In a strongly worded appeal that will test their political influence, especially with their pro-life and Republican allies, the Catholic bishops of the United States have told Congress to put politics aside and focus on the "moral imperative" of passing universal health care.
"The health care debate, with all its political and ideological conflict, seems to have lost its central moral focus and policy priority, which is to ensure that affordable, quality, life-giving care is available to all," the three bishops who are leading the lobbying effort for the Catholic hierarchy write in a letter sent Tuesday to all 535 senators and representatives. "Now is not the time to abandon this task, but rather to set aside partisan divisions and special interest pressures to find ways to enact genuine reform."
In a bow to Scott Brown's stunning victory in the Massachusetts senate race, which gave Republicans enough votes to block health care reform, the bishops write: "Although political contexts have changed, the moral and policy failure that leaves tens of millions of our sisters and brothers without access to health care still remains."
Passing legislation to provide universal, affordable health has been a longtime goal of the Catholic bishops, and in their letter to Congress (pdf version here
) they reiterate that they consider health care "a basic human right." They have even called health care reform a "pro-life issue," although their own line in the sand against any hint of federal funding of abortion coverage and for strong conscience protections for hospitals and health care workers arguably delayed the negotiations until Brown's victory seemed to seal the reform's fate.
Besides abortion funding, the Catholic hierarchy is also concerned that health care reform be affordable for everyone, especially poor and working class Americans, and that it allow immigrants to buy insurance even if reform does not cover all immigrants regardless of status, as the bishops would prefer. The authors of the letter reflect that three-fold concern. They are Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, head of pro-life efforts for the hierarchy; Bishop William Murphy of Rockville Centre, New York, their chief spokesman on domestic issues; and Bishop John Wester of Salt Lake City, their spokesman on behalf of immigrants.
"Providing affordable and accessible health care that clearly reflects these fundamental principles is a public good, moral imperative and urgent national priority," the bishops write. "The moral measure of any health care reform proposal is whether it offers affordable and accessible health care to all, beginning with those most in need. This can be a matter of life or death, of dignity or deprivation."
The bishops say the current bills would still leave 18 to 23 million people uncovered, and say they have other objections related to conscience protections and abortion funding. But the bishops are also hoping something can be salvaged.
Although many pro-life groups joined Republicans in backing Brown's unlikely candidacy despite his pro-choice credentials -- as we reported here
-- the Catholic bishops stayed on the sidelines, and many were clearly as dismayed as the White House when Brown upended predictions and took the seat that had been held by Ted Kennedy for decades. Brown's position on abortion, and his vow to block health care reform, is the worst of all worlds from the hierarchy's perspective.
One churchman I spoke with said the bishops were surprised at Brown's victory and were alarmed at the speed with which Democrats appeared to abandon the effort to pass some version of health care reform. He said the bishops had been trying to get a read on the political dynamics, but said so much remained in flux that they sent this letter to let their voice be heard ahead of Wednesday's State of the Union address.
Indeed, President Obama could do worse than adopt some of the bishop's language in his speech to the nation, if he wants to try to resurrect health care reform.
A paradox of the health care debate is that the Catholic bishops have had a place at the table because Obama -- who many bishops excoriated during the campaign as a candidate no good Catholic could support -- made health care reform a priority and because pro-life Democrats made sure the hierarchy had a say in the negotiations.
Yet the Republicans who had ostensibly been the bishops' closest allies in Congress have shown no inclination to listen to them on health care reform. Only one Republican congressman, freshman Anh "Joseph" Cao of Louisiana, a former Jesuit seminarian, bucked the party to support the House bill.
"The Republicans seem to have made a decision to oppose anything that the Democrats propose," a church official closely involved in the health care negotiations told me in frustration.
He said the bishops would like to rescue as much of the existing bills as possible, and he said they hope that an effort to retain and pass the heart of the bills would allow contentious issues like abortion funding to disappear. But he said that would also mean coverage for immigrants, another issue dear to the hierarchy, would certainly be off the table.
"We'd like to get something passed because that would be a start, an icebreaker. People would see the world didn't end [with reform], that it's a good thing, and then we could go on to pass other elements that we need."