Theologian says right can flourish even in the midst of the evils in healthcare

GREENVILLE – The U.S. court system and its interpretation of the Constitution have made it increasingly difficult for Catholic hospitals and other service institutions to carry out their mission within the teachings of the Church, according to a Catholic moral theologian.

Father Romanus Cessario, professor of moral theology at St. John’s Seminary in Boston, recently spoke to approximately 100 people during a lecture at St. Mary Church.

His talk, titled “The Church in the Social Welfare State: The Case for Cooperation,” addressed the issue of material cooperation with evil in the health care community and the ability of the church to collaborate with public authorities without cooperating with evil as it relates to health care.

Father Cessario said American Catholics need to be able to exercise their religion within the context of the Church’s hierarchical constitution, a freedom that has left the church less protected under the First Amendment than the non-hierarchical Protestant churches.

“I want to suggest that the emphasis on the free exercise of individuals has neglected or put at risk the associational rights of Catholics,” he said. “The free exercise of individuals is inexplicable from the freedom of their religious institutions to govern themselves.”

Father Cessario said the framers of the Constitution understood this well, but the Supreme Court introduced the narrower view of the free exercise of religion in the 1940s, especially as it relates to public assistance.

The priest said the change has had a direct impact on Catholic educational and health care facilities.

The Supreme Court’s message to Catholic institutions engaged in this sort of work was to strip it of any presence of religion, he said.

The court said, in effect, “If you want any (financial) help you better shut up and just do the work.”

Father Cessario, an editor and one of the founders of the English version of Magnificat, said having the free exercise of religion means being able to exercise that right within all religious institutions, including schools and hospitals.

He said that right can flourish even with the current wave of hospital mergers and expansions that are threatening Catholic hospitals.

“There’s no easy answer, except that you can’t give in to arrangements that are going to be expedient,” Father Cessario said. For example, it’s not acceptable for a Catholic hospital that has merged or become a satellite facility for a larger, secular hospital, to look the other way when that hospital is offering abortion services.

Father Cessario said that the recent abuse scandal in the American Church has challenged its ability to self-govern within an increasingly secular society.

“These events have shown that it is not easy to disentangle the governance of the church from the governance of politics, and to keep civil authority from interfering with the life of the church, even under the pretext of ensuring the common good.

“The rightful autonomy from the political and civil sphere from that of religion and the church — but not from that of morality — is a value that has been attained and recognized by the Catholic Church and carried throughout contemporary civilization,” Father Cessario said. “The church has to do everything that needs to be done to ensure that the salvation of every person is achieved.”

Eileen Conway, a St. Mary’s parishioner, audited a theology course in Virginia two years ago, at which Father Cessario was a guest lecturer.

“His lectures are very deep, very good,” Conway said.

David Hottinger, assistant to the pastor at St. Mary, said Father Cessario and Father Jay Scott Newman, St. Mary’s pastor, are longtime friends and that Father Cessario was on a personal visit here when he agreed to the lecture.