The Catholic Health Association received a videotaped message from President Obama yesterday that acknowledged the decisive role the organization played in getting the health care reform bill across the finish line. He singled Sr. Carol Keehan for special praise.
The President’s words may have captured the most attention, but the more important speech was delivered on Sunday afternoon by Father Bryan Hehir, who serves as the secretary for health and social justice concerns in the Archdiocese of Boston. Hehir is always a thoughtful exponent of Catholic social thought and his address to CHA was not exception. He noted that values animated much of the debate about health care reform and saw this central role for values as an invitation to the Church: “This is our strong suit in the Church.”
I hope President Obama and the members of Congress read that part of Hehir’s talk. The Democrats did not do the best job explaining the moral rationale for health care reform. They talked about bending the cost curve, which is important and which has a moral dimension, but they need to defend the bill in the same terms that Hehir used to characterize it, as the kind of major transformation akin to Social Security, the Civil Rights Act and Welfare Reform, a transformation undertaken by the government because the private sector had failed to meet a minimum standard of justice for all citizens.
Hehir addressed the divergence of opinion between CHA and others on the merits of the final bill in two ways. First, he explicitly praised Sister Carol’s “experienced, hands-on care for the poor and ministry to all, and her intelligent and courageous leadership of this organization.” That sounds like a pretty strong endorsement if you ask me. Secondly, he noted that regarding specific judgments about the legislation, difference of opinion “was possible within the tradition” of Catholic social thought. He noted that while Catholic health care comes from the biblical narratives of both the Good Samaritan and the prophets, and that “adapting the [biblical] mandate to a ministry takes interpretation, adaptation, and experimentation, the living out of a basic mandate which does not change in multiple ages and places.”
Most importantly, Hehir urged an end to the acrimony. “It’s time to face the future,” he said, “and not replay the past continually.” The bishops of the United States are meeting in St. Petersburg, Florida this week and although this is their “retreat year” with no formal business meetings, they are expected to have a discussion about health care and the role of CHA. Some bishops have vocally objected to the role CHA played. I hope they listen to Father Hehir. I hope they recognize that there is work to be done, assuredly, in implementing the health care law, that it will need improvements, especially in its treatment of undocumented workers and conscience protections for Catholic institutions, and that such work cannot be achieved if we are bringing recriminations against each other. Well-informed Catholic consciences can sometimes reach different conclusions.
Michael Sean Winters