January 25, 2013

Bill Nemitz: Uh-oh, bishop, what have you gotten yourself into?

By Bill Nemitz bnemitz@pressherald.com
Columnist

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)."

Let's discuss.

"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.

Meaning?

"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."

(Continued on page 2)

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