Are you singing the Obamacare blues?

Christian BruggerOn Oct. 1, 2013, the long-awaited Health Insurance Exchange Marketplace opened to much fanfare (and frustration).

Most Americans now know that according to the Affordable Care Act (ACA)—Obamacare—they must have some kind of health insurance beginning in 2014 or suffer a financial penalty.

Some are wondering, however, whether purchasing insurance through their state health care exchange would be ethically problematic. In this article I try to address this question as well as a few others that might be on people’s minds.

What is an “insurance exchange”?

An insurance “exchange” (also called a “marketplace”) is a government-regulated pool of health insurance plans that meet Obamacare standards. Exchanges are not themselves insurers. Rather they regulate plans offered by private insurance companies and facilitate the purchasing of those plans. For insurers to participate in the exchanges, they need to comply with a wide range of Obamacare regulations. Every state will be regulated by an exchange.

Do all insurance plans cover abortions?

State exchanges offer dozens of plans to purchasers. For example, the Colorado exchange offers 150 separate plans through 18 different insurance companies.

The ACA (sec. 1303) explicitly mandates that at least one insurance plan in every exchange must not cover abortions. (It also mandates that at least one plan must cover abortions).

Finding the abortion-free plan is by no means straightforward, at least from looking at the exchange websites.

I recommend that interested purchasers call the customer service numbers for their state exchange and ask the service agent to tell them which exchange doesn’t cover abortions. Two phone numbers for the Colorado plans are 855-752-6749 and 720-496-2530. Insist that they provide you with this information.

Do all plans cover contraception services?

Obamacare requires that all insurance providers, whether or not they participate in the state exchanges, must provide certain essential “preventative services” free of charge (no fee, no copay). These include all FDA approved contraceptives, including the abortifacient medication “Ella” (which is in the same pharmacological family as RU-486), IUDs and Plan B. They also include male and female sterilization procedures.

What should Catholic purchasers do?

The ACA mandates that everyone must purchase a health plan by March 31, 2014, or suffer financial penalties. Those who are unable to secure insurance through their employers or by purchasing a private plan will be forced to purchase an Obamacare regulated plan through their state exchange.How Obamacare impacts Colorado

Can a Catholic in good conscience purchase a plan through their state exchange knowing that it provides illicit services for free?

Perhaps if there were viable alternatives, the answer might be “no.” But Obamacare requires all insurance plans—except for a small number of private plans that qualify for a “religious exemption”—to provide these services. And so, the only alternative for many people would be to go without health insurance and pay a financial penalty. Neither the Catholic Church nor the moral law requires this kind of sacrifice.

A Catholic who purchases an Obamacare regulated plan should firmly resolve not to make use of any illicit service that the plan makes available. They should intend, therefore, only to use the plan for good purposes.

Bodily health is a great human good and reasonably maintaining our health is a basic human obligation. Since medical insurance can provide people with the opportunity of receiving consistent and dignified health care; and since for many people there are no reasonable alternatives to Obamacare plans; those who secure their insurance through Obamacare should not fear they are doing something immoral. They are rather doing something good—making provision for their own and their dependents’ health care—and they are tolerating the fact that a very small percentage of their premiums will be used by others to carry out illicit actions.

I recommend that Catholics make known their objections to the illicit services when they communicate with exchange administrators and officials.

What should Catholic business owners do?

The question of whether it’s legitimate for Catholic business owners to comply under duress with the Obamacare mandate to provide their employees with health plans that cover illicit services is more complicated. This column is not intended to address that question. If there is reader interest, I will address it in a future column.

It is interesting to note, however, that at the conclusion of their fall meeting in Baltimore in November, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a Special Message in which they pledged to “stand united in our resolve to resist this heavy burden and protect our religious freedom.”

Although the bishops condemned the administration’s effort to coerce all businesses to cooperate in evil, they did not ask Catholic business owners, at least not yet, to refuse conscientiously to comply with the mandate.

Dare we hope that the mandate be struck down?

