By ERIKA ANDERSON, Special To The Bulletin | Published March 29, 2012
As radio hosts, Greg and Jennifer Willits are no strangers to hearing a wide array of listeners’ opinions. But when it comes to the federal health plan mandating free contraceptive coverage by most religious employers, the couple has been surprised by both the support and the dissent the topic has generated.
The Willitses, hosts of Sirius-XM’s “The Catholics Next Door,” were among a panel that discussed the U.S. Health and Human Services’ mandate March 13 at St. Pius X Church in Conyers. The panel also included Kathleen Raviele, M.D., Atlanta obstetrician-gynecologist, and Father Augustine Tran, theology teacher at Blessed Trinity High School in Roswell.
Father Timothy Gallagher, parochial vicar at St. Pius, introduced the panel to the crowd, which included people of various ages and backgrounds.
“This health care mandate affects us at many levels of our Catholic life. It affects our faith life, our family life and our health life,” he said. “Each of these panelists can speak to one of those areas.”
Raviele, a past president of the Catholic Medical Association, began the discussion, explaining the implications for Catholics of the mandate, which requires employers, including religious institutions, to provide contraception, abortion-inducing drugs, and sterilization to employees at no cost, even though this violates the Church’s well-established moral teachings. Religious employers have been given one year to comply with the mandate. After that, employers will face large fines for non-compliance.
Catholic hospitals in the United States, she said, make up one-sixth of all hospital beds and care for more than 650,000 people each year. If an exemption to the mandate for such Catholic institutions is not established, those hospitals may be forced to close, she said.
“Catholic hospitals are the largest providers of indigent care,” she said. “Where will those people be treated?”
Father Tran delved further into the issue.
“The government is saying that if you want to be Catholic and do what our faith teaches, you will be penalized,” he said. “So it’s either go against our consciences or we will have to close our institutions. Because they will be fined millions of dollars that we don’t have.”
The subject of religious freedom, Father Tran said, is not to be taken lightly.
“Religious freedom is about being able to express our faith, to live our faith. Freedom of religion says we can take what we believe and express it in the public square as long as we’re not hurting anyone, but the government is taking that away.”
Greg and Jennifer spoke of their experience speaking about the mandate on their show.
“This is not exclusively a Catholic issue. This is a religious freedom issue,” Greg said. “The number of non-Catholics who have called in to voice their support of the need to defend religious liberties has almost equaled that of Catholics who have also voiced their support.”
Greg also expressed his disappointment that more people had not attended the panel discussion.
“This church should be filled,” he said. “We need people who can explain that this is not just a matter of contraception. This is a matter of all religious freedom being infringed upon.”
Father Tran said that if the mandate goes through, “I also think of the small business owner, those individual Catholics who own a company who would be forced to do this. There is no protection for individuals to follow their Catholic conscience.”
Greg and Jennifer, who just authored a book called “The Catholics Next Door: Adventures in Imperfect Living,” also spoke of Natural Family Planning, a successful biological and natural way of determining when a woman is fertile, and how it has changed their marriage—and their lives—for the better.
“We initially were going to spend just one chapter in our book talking about NFP and chastity but had so much to say, and the Church’s teachings in this area have so positively affected us, our family, and our marriage, that it ended up as two chapters,” Greg said.
For as much positive feedback as Greg and Jennifer have received for their stand with the Church on their radio show, they have been equally surprised by the negative opinions they’ve received when discussing NFP and the mandate.
“I’ve been surprised by the amount of Catholics who have called in to express their frustration over this issue, not because of religious liberties, but because they disagree with the Church’s teachings in regards to life-giving love and chastity,” Greg said. “As is often said by dissenters, they want the Church ‘out of the bedroom.’ What we’ve found in a majority of those situations is that what people rebel against is the idea that they don’t want to be told what to do, and they’ve been conditioned by our culture to believe that sex is a right, rather than a gift from God, and that they have the right to engage in sex however they want.”
“We’ve found the best way to address that kind of dissent is through loving responses and explaining that the teachings of the Church in regards to sexual acts are not restrictive, but are actually freedom-giving when lived out in the way God intended,” he continued. “The teachings of the Church are not restrictions, but rather they are directions on how to more fully experience the life-giving love and union that God intends within the sacrament of marriage.”
The panel discussion wrapped up with a question-and-answer session. Greg encouraged people to get involved by talking about the mandate and its implications for the Church.
“We need to start locally with our friends, with the people we sit with every Sunday. That’s where changes will happen,” he said. “Petitions are great, but we need to start at a local level and keep the discussion going.”
Father Tran reminded those in attendance that prayer is paramount.
“We need to pray for our bishops. We need to pray for our president. We need to pray for everyone in our government,” he said. “We need to do whatever we can to support our priests and bishops during this dangerous time.”