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Bishops Nod to Health Care Reform, but Stick to Their Story

4 years ago
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Nearly two days after the passage of a health care reform bill that they wanted to support but nearly wound up killing, the U.S. Catholic bishops on Tuesday issued a statement that welcomes aspects of the package but vows to monitor its provisions on abortion financing and to push for legislative fixes.

"Many in Congress and the administration, as well as individuals and groups in the Catholic community, have repeatedly insisted that there is no federal funding for abortion in this statute and that strong conscience protection has been assured," Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in a statement that was supported by all 32 bishops on the hierarchy's administrative council.

"Analyses that are being published separately show this not to be the case," George continued, "which is why we oppose it in its current form. We and many others will follow the government's implementation of health care reform and will work to ensure that Congress and the administration live up to the claims that have contributed to its passage. We believe, finally, that new legislation to address its deficiencies will almost certainly be required."

Few pro-lifers -- or pro-choicers, to their great disappointment -- outside the circle of politically conservative, anti-abortion lobbies accept the view of the hierarchy, and there is a growing perception that the bishops' opposition may have been skewed by political influences and mistaken or exaggerated readings of the bill's language.

But the cardinal did not back down on the hierarchy's opposition, even though the passage was a stinging defeat for the bishops. The Catholic Church has pushed for universal, affordable health care as a "pro-life" priority and a human right. Still, the bishops were seen as responsible for nearly scuttling this once-in-a-generation opportunity even as many of their staunchest allies, in the church and in Congress, gradually came to support the final legislation as changes and reassurances on banning abortion financing were added.

The bishops never accepted any of the changes as sufficient to ease their doubts, however, and George dismissed President Obama's promise to issue an executive order explicitly affirming the bill's ban on abortion financing. "We do not understand how an executive order, no matter how well intentioned, can substitute for statutory provisions," George writes.

"If this new law is intended to prevent people from being complicit in the abortions of others, it is at war with itself."

That observation will continue to be debated, but there is no question that the Catholic Church is undergoing an internal feud.

Many bishops and health care reform opponents were angered that Catholic nuns, Catholic leaders, Catholic politicians and other pro-life supporters of the legislation had broken with the bishops on the legislation and were cited as evidence that a Catholic could support the bill in good conscience.

In his statement, George issued a clear reminder that the Catholic bishops "speak in the name of the church and for the Catholic faith itself."

The cardinal also praised pro-life legislators "from both parties who have worked courageously to create legislation that respects the principles" the bishops were seeking.

It was not clear who George was referring to -- or not referring to. Pro-life Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), who held the crucial votes to passage, had been the bishops' great champion in pushing for more explicit anti-abortion language in the bill. But when Stupak at the last-minute announced he liked what he saw in the executive order and other things and would support the bill, he immediately became a pariah among the bill's opponents.

Moreover, despite George's praise of members in both parties, in the end no Republicans supported the final bill and throughout the process no members heeded the bishops' pleas to open debate on the bill to allow the insertion of more explicit language against abortion financing.

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