I believe we can be moderately hopeful that the courts will strike down the contraception mandate as unconstitutional.

Presently there are 87 cases with more than 200 plaintiffs filed in federal courts against the Obama administration: 43 of those cases have received rulings by the courts; 37 of the rulings granted injunctions against the mandate! In only six cases were injunctions denied. The momentum is against this unjust law.

The most recent big news came on Nov. 26, 2013, when the U.S. Supreme Court announced that it would decide on the constitutionality of the contraception mandate.

Should we have other concerns about Obamacare?

For those who are concerned about other elements of government-regulated health care, I share your concern.

Given the track record of Washington, it’s not at all alarmist to fear that down the road, perhaps not very far, a cash-strapped health care system will begin to put restrictions on family size, pressure our elderly prematurely to refuse life-sustaining treatments, or introduce an arbitrary regime of rationing based upon bogus criteria such as “some lives are no longer worth living.”

So we may be concerned. But not afraid. Our good Lord admonishes us that “fear is useless; what is needed is trust” (Luke 8:50).

Professor E. Christian Brugger is a moral theologian at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver.

COMING UP: Father and son, deacon and priest: Deacon dads and priest sons share special bond as both serve God’s people

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The bond between a father and son is one of God’s greatest designs; however, when father and son are both called to serve the Church as deacon and priest, that bond takes on a whole new meaning. Just ask these two dads and their sons, all of whom answered the call to serve the people of God at the altar.

Deacon Michael Magee serves at Our Lady of Loreto Parish in Foxfield, while his son Father Matthew Magee has worked as the priest secretary to Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila for the past several years and will soon be moved to a new assignment as parochial vicar at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Boulder. Deacon Darrell Nepil serves at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Denver, and his son, Father John Nepil, served at several parishes within the archdiocese before his current assignment as a professor at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary.

However different their journeys may have been, all four have something in common; mainly, that far from seeing their vocations as a reward from God, they have received them as an uncommon gift of grace that has blessed their families and individual relationships with each other abundantly, knowing that God acts in different ways to help us all get to Heaven.

Interwoven journeys

Deacon Michael Magee was ordained in May 2009, at the end of Father Matt’s first year of seminary. Little did they know that God would use both of their callings to encourage each other along the journey.

Deacon Michael’s journey began when a man from his parish was ordained a deacon.

“I simply felt like God was calling me to do something more than I was doing at the present time,” he said. “I had been volunteering for a number of different things and was involved in some ministry activities and in the Knights of Columbus. And I thought the idea of being a deacon would be simply another activity for which I could volunteer.”

He didn’t know what it entailed at the time. In fact, he believed it was something a man could simply sign up for. To his surprise, the diaconate was more serious – and it required five years of formation and discernment. Yet he was so drawn to it, that he decided to do it anyway. But as he learned more about the nature of the diaconate during his formation, he became more nervous and unsure about whether God was really calling him to that vocation. 

While his doubts remained all the way up to his ordination, Deacon Michael was faithful to his studies, trusting that God would lead him in the right path. 

And God did — through the calling of his own son to the priesthood.

Deacon Michael didn’t realize that his son Matthew had paid close attention to his father’s faith journey and had found in it a light that gave him courage to discern the priesthood.

Father Matthew Magee (left) and his dad, Deacon Michael Magee (right), were both encouraging to one another as they each pursued their respective vocations. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

“Seeing my dad, as a father, growing in his relationship with the Lord was really influential for me on my own desire to follow Christ,” said Father Matt. “Looking at his courage to discern his own vocation and follow God’s plan in his life gave me the strength and courage to be open to the same thing in my life… He played a very important role, whether he knew it or not at the time, and whether I knew it or not at the time.”

On the other hand, Father Matt didn’t know that his dad was in turn encouraged by his own response to God’s calling. 

