The division between the U.S. Catholic bishops and some Church-affiliated organizations, most prominently the Catholic Health Association, that accompanied the passage of the Obama administration's health care overhaul was downplayed as a difference of opinion purely at the personal level. But on May 21 the bishops issued a statement that cast aside that spin, saying, “it represented a fundamental disagreement, not just with our staff as some maintain, but with the Bishops themselves.”
The process of reforming the nation's health care system is not something that the U.S. Catholic bishops began thinking about when it popped up on the political radar; they have been advocating reform decades.
In the lead up to the passage of the Obama administration's overhaul, the bishops said that while they liked the availability of health care to all, they remained opposed to certain aspects of the Senate version being pushed by the administration. The U.S. Catholic leaders wanted stronger conscience protections, no federal funding for abortion and access for immigrants to health care.
After the ink dried on the new law, the three bishops chairing the committees that were involved in giving moral guidance on the health care reform process decided that they needed to “set the record straight,” resulting in a May 21 statement with the same title.
Recalling the build up of political pressure to pass the Senate bill, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, Bishop William Murphy and Bishop John Wester said in their joint statement that because the bishops presented their concerns all together and with a united front, “some thought the bishops might ultimately be persuaded to abandon one or the other in response to political pressures from left or right.”
Some hoped or feared, the bishops recounted, that they would join those calling for no reform of the health care system. “Others hoped or feared that, for the 'greater good' of making progress on health care, we would neglect or deny the rights of the most vulnerable members of our society, including unborn children who have no voice and of immigrants.”
But there was “never any chance that the bishops would do any of these things,” they said in their statement. “We will never cease to advocate for everyone, beginning with the most needy, to have access to health care. We will never conclude that we must accept what is intrinsically evil so that some good may be achieved,” they insisted.
During the discussion about the Senate bill, the bishops said that some Catholics presented the argument to them that “expanding health care coverage justified setting aside our longstanding opposition to government participation in elective abortions or weakening rights to life and freedom of conscience,” but they noted in their recent statement that both they and Catholic teaching “specifically reject” that line of thinking.
Since the passage of the health care bill, the bishops said that they have been “disturbed and disappointed by reactions inside and outside the Church that have sought to marginalize or dismiss legitimate concerns that were presented in a serious manner by us. Our clear and consistent position has been misrepresented, misunderstood and misused for political and other purposes.”
The bishops also noted that their “right to speak in the public forum has been questioned” and their “teaching role within the Catholic Church and even our responsibility to lead the Church have come under criticism.” While they were open to constructive criticism, the Catholic prelates found that those firing critiques at them frequently “lacked an understanding of these particular issues or of the moral framework that motivated our positions” or if they did grasp the seriousness of the issues, they were guided by other priorities “to accept an inaccurate reading of the proposed legislation.”
Those who made moral judgments about the bill for Catholics undermined the bishops teaching authority, and that, “is first of all the task of the bishops, not of any other group or individual,” they insisted. The push for the passage of the health care reform bill saw efforts made by the social justice lobby of Catholic sisters called NETWORK, statements from the group Catholics United contradicting the bishops' positions, and most significantly, the endorsement of the Catholic Health Association, led by Sr. Carol Keehan.
Sr. Keehan was rewarded for her endorsement with a presidential pen from President Obama and a listing as one of Time Magazine's top 100 influential leaders, which lauded her for protecting the poor and her “unwavering respect for human dignity.”
The U.S. bishops addressed those efforts, saying, “As Bishops, we disagree that the divergence between the Catholic Conference and Catholic organizations, including the Catholic Health Association, represents merely a difference of analysis or strategy,” the bishops' statement said.
“Rather, for whatever good will was intended, it represented a fundamental disagreement, not just with our staff as some maintain, but with the Bishops themselves. As such it has resulted in confusion and a wound to Catholic unity.”
Looking at the current situation, the Catholic bishops said now that the “battle over the bill is over, the defects can be judged soberly in their own right, and solutions can be advanced in Congress while retaining what is good in the new law.”
Although the bishops believe that the new law contains some good provisions, they said that “it also perpetuates grave injustices toward immigrant families and makes new and disturbing changes in federal policy on abortion and conscience rights.” These problems provide an opportunity for Catholics to come together to advocate for a better law, they concluded.