The Merc is shocked, shocked, by Santa Clara U move

There’s nothing the mainstream press likes more than a controversy, even if it has to puff a protest to do so.

In early October, Santa Clara University, in the heart of Silicon Valley, decided it would no longer provide health insurance that pays for elective abortions. Given that SCU is a Roman Catholic school run by the Jesuits, that decision shouldn’t have been all that surprising.

Nevertheless, the editorial team at The San Jose Mercury News was shocked — shocked! — that a Catholic university acted in concert with the doctrinal content of its faith and clear guidance of the late Blessed John Paul II in Ex Corde Ecclesiae:

One week later, both sides in this argument — the Catholics and the local press — were at it again. Santa Clara University is now being joined by Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, also a Jesuit-run school, in dropping abortion coverage, and again, the Merc, as it’s known locally, is ON IT:

Santa Clara University saw a quiet protest Wednesday as some faculty members stood with signs objecting to the school’s decision to end employee health insurance coverage of elective abortions.

The decision last week, coupled with a similar one last week at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles — both Jesuit Catholic institutions — came out of a concern for their religious identity, school leaders said.

Catholic institutions are revisiting the issue after U.S. bishops’ recent battle to keep them from having to cover birth control and sterilization under the new national health insurance law. And some of their faculties reacted angrily.

Apparently, too, the faculty at SCU didn’t get the memo about the whole Catholic/Jesuit thing, and that church leaders — such as Father Michael E. Engh, S.J. (pictured), who is SCU’s president — have a commitment to uphold Catholic teaching. The school held a discussion on the subject, and a few instructors decided to skip the discussion to raise a squall of protest.

At a Santa Clara University forum Wednesday, faculty and staffers carried protest signs outside a forum on the topic. Much of their ire was focused on what some said was a unilateral decision.

“Engh: SCU President or SCU Dictator?” read the sign anthropology professor Mary Hegland carried as some 90 people attended the meeting. SCU President Michael Engh made the decision to change abortion coverage.

The forum was a sham, said English Professor Michelle Burnham. She said she disagreed with the insurance coverage decision and questioned the worth of the forum. “There’s no indication to us that he’s interested in hearing a truly open discussion.”

The sudden squall reflects the contradictions of a deeply conservative faith roiled by a secular modernity. Just last month Pope Francis criticized the Catholic Church’s obsession with “small-minded rules” and called on pastors to embrace compassion over condemnation on issues such as abortion, contraception and homosexuality. The next day, he denounced abortion as a product of “throwaway culture” and urged Catholic doctors to refuse to perform it.

Engh placed his decision within Church doctrine.”Our core commitments as a Catholic university are incompatible with the inclusion of elective abortion coverage in the University’s health plans,” he wrote in an Oct. 3 letter to 1,600 employees. Dropping elective abortion is unavoidable, he said.

Being compassionate about sin doesn’t necessarily mean overlooking sin, a distinction seemingly lost on the editors of the Merc. However, they did an absolutely minimal amount of journalism work, setting up a pro-and-con debate of outside observers to explain it all for us:

“Generally in Catholic higher education there’s a swing toward strengthening Catholic identity,” said Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society, a Virginia-based conservative nonprofit. And on abortion, he said, “Catholic doctrine is quite clear.”

But the larger trend involves Catholic colleges with diverse student bodies and faculties struggling to balance their religious identity, said John Gehring at Faith in Public Life, a social justice group in Washington.

“It’s also complicated by the fact that most Catholics use contraception and consider access to reproductive health something that should not be denied.”

Things may have been soft and squishy at some Catholic schools in times past, but at SCU and, apparently, Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles, new sheriffs are in town — and they’re taking their roles seriously. In the case of both schools, insurers say employers can elect to avoid coverage for abortions and the universities have chosen to do so to be consistent with the doctrine their sponsoring church teaches.

It’s unbelievable that the Merc published this story without a simple factual reference to the key document on the Catholic side of this debate, which is John Paul’s Ex Corde Ecclesiae. How did that happen?

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About Mark Kellner

Mark Kellner has been interested in religion since his pre-teen years, and has written about religious news actively since 1983. His work regularly appears in Adventist World and Adventist Review magazines, where he is news editor, and in The Washington Times, where he has contributed since 1991, most recently writing about trends in religion. He and his wife reside in the Maryland suburbs, midway between Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

  • Julia B

    Thank you for clearing up the paper’s mistaken idea that being compassionate and calling sin a sin are contradictory. I’ve seen papers all over the place making this kind of mistake about Francis’ statements. Including one in Italy who thinks that Francis said to follow your conscience no matter your conscence tells you – such as justifying murder to oneself, etc. He is being hailed as something he is not. Recently my sister posted a meme on FB saying that Francis fired the bling bishop and turned his mansion into a soup kitchen. Neither are true. He suspended the bishop and is leaving the decision of what to do about the buildings up to the locals in Germany who have formed a committee to make that decision. Sheesh. When they finally figure out who Francis really is, the backlash will begin.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    This line gets me: “Just last month Pope Francis criticized the Catholic Church’s obsession
    with “small-minded rules” and called on pastors to embrace compassion
    over condemnation on issues such as abortion, contraception and
    homosexuality.” It makes me want to hit my head against a brick wall. I don’t think Pope Francis would consider the prohibition on abortion as a “small-minded rule.” It’s the press who think it’s small-minded.


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