When about 300 people came to St. John Brebeuf Church's ministry center Monday night to hear Cardinal Francis George speak, he joked it was amazing to see so many people who would rather hear about religious liberty than watch the Bears play.
The cardinal, who is undergoing treatment for cancer, also said he normally would stand in order to see the audience better, but that he was going to remain seated because he was tired.
George spoke for about 35 minutes, saying that a mandate from the U.S. Health and Human Services Department threatens the ability of Catholic hospitals, schools, and social service agencies to maintain the values of their Catholic consciences as they do their jobs.
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The problem lies in the fact that HHS is setting forth a new definition of religious institutions, and it sets severe limitations on what qualifies, he said.
"They're saying you can't qualify as a religious institution unless you are caring only for your own people, hiring only your own people....it's such a very narrow definition," he said.
Feeding people of other faiths disqualifies institutions
On a four and a half minute video the Cardinal made explaining the issue, he addressed this point in more depth.
"The HHS mandate is saying to be a religious institution, you have to first of all be concerned only with people of your faith. You must hire only people of your faith, you must be of service only to people of your faith, your primary objective must be to foster that faith, rather than just to help the poor, feed the hungry or instruct the ignorant--so you have a very narrow definition of religion, and that's new," he said on the video.
He noted Monday that Catholic schools do educate non-Catholics, Catholic hospitals treat non-Catholics and Catholic social service agencies assist non-Catholics.
In fact, Knights of Columbus members who were volunteering as ushers distributed fliers that said one in three Chicagoans, Catholic and non-Catholic, are served by Catholic Charities' social services.
The HHS mandate would require Catholic hospitals to, for example, give abortifacient pills or perform sterilization or other actions which would violate Catholic values, he said.
Pursuing a solution in the courts
The Catholic church has tried approaching the administration and legislators, he said, and is now pursuing the matter in the courts. If nothing changes, he said, Catholic institutions may be forced to pay heavy fines or withdraw from offering health care coverage.
Andrew Beierwaltes, a deacon at St. John Brebeuf Church who was in the audience, said it was inspiring that the cardinal came out to speak despite his health concerns.
"I'm always impressed when the cardinal speaks," Beierwaltes said. "He made a comment the freedom of religious faith comes together with the freedom to form your conscience. You can't separate the two."
Could affect other faiths?
Also in the audience was Joe Paolelli of Park Ridge, who said, "I worry that a lot of Catholics and citizens at large aren't aware of the magnitude of this issue. It could affect Muslims, Jews, Hindus--it's government entering the realm of religious identity.
"It's taking the form of healthcare and insurance coverage right now, but the principles in the HHS mandate could have different forms of religious oppression."
Judi Stephens of Niles, also in the audience, said, "He (the cardinal) laid out just what the problem is and what we have to be aware of to protect our faith and our faith institutions."
Most people in the audience, she thought, wanted President Obama to change the HHS policy.
"It's a little scary because this was brought to their (the administration's) attention and they said we'll change it, and nothing happened," she said.