What a difference a real estate deal makes.
A year ago this week, Bishop Richard Malone of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Maine issued a scathing news release under the headline “Obama Tramples Religious Freedom.”
Malone’s complaint: President Obama’s mandate that workplace health insurance plans include free contraceptive coverage for female employees was “a blatant and capricious affront to conscience rights and religious liberty.”
“The Church, as a matter of doctrine, opposes the use of contraception and particularly the morning-after pill since it often serves to induce abortion,” Malone declared at the time.
Fast forward to late last month, when the diocese announced its $2.75 million purchase of a small shopping plaza at 290 Congress St. in Portland. A plaza anchored by a Rite Aid store that sells, along with an array of other contraceptives, the morning-after pill.
You read that right: Twelve months after Malone denounced morning-after pills because they “violate our moral code of conduct,” the same pills are being sold on church-owned property directly across the street from the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.
“This medication is used in women to prevent pregnancy after birth control failure (e.g., broken condom) or unprotected sex,” Rite Aid explains on its website. “It is a progestin hormone that prevents pregnancy by preventing the release of an egg (ovulation) and changing the womb and cervical mucus to make it more difficult for an egg to meet sperm (fertilization) or attach to the wall of the womb (implantation).”
“It’s really a balance,” said David Guthro, spokesman for the diocese, when asked this week to reconcile Malone’s news release with his purchase-and-sale agreement.
Added Guthro, “The decision was made that this is in the best interest of the diocese at this time.”
The decision to purchase the property was, in itself, a sign of these ever-changing times: Steadily shrinking collections, an estimated $4 million in settlements and other costs stemming from the sexual abuse of Maine children by Catholic priests, and heavy political expenditures against same-sex marriage in 2009 have combined to leave the Maine diocese increasingly strapped for cash in recent years.
Thus it made sense, Guthro explained, for the diocese to invest in commercial real estate for the first time in its 159-year history, because “the rental income has a better return than fixed-income investments.”
Fair enough. But to become the landlord to — and hence profit from — a tenant that sells the morning-after pill? How does that jibe with church doctrine that depicts the same pill as inherently evil?
“It was something that was discussed by the diocesan Finance Council and the College of Consultors,” said Guthro.
(The former is composed primarily of lay people with financial expertise; the latter is a panel of priests that advises Malone as he administers the Maine diocese from his new headquarters as bishop of Buffalo, N.Y.)
Guthro said both groups recognized the apparent contradiction between condemning the morning-after pill from the pulpit while indirectly profiting from its sale on church-owned property in the shadow of the cathedral.
So “they used an assessment from a moral theologian to discuss the matter,” Guthro said.
Enter the Rev. Joseph Daniels, a church-licensed theologian and a member of the Society of Christian Ethics.
“In moral theology, this involves the ‘principle of cooperation,’” Daniels said in an telephone interview from Corpus Christi Parish in Waterville, where he serves as pastor.
“There are various kinds of cooperation,” explained Daniels. “Cooperation can be distinguished between being proximate — being very closely involved with something — or remote — being more distant from involvement with a particular activity.”
At the same time, he said, cooperation can be distinguished by behavior: “Is it formal? Or is it material? Are we directly engaged in the activity formally? Or are we involved, but our action is not direct?”
The fact that the church collects rent from Rite Aid derived in part from the sale of contraceptives, Daniels said, is sufficiently “indirect” to pass moral muster.
That said, he conceded, “I would imagine that there would be Catholics who would reflect on this and find it somewhat troubling.”
To those confused communicants, Daniels said, he would point out that Rite Aid’s inventory extends far beyond contraceptives, that the Congress Street store serves as a much-needed retail “anchor” to the surrounding neighborhood, and that the diocese has a moral obligation to maintain “good stewardship of diocesan resources.”
All well and good — if not a tad slippery.
In a 1995 article titled “The Principle of Cooperation,” the Rev. James Keenan (who tutored Daniels at the Weston School of Theology in Cambridge, Mass.) cautioned that “any act of material cooperation requires a proportionately grave reason.”
So what “grave reason” precipitated the diocese’s involvement, however indirect, in the sale of the morning-after pill? The need for a deeper revenue stream?
And as he navigates these shades of gray, what would Daniels advise if the diocese had its eye on an office building only to discover that its list of tenants included, say, Planned Parenthood?
“I think that would be a disqualifier for the purchase,” he quickly replied.
Even if the relationship — tenant and landlord — were essentially the same as the one with Rite Aid?
“The relationship would be a landlord-tenant relationship,” agreed Daniels. “But we certainly know what Planned Parenthood does.”
Just as Bishop Malone, by his own words, knows what the morning-after pill does.
Daniels said he’s not sure how long the shopping-plaza deal had been in the works before he was asked to run it through his moral filter.
Still, it’s hard not to wonder: If diocesan officials had asked Daniels for a set of guidelines long before they set their sights on a particular property, would he have advised that they adhere closely to their own doctrine and steer clear of all things contraceptive?
“Obviously,” Daniels replied, “you try to enter into cooperative relationships which are most beneficial and complimentary to the church’s mission.”
Or, failing that, you just look the other way.
Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: