There was a time when the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops could be counted on as a reliable voice for universal health care and the ethical use of health care resources. Some Bishops have decided that their opposition to abortion is more important than health care reform and social justice.
The New York Times reports:
“No health care reform is better than the wrong sort of health care reform,” Bishop R. Walker Nickless of Sioux City, Iowa, declared in a recent pastoral letter, urging the faithful to call their members of Congress.
In a diocesan newspaper column this week, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Denver agreed, saying the proposal was “not only imprudent; it’s also dangerous.”
The bishops’ backlash reflects a struggle within the church over how heavily to weigh opposition to abortion against concerns about social justice.
“It is the great tension in Catholic thought right now,” said M. Cathleen Kaveny, a professor of law and theology at Notre Dame.
The same question, Professor Kaveny said, set off the debates over whether conscientious Catholics could vote for Mr. Obama despite his support for abortion rights, whether he should be invited to speak at Notre Dame, or whether Catholic politicians who support abortion rights, like Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., should present themselves for Communion.
The opposition is not limited to occasional bishops in disparate dioceses. No less than the new Cardinal Rigali of Philadelphia, saysthat no matter what rules exist federal funds would still indirectly help cover abortion. This statement has been repeated in the Catholic paper "Our Sunday Visitor."
The NY Times says that in a "conference call with religious voters last week, Mr. Obama denied that his plan would mean government financing for abortions, calling such assertions “fabrications that have been put out there in order to discourage people from meeting what I consider to be a core ethical and moral obligation.”
The NYT also says that liberal Catholic groups say that most bishops still strongly supported the broader goals of the health care proposals and that Catholic Charities and the Catholic Health Association endorsed the president's plan without reservation.
"There are certainly some strident voices out there that want to see health care reform abandoned on the back of this issue," said Victoria Kovari, acting director of the liberal Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, "but I don't think that is where the bishops are."
Rigali's interpretation of Catholic teaching departs from the USCCB's definitive teaching document on healthcare.
The introduction to the fourth edition of the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, states the basis around which Catholic teaching on the care of the sick is based:
The Church has always sought to embody our Savior's concern for the sick. The gospel accounts of Jesus' ministry draw special attention to his acts of healing: he cleansed a man with leprosy (Mt 8:1-4; Mk 1:40-42); he gave sight to two people who were blind (Mt 20:29-34; Mk 10:46-52); he enabled one who was mute to speak (Lk 11:14); he cured a woman who was hemorrhaging (Mt 9:20-22; Mk 5:25-34); and he brought a young girl back to life (Mt 9:18, 23-25; Mk 5:35-42). Indeed, the Gospels are replete with examples of how the Lord cured every kind of ailment and disease (Mt 9:35). In the account of Matthew, Jesus' mission fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: "He took away our infirmities and bore our diseases" (Mt 8:17; cf. Is 53:4).
Jesus' healing mission went further than caring only for physical affliction. He touched people at the deepest level of their existence; he sought their physical, mental, and spiritual healing (Jn 6:35, 11:25-27). He "came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly" (Jn 10:10).
The mystery of Christ casts light on every facet of Catholic health care: to see Christian love as the animating principle of health care; to see healing and compassion as a continuation of Christ's mission; to see suffering as a participation in the redemptive power of Christ's passion, death, and resurrection; and to see death, transformed by the resurrection, as an opportunity for a final act of communion with Christ.
The Ethical and Religious Directives set out five "normative principles" that guide Catholic "inform" and "guide" the Catholic Church's healing ministries. Up until now, these principles have guided Catholic Bishops to work towards reform.
First, Catholic health care ministry is rooted in a commitment to promote and defend human dignity; this is the foundation of its concern to respect the sacredness of every human life from the moment of conception until death. The first right of the human person, the right to life, entails a right to the means for the proper development of life, such as adequate health care.
Second, the biblical mandate to care for the poor requires us to express this in concrete action at all levels of Catholic health care. This mandate prompts us to work to ensure that our country's health care delivery system provides adequate health care for the poor. In Catholic institutions, particular attention should be given to the health care needs of the poor, the uninsured, and the underinsured.
Third, Catholic health care ministry seeks to contribute to the common good. The common good is realized when economic, political, and social conditions ensure protection for the fundamental rights of all individuals and enable all to fulfill their common purpose and reach their common goals.
Fourth, Catholic health care ministry exercises responsible stewardship of available health care resources. A just health care system will be concerned both with promoting equity of care—to assure that the right of each person to basic health care is respected—and with promoting the good health of all in the community. The responsible stewardship of health care resources can be accomplished best in dialogue with people from all levels of society, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity and with respect for the moral principles that guide institutions and persons.
Fifth, within a pluralistic society, Catholic health care services will encounter requests for medical procedures contrary to the moral teachings of the Church. Catholic health care does not offend the rights of individual conscience by refusing to provide or permit medical procedures that are judged morally wrong by the teaching authority of the Church.
An indicator of how far official Catholic teaching has moved in their social teaching, look again at this speech that the late Senator Ted Kennedy made on October 3, 1983 at Liberty Baptist College, which reflects another, more nuanced view of Catholic social teaching:
There are four tests which draw that line and define the difference.
First, we must respect the integrity of religion itself.
People of conscience should be careful how they deal in the word of their Lord. In our own history, religion has been falsely invoked to sanction prejudice -- even slavery -- to condemn labor unions and public spending for the poor. I believe that the prophecy, ”The poor you have always with you” is an indictment, not a commandment. And I respectfully suggest that God has taken no position on the Department of Education -- and that a balanced budget constitutional amendment is a matter of economic analysis, and not heavenly appeals.
Religious values cannot be excluded from every public issue; but not every public issue involves religious values. And how ironic it is when those very values are denied in the name of religion. For example, we are sometimes told that it is wrong to feed the hungry, but that mission is an explicit mandate given to us in the 25th chapter of Matthew.
Second, we must respect the independent judgments of conscience.
Those who proclaim moral and religious values can offer counsel, but they should not casually treat a position on a public issue as a test of fealty to faith. Just as I disagree with the Catholic bishops on tuition tax credits -- which I oppose -- so other Catholics can and do disagree with the hierarchy, on the basis of honest conviction, on the question of the nuclear freeze....
...Third, in applying religious values, we must respect the integrity of public debate.
In that debate, faith is no substitute for facts. Critics may oppose the nuclear freeze for what they regard as moral reasons. They have every right to argue that any negotiation with the Soviets is wrong, or that any accommodation with them sanctions their crimes, or that no agreement can be good enough and therefore all agreements only increase the chance of war. I do not believe that, but it surely does not violate the standard of fair public debate to say it. What does violate that standard, what the opponents of the nuclear freeze have no right to do, is to assume that they are infallible, and so any argument against the freeze will do, whether it is false or true....
...Fourth, and finally, we must respect the motives of those who exercise their right to disagree.
We sorely test our ability to live together if we readily question each others integrity. It may be harder to restrain our feelings when moral principles are at stake, for they go to the deepest wellsprings of our being. But the more our feelings diverge, the more deeply felt they are, the greater is our obligation to grant the sincerity and essential decency of our fellow citizens on the other side.