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Debating Health Care: The Catholic Center Pushes Back

5 years ago
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With his column today on health care reform, Washington Archbishop Donald Wuerl effectively does three things:

First, he reminds policymakers and the public that when the Catholic Church talks about health care reform that values the "dignity and value of each human life," it is not talking only about abortion (or "death panels," real or imagined). Catholic leaders are also talking about immigrants, and -- no lie, Joe Wilson -- by implication that means some form of coverage for undocumented as well as legal immigrants.

Wuerl and the bishops don't necessarily want to make coverage for undocumented immigrants (they don't like the term "illegals") the make-or-break issue for health care reform. Church sources said Wuerl knows that emotions are running so high that the issue of health coverage for immigrants -- legal or otherwise -- could be the next rallying cry for another Tea Party protest.
On the other hand, the Obama administration and most Democrats don't want to see health care reform derailed by discussion of coverage for illegal immigrants, knowing that the issue -- as an article in this week's Washington Post showed -- is already heating up, and at a bad time for the administration. In fact, President Obama in August admitted that there was so much on his plate that action on immigration reform would have to wait until 2010.

But by putting the issue of immigrants and health care out there now, Wuerl and others also set the table for next year's debate, which is expected to be as heated as the health care arguments.

Second, Wuerl also reminds legislators in particular that in broadcasting its views the Catholic Church is not just being a prophetic scold or delivering an idealistic sermon from some remote mount. Catholic hospitals care for one out of every six patients in the United States, and they are often the first, and last, resort for the uninsured -- be they the poor, the unemployed, the undocumented or simply the unlucky.

As one Catholic official said, Wuerl is showing that the Catholic Church knows cost containment is crucial not only to advancing the moral mandate to make coverage universal but also to making it easier for Catholic hospitals and clinics to advance their mission on behalf of the needy. "This is not just a policy issue on the Hill for us," said the Washington-based church official. "It's a real-life issue that we are very familiar with."

Third, and perhaps most crucial to the wider health care debate, Wuerl is also trying to move the Catholic hierarchy back to a central -- and civil -- role in the reform process.

Throughout the fierce summer of heated rhetoric from the right, the Catholic Church, and the hierarchy in particular, came to be associated with a knee-jerk opposition to health care reform even though universal health care has long been a priority for the bishops and one the church considers a fundamental right for all people.

But conservatives, including a few bishops, dominated the debate with statements and pastoral letters read from pulpits that seemed as if they were taken from the Republican playbook or a talk radio transcript rather than the church's own social teachings. Part of the reason for that skewed impression is that most Catholic churchmen do not like to criticize their brother bishops, and they worry that it will only sow discord at the top. So the moderates and realists kept quiet.

Then anger from many right-wing Catholics over the public funeral Mass for Edward M. Kennedy boiled over, and it seemed to represent a turning point for many bishops who worried that the Catholic Church was becoming associated with a political opposition that was working against the church's own policy priorities while also dividing the church internally.

Boston Cardinal Sean O'Malley, who was vilified in many quarters not only for allowing a public funeral Mass for Kennedy but for presiding at it, pushed back in an unusually blunt blog posting a few days after the funeral. Just as important, O'Malley used the occasion of Kennedy's funeral to open a channel of communication with Obama by lobbying him -- diplomatically, of course -- on health care reform.

Other bishops had also begun to speak out.

In late August, Santa Fe Archbishop Michael Sheehan told National Catholic Reporter that the anti-Obama views espoused by some represented a minority of bishops, and that the majority was hesitant to speak up. "The bishops don't want to have a battle in public with each other, but I think the majority of bishops in the country didn't join in with that, would not be in agreement with that approach. It's well intentioned, but we don't lose our dignity by being strong in the belief that we have but also talking to others that don't have our belief. We don't lose our dignity by that," he said.

"We need to be building bridges, not burning them," Sheehan said.

A few days later, in a stunning development, Bishop Joseph Martino of Scranton -- one of the fiercest critics of both Obama and Catholics Democrats, as well as his brother bishops -- was forced to resign more than a decade before he was to leave office.

