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James Sweeney on the Group's Next Step After Supreme Court Denies Appeal

SACRAMENTO, California, OCT. 8, 2004 (Zenit) - Though its appeal was denied by the U.S. Supreme Court, Catholic Charities says it won't compromise its religious beliefs and include contraceptive coverage in its insurance plan for employees.

James Sweeney, general counsel for the California Catholic Conference and senior partner at Sweeney, Davidian & Greene, stressed that point in an interview with us.

Sweeney shared the next plan of action for Catholic Charities: to re-examine itself and its employee benefits programs with a view to carrying out its mission with integrity and fidelity in a hostile social and legal environment.

Q: Now that the U.S. Supreme Court has declined to hear your appeal, what is Catholic Charities going to do?

Sweeney: It is critical to understand that, in denying Catholic Charities' petition for certiorari, the Supreme Court has not "approved" the decision of the California Supreme Court or given its judicial imprimatur to a deeply flawed and outrageous opinion.

As is often the case, the high court allows important issues such as this one to come before it on a petition for certiorari a few times before it takes up the case.

There is a similar case making its way through the New York state court system that will undoubtedly again present these same issues to the U.S. Supreme Court in a year or two.

I would not be surprised to see the court decide to take up that New York case because, by then, the issue will have percolated through the legal systems of more than one state and will have consequently taken on a national dimension, which the court clearly prefers.

In the meantime, Catholic Charities is going to have to seriously re-examine itself and its employee benefits programs with a view to carrying out its mission with integrity and fidelity in a hostile social and legal environment.

One thing, however, is clear: This fight is far from over, and the Diocese of Sacramento and its charitable ministries are simply not going to disregard the critical moral and religious teachings of our Church. Period.

We challenged this grossly unjust law to the highest level in the American justice system and we have no intention of surrendering to a secular hegemony that refuses to respect our most profound religious beliefs.

We are now going to have to "go back to the drawing board" and come up with a plan to carry out the charitable work of the Church with fidelity to our religious beliefs. As was said in response to another crisis of national dimension, failure is not an option. We will function with fidelity and integrity; that is not negotiable.

Q: Could you comment on the irony of the Church asking politicians to forgo support of abortion just at the moment the Church itself is ordered, in effect, to pay for chemical abortions?

Sweeney: I think it is quite clear that the Church will not, under any circumstances, fund or cooperate in the procurement of abortion, chemical or otherwise. As a Church attorney, I am absolutely confident that this will not happen, ever.

Were the Church ever to directly face legal coercion to cooperate in the procurement or performance of abortion, I foresee massive civil disobedience on the part of the Church, its bishops, priests and laity, in resistance to such gravely immoral and intrinsically evil conduct.

Thankfully, we're not there at the moment and we have to pray hard that we never get to that point.

Q: At what point can a "Catholic" organization go on accepting federal funds if it is forced to embrace actions that are so clearly against Catholic doctrine?

Sweeney: For many years, Catholic organizations have enjoyed mutually beneficial public-private partnerships with federal, state and local government agencies regarding the provision of high quality, cost efficient social services to needy communities and groups.

These relationships have always been premised upon understanding and respect -- i.e., an understanding that the social service organization is a ministry of the Catholic Church and respect for our Catholic religious and moral beliefs.

In recent years, the pro-abortion lobby has been extraordinarily successful in persuading legislators and judges into believing the fallacious secularist shibboleth that such respect somehow violates "separation of church and state."

However, contrary to this fallacious nonsense, respecting religious beliefs and accommodating religious differences is not a constitutional problem. Rather, such respect and accommodation are inherently American values that are guaranteed by both the federal and state constitutions.

Ultimately, if the government fails to respect the rights of religiously affiliated charities to function with integrity and fidelity, it will drive religious organizations from these successful public-private partnerships that have worked so well in years past to serve underserved communities in acute need. Sadly, it is these underserved communities that will suffer, which would be very, very unfortunate for everyone.

Q: Is it wise for the Church to spend time on merely social work that has no religious content or value? Charitable works are a clear part of the mission of the Church -- but done in a way that involves contradicting doctrine?

Sweeney: I must disagree with the premise of this question. Feeding the poor and helping those in need have immeasurable religious value. Indeed, the Gospel calls us to feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, tend to the sick and injured, and visit the prisoner.

The fact that such work can be done by a secular organization does not diminish its religious value to a faithful Catholic or undermine its religious value to us. By our works, to paraphrase St. James, we show our faith. Thus, to suggest that the Church should walk away from doing charitable work really ignores, in my view, the importance of works in our lives of faith.

Rather than covering our works with a bushel basket and barring the door to those who need us the most, we must, in my view, resist the forces that try to coerce us to turn stones into loaves of bread, to again paraphrase Scripture; we cannot submit to the forces of darkness. As our Lord has enjoined us, we must be as wise as serpents and continue to function in a world increasingly willing to reject us.

This does not mean abandoning our important religious beliefs or making compromises regarding those beliefs. It means, rather, that we must resist responsibly, we must fight the good fight, and we must be very smart in how we carry out our works of faith. I believe we can do all these things and still conduct our affairs with integrity and fidelity.

If there is anything to learn from the Catholic Charities case, I think it is this: We will fight the good fight, we are not afraid to lose, we will not compromise on our fundamental religious beliefs and we are not going to go away.

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