Catholic or Not - Who Decides?

by Maureen Kramlich

February 15, 2002

Sad circumstances brought me to a happy place not too long ago. It was my grandmother's funeral and I returned to St. Catherine's parish and grade school in my hometown Milwaukee, Wisconsin. My family has a long history with the parish. My great grandmother was one of the first contributors to the building of the church. She sent my father and his three siblings to the parish grade school. My four siblings and I attended the school from kindergarten through eighth grade as did my niece and a nephew. St. Catherine's once served a mostly German and Catholic immigrant population. Today it serves a mostly African-American and non-Catholic population.

During my grandmother's funeral Mass, as the homilist retraced my family's history in the parish, I was keenly aware of my deep sense of connection to this history. That day, as I visited the neighborhood and the parish and school grounds, I was struck with a deep sense of pride for its service to the community. St. Catherine's is an integral part of the community, and it serves its people with distinction based on the Church's social justice teaching. But if some have their way, it may not always be able to do so.

In recent years there has been an effort to redefine Catholic institutions, including Catholic grade schools like St. Catherine's, as non-Catholic or non-religious (in fact as secular institutions) when they serve a mostly non-Catholic population. This legislative sleight-of-hand, occurs in, of all things, mandates to require contraceptive coverage in employee health care plans, except when those plans are purchased by "religious employers." Some of these laws use an American Civil Liberties Union definition of "religious employer" that transforms Catholic organizations into non-Catholic ones. For example, a proposed mandate in New York is summarized as follows: "The new bill provides that a religious institution could deny birth control coverage through its employee health plan only if most of the people it employs and most of the people it serves share that religion" (Richard Perez-Pena, "Albany Bill Would Cover Abortion," N.Y.Times, Feb. 4, 2002, B1).

The absurd implications of this definition are captured in the next sentence: "That way, the exemption would not apply in most cases to Catholic hospitals or colleges, but it would apply to churches, dioceses and in many cases, Catholic grade schools" (emphasis added).

Many Catholic schools educate children who are not Catholic, children whose parents sacrifice so they can have the benefit of the excellent education Catholic schools provide. To suggest that Catholic schools and organizations are not Catholic if they serve non-Catholics betrays a total ignorance of Catholic social teaching, which requires service to those who are poor, not just Catholics who are poor.

My visit to the parish of my childhood brought home the important role that this parish and its school have played—as have parishes across the nation. Allowing the ACLU to redefine "Catholic" is beyond the pale. If we allow this to happen, all of us—Catholic and non-Catholic alike—will lose.

Maureen Kramlich is a public policy analyst with the Pro-Life Secretariat, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops