Ben Boychuk: State should let Catholic universities act Catholic

Religious liberty is imperiled in the United States, but not just at the hands of an overreaching government. When churches, schools and charities drift from their missions, government won’t need to do much to undo people’s freedom to live according to their religious beliefs.

Consider the brewing conflict between Loyola Marymount University and California’s Department of Managed Health Care.

Last month, department Director Michelle Rouillard declared that health plans limiting abortion coverage are illegal. In a letter to insurers, Rouillard asserted that abortion is “a basic health care service.” Under the state’s Knox-Keene Health Care Service Act of 1975, she wrote, “all health plans must treat maternity services and legal abortion neutrally.”

Rouillard’s missive didn’t appear from nowhere. While her letter might have been addressed to insurance companies, it was really aimed at LMU, in Los Angeles, and another private Catholic liberal arts college, Santa Clara University.

This is a fight that Loyola Marymount didn’t seek, doesn’t want and would gladly concede given the chance. Because the problem for LMU isn’t a bullying state bureaucracy – it’s the university’s vocal minority of professors, donors and outspoken alumni who insist that the nominally Catholic school act Catholic.

Founded by Jesuits in 1911, LMU today is barely distinguishable from most liberal arts colleges and universities. Its Catholic mission has largely receded from view. The university’s president, David Burcham, is a Presbyterian for heaven’s sake!

Until late last year, LMU’s health plan covered elective abortions. That changed when a group calling itself Renew LMU successfully pressured the school’s board of trustees to change its insurance policy in accordance with Catholic doctrine, which regards abortion as a grave evil.

This was an astonishing turn of events – not least because traditional Catholics are accustomed to losing these sorts of fights. “For a lot of us, it looks like some of our worst fears about teaching at a Catholic university are coming true,” Anna Harrison, a tenured professor of Christian history, told The New York Times, apparently without irony.

Harrison and her progressive colleagues didn’t just shrug off the defeat and go back to toiling in the ivory tower. Rouillard’s letter is their rejoinder.

But just because the university powers-that-be would gladly accept a state edict to pacify their secular faculty doesn’t mean LMU’s Catholics are prepared to capitulate. The Life Legal Defense Foundation, a Catholic religious liberty group, filed a complaint on Sept. 12 with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services on behalf of seven university employees. They allege that California’s freshly contrived elective abortion mandate clashes with federal law.

“Nothing in California law or the state’s constitution requires private health plans to cover abortions,” Life Legal attorney Catherine Short wrote to Rouillard. Short argues that the state constitution “as currently interpreted,” only bars the government from discriminating against women who choose to terminate a pregnancy. It says nothing about private employers.

The fight over elective abortion coverage offers a moment of clarity. Beyond the narrow legal question, it’s worth pondering whether a Catholic institution – or any religious organization, for that matter – can remain true to its foundations when traditional religion appears to be on the wane.

“If people working for the university don’t understand what the university’s mission is supposed to be, that’s a huge problem,” attorney and Renew LMU member Philip Zampiello told me.

He’s right. But it’s becoming increasingly difficult for believers of any stripe to pass on their beliefs. The problem isn’t new – Harvard and Yale were founded as seminaries, after all – but it’s more acute today as churches see their pews empty and their members grow older.

Zampiello says he wouldn’t dream of sending his four children to his alma mater. He joined Renew LMU, he explained, in hopes of making it possible for his grandkids to attend. They have their work cut out for them. Cultures are difficult to build but amazingly easy to destroy. Reclaiming a culture is the work of generations, with no guarantee of success.

Although I’d call myself a lapsed Catholic at best on a good day, my sympathies reside firmly with the traditionalist camp. Yes, they actually believe this stuff, and it’s a good thing, too. Religion can and does enrich society. Religious liberty, properly understood, doesn’t mean you are free to believe whatever you like as long as you leave it at the church door on weekends.

It would be a real blow to religious liberty if California prevails in forcing Catholic institutions to violate their most sacred beliefs. But it will prove far worse for a free and pluralistic society when the same institutions happily violate themselves.

Editor’s note: This article has been revised to correct the number of children that Philip Zampiello has.