Official reaction from the hierarchy -- the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, or USCCB -- and from the Catholic Health Association to Obama's Sept. 9 address to Congress on health care also contrasted markedly with the opinions of conservatives who had heretofore dominated the Catholic debate. In that speech, Obama renewed his pledge not to allow federal funding for abortion in any health care package and to guarantee conscience protections for health care workers whose beliefs would prevent them from taking part in procedures like abortion.

The bishops and the hospital officials took Obama at his word -- which was not always the case before -- and pledged to work with the administration on those and other details in order to get a reform plan passed.

Sister Carol Keehan, who is president and CEO of the Catholic Health Association, told Catholic News Service that while much work remains on the legislation, she was happy with Obama's remarks. "We were pleased to hear him say we were going to move on now," Keehan said. "There are too many people . . . who need this kind of [health care] assistance. We believe it is long overdue. It is a moral and economic imperative and we were pleased to hear him put it in those terms."

A day later, on Sept. 11, two columns in the National Catholic Reporter, a leading Catholic publication, sharply chided the right.

Commentator Michael Sean Winters, who has close contacts with many bishops, warned against Catholics becoming "shills for the Republican Party" and noted that by allying themselves with right-wing rejectionists, pro-lifers were undermining the very cause they want to advance. Also, John Allen, a longtime Vatican columnist for National Catholic Reporter who often reflects the thinking of conservative bishops, made a personal appeal for a cease-fire, saying some pro-lifers had crossed the line from criticism to "character assassination" and that it was time "to call off the rhetorical fireworks."

On Sept. 15, some 45 leading Catholic theologians and thinkers published an open letter to the bishops calling on them to speak with a "united voice" rather than allowing a few of them to purvey "gross distortions" about health care reform that "embolden opponents of reform and distort Church teaching about the essential role government has in serving the common good."

They had good company, as prominent Vatican officials -- from the pope on down -- have spoken out in support of something like Obamacare. On Tuesday, in fact, Cardinal Renato Martino, a prominent Vatican official who spent 16 years in the United States in diplomatic postings, told Catholic News Service he could never understand why Americans did not have government-guaranteed health care. "Everywhere in the world it is a concern of the government first of all, and after there are possibilities also on the private sector. But those who are without anything . . . the central government must provide to that. So I cannot but applaud this initiative."

And now Archbishop Wuerl of Washington, a prominent and respected voice in the hierarchy whose Capitol perch gives his words great resonance, has weighed in with an effort to reestablish the bishops' role in negotiations over health care reform.

The upshot is that the Catholic center is trying to hold, or even retake, some territory -- and credibility -- ceded in the debate over health care reform. And there is an argument to be made that Catholic support will be critical to passing the kind of health care reform that Obama and others would like.

It is doubtful that Catholic conservatives and others will sit idly by while this happens.

On Tuesday, Deal Hudson, conservative Catholic and sometime GOP adviser on Catholic issues, questioned the rationale behind the bishops' apparent willingness to give Obama the benefit of the doubt. (Hudson has also questioned the bishops' teaching that health care should be considered a right.) "Government control of health care will lead to abortion coverage, in my opinion," Hudson wrote in a post titled "USCCB Taking a Huge Risk On Obamacare." "It baffles me that this prudential judgment is not shared by the USCCB."

"Does the bishops' conference know something about health care and abortion that the rest of us don't?" asked an equally nonplussed Russell Shaw at Our Sunday Visitor.

Judie Brown, the combative head of the American Life League, was not ready to be quite so gracious. On Monday the League, which bills itself as the "largest grassroots Catholic pro-life education organization in the United States," sent out a mass mailing urging members to buy signs reading "Bury Obamacare with Kennedy," and Brown said she was pleased so many of their signs were prominent at the anti-health care rally on the Mall last Saturday.

Then again, it was the blistering criticism of some of those conservatives that led to the current pushback by moderates, who show no signs of backing off. So the stare-down is likely to continue for some time.

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