Lost in all the attention given to the papal events in Rome, but well worth noting, is President Barack Obama’s invitation to New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, to come to the White House to discuss a series of issues, most notably the question of requiring employers under the new health care law to provide employees access to contraception.
The invitation was not altogether a surprise. For some time, it has been rumored that some people close to, and even in, the White House are uncomfortable with the dispute that has arisen between the government and the U.S. bishops regarding this health care provision and are urging the president to come to an agreement with the bishops. It also has been speculated that if the matter reaches the U.S. Supreme Court, the government well might lose.
It will be interesting to watch.
In any case, Cardinal Dolan said that he would be most willing to meet Obama, and the cardinal listed a number of issues for possible conversation: reasonable regulation of firearms; increased attention to the needs of people with mental illness; immigration reform; access to comprehensive, affordable and “life affirming” health care, specifically including care for the unborn, the undocumented and the dying; international assistance to the world’s poor; protecting the environment; educational reform, including parental choice; developing a financially responsible federal budget; peace in the Middle East; effects to strengthen family life and uphold fatherhood.
None of these issues is novel in terms of formal, publicly stated opinions of the American bishops. The bishops’ positions all have been reached after studying Church doctrines as they apply in these various instances, including pronouncements of popes and quite settled Catholic dogma.
Few Catholics in the pews, if any, would argue with the bishops on their demand for health care coverage for the unborn and the elderly. Few would be unhappy that the bishops want to strengthen family life, even with the obvious implication of opposing same-sex marriage.
Other aspects, however, well may be controversial among Catholics. Firearms regulations, immigration reform, protection of the environment, health care for all, assistance to the poor and the federal budget all have aspects that the bishops already have addressed, and, frankly, their views have not been popular with every Catholic.
Basic principles should be remembered. First, no human act is above or beyond morality. Actions by individuals are moral or immoral, although, of course, the seriousness of the moral dimension varies from instance to instance. This pertains to human decisions collectively made, such as the laws and regulations put forward by governments.
Secondly, morality is not a question of consensus among people, even if the people in point are learned, quite earnest, personally experienced in the circumstance at hand or highly respected. Rather, morality means consistency with God’s revelation of truth and justice.
This revelation is eternal. The long tradition of the Roman Catholic Church is that the Holy Spirit assures that the Church throughout human history holds fast to the revelation of right and wrong once revealed to people by the prophets, most perfectly by Jesus, and then by the apostles commissioned by the Lord to continue to proclaim all that God has revealed.
The Church then is no merely earthly institution.
Issues are complex. Conditions change. Still, Catholics must remember how and where the Church gets its message.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.