At the recent Deanery meeting held at the priory in St. Marys, pastors and priests of Elk County parishes gathered to discuss issues of relevance to the Catholic Church, with the prevalent topic being that of a recent mandate by the Obama administration that requires employers, including religious institutions, to provide contraceptives for employees under healthcare plans.
Statements from bishops, including Bishop Donald W. Trautman of Erie, opposing "compulsory health insurance funding for contraceptives, sterilizations, and abortifacients" were present in many church bulletins in recent weeks.
In a statement, the bishop said that the issue is not one of political affiliation, but rather one of a "constitutional right to religious liberty and freedom of conscience protected by the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment."
This viewpoint has been echoed by pastors and priests from Elk County parishes, including Father Eric Vogt of Sacred Heart Parish in St. Marys.
"My personal opinion is how can the government legislate morality...As any human being, you have to protect the right to life because that's a God-given gift, and to have the government legislate that just makes no sense to me even as a voter," Father Eric said.
Father Eric also discussed the potential political ramifications the mandate could spell for President Obama in this, an election year.
"I think when the White House found out about the outrage that the bishops felt, he saw 20-30 percent who vote and that's a formidable percentage when you're up for re-election," Father Eric said.
Father Brian Vossler of St. Leo's said that parishioners have approached him regarding the controversy, even urging him to speak out against the president while officiating Mass.
"One [parishioner] was livid because he wanted to get into the political sphere of the whole issue. He wanted me to get up and to preach against certain candidates or those in office," he said.
Father Brian explained that the Church cannot advocate or openly oppose any politician or candidate, as doing so could result in the church losing its tax-exempt status.
"However, we can raise the awareness of the issues at hand and try to guide our people into voting for those individuals who would best represent out stance on many issues," Father Brian said.
Father Eric said he would not tell parishioners whom to vote for, but instead will tell them to "vote with your conscience."
In recent days, the Obama administration has offered a compromise that would require health insurance companies, rather than religious institutions and affiliated charities, to provide contraceptives and cover the costs. While some Catholic groups have expressed support for the compromise, many within the Church still find fault with the proposed concession.
Father Jim Faluszczak, pastor of St. Boniface Church in Kersey, said the proposed concession does not go far enough in protecting the conscience and religious freedom of those individuals and private employers not associated with the Church.
"Maybe it's a step in the right direction but I'm not so sure...A private employer is going to be forced still to provide that type of coverage and if that private employer, there's no provision to protect their conscience and that's a concern that I think is still lingering," Father Jim said.
Father Jim added that many Catholic churches are "self-insurers," meaning they directly assume the financial risk in providing healthcare insurance to employees, and said that questions remain as to how the compromise would affect them.
"Where is the mandate then if we're the insurer, and that got us thinking then, well, we're still in the dark about the effect that is going to have us or anybody who is a self-insurer. I don't know if that is an issue in our diocese, but I know in other places it is," Father Jim said.
Elk County's Catholic churches are under the Erie Diocese, which is not a self insurer.
Similarly, Father Michael Ferrick, pastor of Queen of the World Church in St. Marys and president of the Elk County Catholic School System, said he was left wondering what the proposal would mean for self-insured Catholic hospitals and colleges. Father Michael also expressed skepticism that the insurance companies will be willing to absorb the expense of contraceptive coverage as conveyed in the compromise discussion.
"There's a couple of things wrong with that. The insurance companies aren't going to give anything away for free like any business. We're going to have to pay for it, the people who pay for insurance," Father Michael said.
In relating the discussion on the subject at the recent Deanery meeting, Father Brian said it involved the priests and pastors in attendance "reconfirming their stance on the dignity and respect for all life, from moment of conception to death."
Pick up a copy of the Thursday, Feb. 23, 2012 edition of The Ridgway Record for more.