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Bishop Terry LaValley. Source: Diocese of Odgensburg
Bishop Terry LaValley. Source: Diocese of Odgensburg

As social issues shape 2012 campaign, North Country bishop speaks out

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After the long recession, most pundits expected the 2012 political campaign to revolve around economic issues.

But politicians on the right and left have instead been reviving some surprising social questions, ranging from contraception to prenatal testing to the role of religion in politics and public life.

In an interview with Newsweek magazine, New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat, argued that opposition to insurance coverage for those services amounts to "an attack on women."

"Many of us are outraged, really outraged," Sen. Gillibrand told the magazine. "In the year 2012, we should not be debating access to birth control. No boss should be making a decision about what health care their employees should be eligible to take."

Polls show that the vast majority of American families use contraception and think contraception should be widely available. Surveys also suggest that a smaller majority of Americans think religious groups should provide full insurance benefits to employees.

But Bishop Terry Lavalley, who heads the Diocese of Ogdensburg, sees this very differently.

He argues that Federal changes to healthcare laws proposed by the Obama administration threaten the religious freedom of groups like the Roman Catholic Church.

Bishop LaValley met recently with Brian Mann to talk about the Church's prominent role in this year's political campaign and about the difficulties of teaching Catholic doctrine in an age when even many Roman Catholics are making very different moral choices.

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Mann: "Well thank you very much for taking some time to talk with me. This is a moment when the community of bishops has stepped very much into the public light and a political moment; it's the middle of a presidential campaign. The President's healthcare plan was controversial already and now this issue of contraception and voluntary sterilization has come to the fore. So let me ask first how comfortable are you, in your role as bishop, kind of stepping into that political world and that political dialogue that's going on right now."

LaValley: "I wish I didn't have to, to be honest with you. It's not just the Catholic Bishops however that are stepping forward, and the issue is not so much the contraceptive [and] sterilization, the issue is religious freedom. And so because it has such an important impact on the church and what the church does and what the church is about, the dioceses and the bishops have a very serious responsibility to inform the faithful about what is happening and encouraging them to participate in the political process so we can 'right the ship' if you will."

Mann: "This is obviously a new federal provision that the religious community has reacting to. New York State has had a law on the books for about ten years that does a similar thing that has similar requirements. What is the situation now in the diocese, I mean in terms of insurance providing these kinds of services."

LaValley: "The biggest impact for the diocese in that regard would be Catholic Charities. Presently, Catholic Charities is operating with a waiver and we're still struggling to see that legislation is changed in New York, but however with the waiver that we're operating under we are still able to be faithful to our teaching and still provide the kind of really important outreach to the people that have come to expect the church providing those kind of services beyond just the Catholic population."

Mann: "This is such a clear moral position that the Vatican and the Bishops have taken and yet polls seem to suggest that vast majority of Roman Catholics who are in your pews, who are in the congregations are going a different direction in terms of exercising their moral choices and their freedoms. I mean apparently Roman Catholics use contraception about as often as people outside the church. Does that muddy this question of religious freedom at all, that the bishops have a view but then the actual practitioners of Catholicism have a different view."

LaValley: "Again, the question is not contraception, or the use of contraceptive or sterilization. That’s not the issue. The issue here is that the government has now placed itself into a position to determine what comprises the Catholic Teaching, what is available - what can be deemed a Catholic Population, and what is not a Catholic Population. The government is not the great being out there that determines what’s religion and what's not religion."

Mann: "One of the things that's fascination about the church here in the North Country and at large is that unlike a lot of religious groups the church is deeply involved in a wide range of civic life, and not just for Roman Catholics. I mean there are schools and healthcare providers and Catholic social services, and I wonder if that complicates this picture at all, that you find yourself doing a lot of work in a wholly and religious role, but also provide some of those quasi-governmental services."

LaValley: "Sure, I mean, clearly if the church were not being church and were not doing that kind of outreach - whether it's educational, whether it's healthcare, whether its social services - it would be a tremendous financial burden for the government."

Mann: "Given that you have stepped into, for a long time now, this kind of quasi-governmental services role in a culture where things like contraception are mainstream, is there room to be more flexible? I mean I know what the Catholic core teachings are but then when you're giving these services to a non-Catholic why not draw lines? Say 'Ok if you're Roman Catholic we don't do contraception but if you're somebody who has nothing to do with our church and you come in looking for these services we'll adapt to the wider culture.'"

LaValley: "Because it is a fundamental teaching of our faith. It's a question of life; it's a question of preservation of life."

Mann: "As you guide your diocese and as you think about these very firm teaching within the church, moral planks that are just hard and fast, does it get more complicated as the American culture in some ways I think it's fair to say is sort of going in some different directions?"

LaValley: "It certainly becomes much, much, much more challenging when the culture becomes more secular, which means the bishop, which means the pastor, has to be truly prophetic - and I'm not talking about predicting the future - but I'm talking about living the Gospel in an environment that's not always comfortable listening to it and responding to it. So you're absolutely right, it becomes more complex it's a greater challenge for me, personally, to live my own faith and share it with my family members. We come from families too, you know. But to really understand it as best we can and continue to learn more and more. Just the medical field for instance, things continue to progress so quickly. So how do you apply these fundamental teachings of the church given a totally different culture, different age, than it was just fifty years ago?"


That's Bishop Terry LaValley head of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Ogdensburg, speaking with Brian Mann. Bishop LaValley says Catholic leaders are now reviewing a compromise plan offered by the white house that would have health insurance companies offer coverage for services like contraception without the direct involvement of faith groups.

Tomorrow during the Eight O'Clock Hour we'll talk with a religious leader in the North Country who sees this issue from a different perspective.

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