of the Church’s mission, following the example of the Good Samaritan and Christians from the first disciples onward. 

Catholics are called to help people in need whatever their religion. To imply that when Catholics reach out to help others they are not being Catholic shows a poor understanding of the role of religion in our society. Most citizens know enough about Jesus and his works to recognize that his followers’ caring ministries deserve respect, even (or especially) when they benefit not just Catholics but the health and human services of the entire nation. 

Mercy Sister Mary Ann Walsh is director of media relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. This column originally appeared on the USCCB Media Blog, and is reprinted with permission.