It was probably too much to hope that our family squabble over the health care reform package could have been conducted without generating too much acrimony. But the current divergence of thinking on health care reform, though it may appear little more than a ball of confusion to many lay Catholics who don't follow the church's version of Inside Baseball, has at the least created a depressing, press-released tit-for-tat among the clerics and religious in church leadership and may be laying the foundation for degraded relations for years to come. The Catholic Health Association's decision to support the Senate plan threw down the gauntlet to the U.S. bishops, who have insisted they cannot accept the Nelson-Casey workaround language on abortion and other components of the Senate reform plan. Sister Carol Keehan of the CHA has come under direct and odious personal attack because of the CHA statement in conservative Catholic blog-land, the nicest thing she's been called is naive, and the bishops have been accused of nefariously misrepresenting the CHA's position when a simple case of misunderstanding should have provided explanation enough.
In the wake of CHA's statement, Network, a Catholic social-justice lobby, quickly organized its own letter to Congress in support of the Senate reform bill, which by most accounts appears to have galvanized some pro-life House Democrats who were uncertain if they could support the Sentate package. That letter was signed by 60 or so women religious, including representatives of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, and claimed to represent the opinion of 59,000. That claim has been challenged in a post by the U.S.C.C.B., which was accompanied by, get out your scorecard, a pronouncement in support of the bishops from another group of U.S. sisters, the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious.
Meanwhile the bishops have also maintained a bit of web sparring over the bill with health law expert Timothy Jost, who, after an exhaustive study, endorsed the Senate proposal as in some ways even more pro-life than the House plan which the Bishops support. The bishops rebutted Jost and he rebutted them right back.
One is tempted to issue a plaintive, if cliched, "Can't we all just get along?" But emotions are naturally running high. Still, it seems at the minimum uncharitable to insist, as some Catholics clearly are, that pro-life supporters of health care reform are essentially in cahoots with he who shall not be named (and I'm not talking about voldermort or whatever that snake-guy from Harry Potter is called) and that the bishops have joined Fox News in a secret conspiracy with the Republican Party to thwart all things Democratic. The bishops have been supporting health care reform for decades. That level of support, despite the ascendancy of a more conservative style and voice at the U.S.C.C.B., is not thrown over casually.
These competing House and Senate proposals are complex, and it is hard to predict what is going to happen in the real world when the legislation is let loose. It's hard, for me at least, to share the certainty evinced by some on both sides about the practical outcome on abortion in America if the bill passes. It is possible that Catholics who support the bill could be perilously close to wishful thinking regarding the good intentions of Democratic legislators. After all, once the bill is passed, there is no guaranteeing they can effect the changes they are promising, publicly or behind closed Washington doors. And some detractors of reform and attackers of pro-reform Catholics are simply using abortion to stall passage and kill reform. It seems clear that a few red herrings have been scattered, e.g., the repeated claims that $billions allocated for community health centers will be diverted to Planned Parenthood. The worst case scenarioism opponents of the measure embrace seems too jaded and cynical, even poisoned by the irrational personal animosity toward the President among some or the hysterical belief that health care opens the gate to Stalinist jackboots.
I believe the President is a careful and thoughtful man who tries to keep his word in a position and a place where that can be difficult. President Obama has clearly been reaching out to prolife Catholics in recent days. Some accuse him of manipulating America's Catholic community, but I don't see anything sinister in his strategy. I think it's actually a great indication of his profound awareness of how important this matter is to Catholics and a good sign of possible common ground to come on health reform, abortion and other pressing social challenges. Whatever happens this weekend, the Catholic community has managed to bring sustained national attention to abortion and other moral issues we feel are of grave concern connected to health care.
For my part, I ultimately can't agree with the bishops that this plan is too morally bereft to work as a starting point on health care reform. I think this is the best, and the only legislation, we're going to see on health care for years, possibly decades. We're not going to get another shot at writing this thing. Ironically the election of a pro-choice Republican has short circuited what would have been a contentious but potentially fruitful legislative reconciliation process, but at this juncture there will be no do-over; there will either be this or nothing, and nothing, to me, is not an acceptable option. We have to work from this document forward, and I have come to suspect that after all this storm of accusations and recriminations, this reform will prove to be functionally neutral on abortion levels in America. Altering that trend will require different tools.
In the final analysis, Catholics cannot dictate what is in this legislation or any U.S. legislation. We can only make our case, shape it as we can, and then wait for the outcome of the vote. But that vote, and this one in particular, is not the end of this process, but the beginning. The bishops will not have "lost" if the bill passes; they will merely have more work to do. After the Senate bill is passed by the House, as now seems likely, the U.S. Bishops and the pro-life advocates who have so aggressively resisted the Senate package can't retreat in resentment and wait for their chance to mutter a few "I told you-so's" to "dissenting" Catholics. They will have to be on the ball to prevent the worst-case scenarios they've picked out of the legislation and they will probably need the help of the good sisters from Network, the CHA, the LCWR and the rest of us to do it. Let's hope by the time the end of the war of the press releases terminates we'll all still be able to speak to each other, and not by fax, but in person.