“As I went through all those doubts, I watched Matthew’s journey in seminary and listened to how he was dealing with that in his life. And, as he just articulated very well, I also saw those same qualities in him,” Deacon Michael said. “Seeing a young man in his 20s willing to consider following God for the rest of his life also gave me the courage to continue on in my own journey, to see it through.”

God’s way of uplifting them in their vocations through each other’s journey is something they are very grateful for. 

This unusual grace impacted Father Matt during his first Mass, when his dad, as deacon, approached him before the Gospel reading and asked for the traditional blessing by calling him “father.”

“It was a really special moment for me. He’s certainly my biological father and raised me. But then there’s something different when we’re at the altar in a clerical capacity — there’s a strange reversal of roles when we’re giving spiritual nourishment to the people — a father asks the new father for the blessing,” he said.

In both of their vocations, Deacon Michael and Father Matt see God’s Providence and the unique plan he has for all of us.

“We all have a vocation, even if it’s something we may not expect,” Deacon Michael concluded. “You may feel anxiety or worry about what it’s going to look like, but trust in God. He will take care of things as he always does.”

A bribe for Heaven

For Deacon Darell and Father John Nepil, the journey was different, but not any less providential.

While he grew up Catholic, Father John wasn’t interested in setting foot on any Church activity during his teenage years. His saving grace was perhaps what many parents have to do to get their teenagers to Church: bribe them.

“His mom and I basically bribed him to go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference,” Deacon Darell said with a laugh. “He didn’t want to go, but we’d heard so many good things about it, that we said, ‘We’re going to make this happen, whatever it takes.’”

So the Nepils came up with a creative idea.

“He owed me some money for a uniform that he had needed for a job in the summer. So, I said, ‘Listen, if you go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference, I’ll forgive your debt. And he did, he and his brother went. And John especially came back a different boy. He literally was converted with a lightning bolt at that retreat.”

To this day, Father John marks his conversion to Christ from the summer before his senior year in high school when he attended that conference. 

As it happens with stories worth telling, the details of how much money he owed his father have varied over the years, and it’s a matter of debate among them, but Father John remembers it was close to $500.

“That’s subject to each one,” Father John said laughingly. “But what matters is that they offered to forgive my debt if I went to this retreat – it was money well spent.”

Besides this important event, Father John said that his dad influenced him in many ways by the simple fact of who he was as a father.

“My dad’s faith and moral character were a rock for me during some difficult teenage years,” he said. “He’s a great example of a man who was always faithful and lived a really outstanding moral life, but then as he deepened in love with Christ, he decided to give of himself in a more profound service.”

Father John Nepil (left) and Deacon Darrell Nepil (right) both had rather roundabout ways to their respective vocations, but they both say serving God’s people together as brothers in Holy Orders is a great joy. (Photo provided)

Besides his desire to serve and follow God, the seed that would eventually lead Deacon Darell to the diaconate was planted by a coworker, who would also take holy orders: Deacon Joe Donohoe.

“One day he said to me, ‘You should be a deacon.’ And, of course, I laughed at him and said, ‘I don’t have time for that. My life is too busy.’ But it only took him to suggest it for the idea to keep coming back to my head, and God kept nudging me. Eventually I decided I really wanted to do that,” Deacon Darell said.

The ability to share at the altar during the Mass has deepened the natural relationship of father and son and given Deacon Darell and Father John new opportunities to grow closer to God. 

One of the most meaningful times came when Deacon Darell had a massive stroke in 2018. While he was in the hospital, Father John was able to visit and celebrate Mass at his bed and pray the rosary with him every day, as he had come back from Rome and was working on his dissertation.

“It was probably the most privileged and intimate time I’ve ever had with my father,” Father John said. “It was an amazing gift that really changed our relationship.”

“I feel like that’s a huge reason why I healed and why I am here today,” Deacon Darell added.

“It’s a real gift to have my dad as a deacon and a brother. It’s a tremendous honor. It’s one of the great joys of my life.” Father John concluded. “That’s really what has bonded our relationship together: the sheer desire to serve Jesus, especially in holy orders.”