Louis Hannegan, Managing Editor
University of Dallas President Thomas Keefe sought to clarify in an interview on Friday how UD plans to respond to the Health and Human Services Mandate set to take effect on Aug. 1.
Keefe’s clarification was prompted by an opinion piece by Christina Witkowski that appeared in the April 9 issue of The University News and that criticized Keefe’s alleged decision to take his cues from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) on how to respond to the HHS Mandate.
“The young lady was suggesting that we didn’t need to pay attention to the USCCB, but that it was only our local ordinary who gave us direction. And, certainly, in canon law, she’s absolutely right,” Keefe said. “Practically speaking, Bishop Farrell is going to work in concert with the USCCB, and we’re going to come up with a solution that will be acceptable to the entire Catholic Church in this country. We’re not going to be a rogue agent.”
Keefe said that UD will ultimately take its direction from Bishop Farrell, but that Bishop Farrell will be “informed” by the guidance of the USCCB—as well as that of the Vatican—on how best to respond.
Farrell, though not bound to follow the USCCB, will “respect” its wisdom and provide interpretations for the guidance he freely chooses to follow, Keefe said.
“Bishop Farrell will interpret what the bishops are saying and give us direction as to what to do, and I follow Bishop Farrell’s lead. I will defer to Bishop Farrell’s interpretation of what the USCCB is directing us to do,” Keefe said.
Keefe is confident that there will be no discrepancy between Bishop Farrell—the sole canonical authority for Catholics in Dallas—and the USCCB, whose function is not authoritative but advisory. Instead, Keefe expects each to draw on the wisdom of the other.
“They [the bishops] look at Bishop Farrell as a leader, not as someone who is standing on the outside looking in. The bishops will reach some accord and will provide some direction to the Catholics of this country as to what Catholics of good faith should do,” Keefe said. “And Bishop Farrell will be one of those bishops that provides us with that direction. Cardinal Dolan, Cardinal Wuerl, Cardinal DiNardo, Archbishop Carlson, Bishop Farrell—they all work in accord, together, to come up with the best possible solution.”
Keefe said that Farrell has been working in close concert with the other bishops who, according to Keefe, are in the process of negotiating an exemption from the mandate with the Department of Health and Human Services.
If the bishops cannot reach an acceptable agreement with the Obama administration, the university would be forced to consider the final measure of canceling its insurance plans, something Keefe is hopeful an accommodation can avoid.
“The last resort would be to discontinue offering health-care benefits to a group at the university. That would be the absolute last resort,” Keefe said. “We’re hoping that the federal government does not put us in that position. But unless we reach an accommodation—unless they can negotiate some kind of reasonable accommodation—I don’t know what other choices we have.”
In such a situation, Keefe said that UD would have to go to Bishop Farrell and ask, ‘What is our direction? What does the Church call for us to do?’
Keefe emphasized the moral complexity of the situation UD faces.
“There are social-justice issues on both sides of this. Providing such health-care benefits [contraceptives, abortifacients and sterilizations] to employees is abhorrent to us. Not providing health-care benefits to employees is abhorrent to us as well. There are any number of people here who live from paycheck to paycheck who depend upon the health-care benefits, and us pulling the rug out from underneath them is not something that we would do. I just don’t know how we in good conscience could do that; I don’t know how in good conscience we could provide services in violation of the Catholic Church,” Keefe said with a stressed look.
“So in some ways … I have to look for theological minds that are wiser than me, who understand what the teachings of the Church call for us to do—what the Gospel of Jesus Christ calls for us to do—and for us to comport to that. We are a faithful Catholic institution. We exercise truth in advertising. We tell people we are and we will be,” Keefe said, while expressing his uncertainty about how UD would maintain that truth.
The one-year exemption from the mandate for religious institutions—the so-called “temporary safe harbor”—expires Aug. 1 of this year. Beginning in 2014, institutions that fail to cover contraception will face fines of up to $100 per employee per day. Institutions that fail to provide insurance will face fines of up to $2,000 per employee per year.
“Ruinous—that’s a good way to describe it [the dollar amount of the fines UD would face]. It would be untenable—it wouldn’t be something that we could financially absorb,” Keefe said.
The university faces its own deadline of Nov. 1, when open season begins in the insurance market. By this date, UD must have finalized its insurance packages so employees can select their plan that will begin on Jan. 1. Until the HHS issue is resolved, the university remains unsure of what plan it will offer—if any at all.
Keefe and the Board of Trustees plan to discuss the options available and expected directions at the upcoming board meeting on May 31.
In the meantime, Keefe is confident that the significance of the Catholic Church will give the bishops substantial bargaining power in their negotiations with the Obama administration—a confidence Keefe says the bishops have confirmed and given no reason to doubt.
“We’re part of the largest, independent provider of education, health care and social services in the United States: the Catholic Church. We don’t stand alone,” Keefe emphasized. “There are a whole bunch of other institutions that are in the same box, and the bishops understand that. We are a formidable societal organization. Just beyond our theology, the services we provide, in the name of Jesus Christ, to individuals is profound. I can tell you, the administration is well aware of the implications of shutting down numerous Catholic institutions.”
For those outside of the negotiations—such as Keefe himself and all those at UD—Keefe said that patience, prayer and faith are the watchwords.
“Prayer is probably the more powerful thing we can do right now,” Keefe said. “Through prayer and faith, I am confident that we will emerge from these very difficult times.”