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.

Kevin Clarke

 

Comments

Michael Bindner | 3/22/2010 - 3:24am
Tim, your analysis on funding is correct. Indeed, since most abortions are paid in cash, you are more likely to fund one by going to McDonalds than paying your taxes (or voting for HCR), since it is almost certain that some of the money you put in for your Big Mac is going to some employee paying for an abortion (since they have no other alternative).
Tim Lacy | 3/20/2010 - 1:59pm
Dear Jeff and Pete,
America is a magazine that preaches reason and Catholicism while respecting democracy.  Whenever voices from the right or left articulate positionals reasonable and Catholic, then America will entertain them.  Right now the bishops' concerns, while they do come from a Catholic perspective, are in fact unreasonable. Chaput, Naumann, George, etc. are arguing on behalf of the most unlikely abortion-funding scenarios according to pro-life health care experts like Timothy Jost. 
And if that wasn't bad enough, the unreasonable opposition is basically "arguing" that anyone who receives federal money in the health-care exchange, but then spends other money they've earned on an abortion, is tantamount to a federal-funding-for-abortion scenario.  That's like arguing that a woman who receives food stamps but then uses other money to get an abortion is the recipient of federal funding for abortion.  Or that any woman who drives on a highway to get an abortion is also receiving federal funding for abortion.
If America is not entertaining these views from Catholic brothers and sisters in its pages, then it's because those views are unreasonable.
Sincerely,
Tim Lacy
KEVIN MULCAHY | 3/20/2010 - 1:07pm
I'm a bit surprised by Jeff's comments above.  I've read America for years and years, and it's always been clear to me that America is left of center on politics (moderately left from my perspective).  Most opinion magazines (and America is, among other things, an opinion magazine) have a basic viewpoint.  Other perspectives might be included to some extent, but few of us would confuse the Weekly Standard with the Nation (to use a secular example), and we don't expect to see Bill Kristol writing in the Nation or Noam Chomsky in the Weekly Standard.  I'm not disappointed that America has its own political perspective, and I see the value of the blog as letting commenters like Jeff offer opposing views.  Jeff (and all of us) can get the alternative views by consulting First Things or Zenit and many other publications and web-sites.  As long as multiple views are available elsewhere, there's no harm in a magazine or web-site largely sticking to its own view of the world.
Anonymous | 3/20/2010 - 11:23am
Would America consider inviting Rep. Joseph Cao, the moderate Republican who represents my very liberal district in New orleans, to offer in this space the reasons he has decided that he cannot vote the bill with the Senate language in it?  He is a former Jesuit scholastic who has taught moral theology, a lawyer, and voted in favor of the last health care bill.  this blog needs balance & i cannot think of a better voice than his.
 
If the Senate language does what Stupak does, why not end the bickering & put Stupak in the Senate bill?  This is another one of those things that leaves you wondering what the Democrats are hiding. 
Anonymous | 3/19/2010 - 6:35pm
I love America magazine; I respect America magazine.
 
That said, can we conclude from this post, together with Michael Sean Winters' posts, that America has fully decided to only represent a left-of-center voice on this and other political issues?  I initially thought the purpose of the political posts were analytical in nature; they are nothing more than out right advocacy now.  Can America PLEASE find a right-of-center counterweight and retain the esteem many like me hold it in?
And while we're on the subject, will the magazine PLEASE get rid of the ridiculous screening policy for comments.  It slows down the course of the conversation!  There's a relatively small community of regular commentators who I think are well aware of each other's positions.  Its not like the course comments you get from the left-wingers who comment on NY Times articles & columns!
Stanley Kopacz | 3/20/2010 - 2:24pm
If the Republicans are so pro-life, they could have compromised and agreed to single-payer or public option in exchange for strong anti-abortion restraints.  But the fact is, anti-abortion or pro-life is not really important to them, but only a strategy to bog down a process which might endanger their moneyed interests.  The Democrats, as well, did not fight for any significant change.
There really are only two parties in this country, one consists almost totally OF the rich, the other consists of those bought off BY the rich.  The only thing that will change this will be demonstrations in the streets.  Good luck to us on that one.
As long as right-of-center people reman dupes of the rich and powerful, their sloganizing and ideologizing is of no interest to me.  America Magazine, keep speaking out from a Catholic moral perspective.
Gabriel Marcella | 3/20/2010 - 1:08pm
Kevin,
You've done a great service in clarifying the entangled issues. Now one fully understands the position of the bishops. They are right and Jost is wrong. At the same, Jost should not get equal billing on this blog. He's nowhere near the intellectual power of their eminences.
Jason Welle | 3/20/2010 - 10:30am
Every industrialized Western nation with universal health care has a lower abortion rate than the United States, including countries that provide government funded abortions.  We have a real opportunity in the US to do something substantive to reduce abortions here, one step closer to ending them entirely.  Why are we willing to accept a higher rate of abortions over the uncertainty of funding language?  If this bill fails, we'll have Catholics partly to thank, and to hold responsible, for our continued high rate of abortions.
Peter Lakeonovich | 3/19/2010 - 6:37pm
I'm with the Bishops on this one. As Archbishop Chaput has stated, "If the defective Senate version of health-care reform pushed by congressional leaders passes into law—against the will of the American people and burdened by serious moral problems in its content—we’ll have “Catholic” voices partly to thank for it. And to hold responsible."