Asking the right questions about ‘touching’

Bishop Robert Vasa of Baker, Oregon, is almost certainly going to get himself in hot water with the U.S. Bishops Conference Office of Child and Youth Protection. That’s entirely to his credit.

In the midst of the Long Lent of 2002, the conference passed a “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People” (which was revised and reissued this last June). Article 12 of the charter requires dioceses to “maintain ‘safe environment’ programs … to be conducted cooperatively with parents, civil authorities, educators, and community organizations.” The charter also specifies that these programs “be in accord with Catholic moral principles.” More than a few parents in more than a few dioceses have raised serious questions about whether many of these programs meet that standard. Bishop Vasa evidently agrees. In a recent pastoral letter, he listed the questions he thought needed to be answered before he was prepared to implement Article 12 of the Charter:

“Are such programs effective? Do such programs impose an unduly burdensome responsibility on very young children to protect themselves, rather than insisting that parents take such training and take on the primary responsibility for protecting their children? Where do these programs come from? Is it true that Planned Parenthood has a hand [in] or at least a huge influence on many of them? Is it true that other groups, actively promoting early sexual activity for children, promote these programs in association with their own perverse agendas? Do such programs involve, even tangentially, the sexualization of children, which is precisely a part of the societal evil we are striving to combat? Does such a program invade the Church-guaranteed-right of parents over the education of their children in sexual matters? … Do such programs introduce children to sex-related issues at age-inappropriate times? Would such programs generate a fruitful spiritual harvest? Would unsatisfactory answers to any of the questions above give sufficient reason to resist such programs?

“There are many concerned parents who have indicated to me that the answers to all of these questions are unsatisfactory. If this is true, do these multiple problematic answers provide sufficient reason to resist [implementing Article 12 of the Charter as currently interpreted]? At the very least, even the possible unsatisfactory answers to any of the questions above leaves me unwilling and possibly even unable to expose the children of the diocese to harm under the guise of trying to protect them from harm. I pray that, in this, I am neither wrong-headed nor wrong.

“For holding to this conviction, I and the diocese may be declared negligent — weighed and found wanting.”

Which is likely true. It may get worse than that. No one should be surprised if unsavory rumors about Bishop Vasa and the Diocese of Baker start worming their way around Catholic cyberspace. Nor should it be surprising, were that to happen, if the smear campaign turns out to have originated in the very quarters most determined to impose “safe environment” training of a morally, spiritually, and educationally questionable sort across the board in Catholic life.

Rather than being “declared negligent,” Bishop Vasa deserves credit for having had the courage to force the right questions about “safe environment training” onto the table. The original Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People (with its “safe environment” provisions) was quickly cobbled together in 2002, in part to get the Church, and specifically the bishops, out of the cross-hairs of a national media that was trying to discredit Catholicism because of the scandalous behavior of some and the malfeasance of others — even though, I would still argue, the media originally did the Church a service by forcing the bishops to face issues that had long been swept under the ecclesiastical rug.

Be that as it may, there is no reason for the Catholic Church to give even tacit support to “safe environment” programs that may win plaudits from the sex-ed industry, but which in truth are by-products of the very culture of hyper-sexualization that the Church rightly opposes. Bishop Vasa has got that precisely right. For that he deserves credit, not opprobrium — as do those like Denver’s Archbishop Charles Chaput, who have implemented the Charter’s mandate in ways that mirror, rather than undermine, Catholic teaching.

COMING UP: Care for Her Act: A common-sense approach to caring for women and their babies

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The pro-life community is often accused of only being pro-birth; however, a congressman from Nebraska is seeking to not only bring more visibility to the countless organizations which provide care for women experiencing crisis pregnancies through birth and beyond, but to also imitate that care at the federal level and enshrine it into law.

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R), who serves the first congressional district in Nebraska, is expected to introduce the Care for Her Act to Congress soon, a bill that’s been in the works since last year. The overall goal of the bill is to “[commit] to care for that journey of life through a complementary set of services whereby the government makes a decided choice on behalf of the life of the unborn child and meeting the needs of the expectant mother,” Rep. Fortenberry told the Denver Catholic.

The Care For Act seeks to accomplish this through four basic provisions: A $3,600 tax credit for unborn children which would apply retroactively after the child is born, in addition to the existing tax credit for children; a comprehensive assessment and cataloguing of the programs and resources that are available to expectant mothers; providing federal grants to advance maternal housing, job training mentorships and other educational opportunities for expectant mothers; and lastly, offering financial incentives to communities that improve maternal and child health outcomes.

The Biden Administration recently indicated that they’ll be removing the Hyde Amendment in next year’s budget, which has historically been in place to prohibit pubic funds from going to abortions. The Care for Her Act would circumvent this to some degree, and it would also test whether Rep. Fortenberry’s dissenting colleagues who have in the past expressed that women should be cared for throughout their pregnancies and beyond are willing to stand by their words.

While the conversation around pregnancy and women’s health often centers around abortion, Rep. Fortenberry intentionally crafted the Care for Her Act to not be against abortion, per se, but rather for women and their babies.

“Abortion has caused such a deep wound in the soul of America,” Rep. Fortenberry said. “However, the flip side of this is not only what we are against, because it is so harmful, but what are we for? So many wonderful people throughout this country carry the burden of trying to be with women in that vulnerable moment where there is an unexpected pregnancy and show them the gift of what is possible for that child and for that woman. Let’s do that with government policy as well.”

Congressman Jeff Fortenberry (R) of Nebraska is expected to introduce the Care for Her Act to Congress soon, a bill which seeks to provide a community of care for women facing an unexpected pregnancy. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. House of Representatives)

Even The Washington Post has taken notice of the Care for Her Act. Earlier this year, Rep. Fortenberry introduced the idea to his constituents, and as to be expected, he received mixed feedback. Those who are pro-life were supportive of the idea, while those who support abortions were more apprehensive. Still others shared consternation about what the government ought to or ought not to do, expressing concern about what the Care for Her Act seeks to do.

“My response is, if we’re going to spend money, what is the most important thing? And in my mind, this is it,” Rep. Fortenberry said.

However, he was very encouraged by one response in particular, which for him really illustrates why this bill is so important and needed.

“One woman wrote me and said, ‘Jeff, I had an abortion when I was young. But if I had this complement of services and commitment of community around me, I would have made another decision,'” Rep. Fortenberry recalled. “And I said ‘yes.’ That’s why we are doing this. For her.”

So far, Rep. Fortenberry has been able to usher support from a number of women representatives on his side of the aisle. He is hopeful, though, that support could come from all sides of the political spectrum.

“Is it possible this could be bipartisan? I would certainly hope so, because it should transcend a political divide,” he explained. “We, of course, stand against abortion because it is so detrimental to women and obviously the unborn child. At the same time though, I think that others could join us who maybe don’t have the fullness of our perspective, who want to see the government actually make a choice on behalf of protecting that unborn life.”

Amidst the politically polarizing discussions about pregnancy and unborn life, the Care for Her act is a common-sense approach to caring for women and their babies. It offers women facing an unexpected pregnancy the chance to experience hope in a seemingly hopeless situation and make a life-giving decision for both herself and her child.

“I’m excited by this,” Rep. Fortenberry said. “I think it opens a whole new set of imaginative possibilities for America, a transformative ideal that again makes this moment of vulnerability when there is an unexpected pregnancy, our chance, our commitment as a community of care.”