Republicans continue their victory dance on the grave of health care reform. I hope they will take a moment to read the letter they received from the USCCB yesterday. It calls upon all members of Congress "to come together and recommit themselves to enacting genuine health care reform that will protect the life, dignity, conscience and health of all." The letter reaffirms the Church’s teaching that "health care is a basic human right." Indeed, among the criticisms of the bills the Bishops cite is the fact that they do not go far enough, that they still leave too many uninsured, especially immigrants. The letter also reiterated the bishops’ support for the language passed by the House regarding abortion funding and called for additional conscience protections.
The letter was signed by Bishop William Murphy, head of the Domestic Policy Committee, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, Chairman of the Pro-life Committee and Bishop John Wester, who leads the Bishops’ Committee on Migration. The letter is a fine, bracing reminder that the USCCB is not in the business of partisan politics, that the Church’s commitment to universal health care is long standing, and that health care is not merely a political issue but a moral one, involving basic human rights.
So, can we expect InsideCatholic to call for those who voted against health care reform in their respective chambers to be denied communion? Can we expect Archbishop Burke to accuse Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who said "I hope so," when asked if health care was dead, will the Prefect accuse him of acting at the behest of "the Father of Lies?" Will the "Catholic Key Blog" in Kansas City denounce those bishops who suggested health care was not a right?
I completely respect the right of my fellow Catholics who belong to the Republican Party to disagree with the bishops on any and almost all political issues. I do not think they should be denied communion because of their disagreement. I do not think they should be labeled "bad Catholics" or "cafeteria Catholics" or "faux Catholics" because their stance is so at odds with the nation’s bishops. But, because they are so quick to deny the Catholic credentials of those of us who do not worship at the pagan altar of conservative ideology, I do question them, not because of their ideas, but because of their self-righteousness in condemning others. One can be wrong without being bad. But can one be a Christian and be so relentlessly, vindictively judgmental about others, not about their ideas, but about their souls?
To be clear, it is ideas, and political ideas, that are at issue. No one gets a free pass to say, for example, "I’m a Catholic and I do not believe the Holocaust happened." If anyone were to say, "I’m Catholic and I think abortion is a completely acceptable way of dealing with a pregnancy" you are dangerously close to finding yourself no longer a Catholic in any meaningful sense. And, of course, if you deny the Creed, you are no longer a Catholic by definition. But, deciding how to deal with Holocaust denial and with those who procure abortions raises a set of thorny political and juridical questions on which Catholics can entertain a variety of opinions.
One thing has been missing from all the statements on health care that have been coming from the USCCB. In their pastoral letters on nuclear weapons and the economy, drafted in the 1980s, the bishops made clear that their moral teaching had a diminishing degree of certainty as it moved from principles to specific policies, that we can be certain that the intentional taking of innocent, civilian life is wrong, but that we must admit less certainty when discussing precise war-fighting strategies, even those that unintentionally involve the killing of innocents. Issues of intention, in a world of mixed motives, are not so easy to assess and politics is always a world of mixed motives. In the current case, the USCCB’s judgment about the relative merits of the Senate and House bills regarding abortion rests on their guess as to what market forces will do. That is not the kind of ground upon which bishops should invoke their teaching authority with too much precision.
Still, of all the many actors in the struggle over health care reform, the Catholic Church has been the most consistent and the most credible. They have been so not primarily because our intellectual bearings are any better than anyone else’s, although the Church’s consistency in defending life puts partisans to shame on both sides of the aisle. The main reason the Church’s voice is so clear and so convincing is because of the good work the Church does nationwide caring for the ill, at places like Providence Hospital here in Washington, D.C. or at St. Joseph’s Living Center in Willimantic, Connecticut, to name only the two Catholic hospitals that have come to my family’s aid. It is the work of the Little Sisters of the Poor, giving dignity and comfort to the elderly poor, that gives the Church credibility when we denounce euthanasia. It is the work of the Daughters of Charity and other religious orders that give the Church authority outside its own walls when discussing health care. Many Catholics, mostly Catholic women religious, preach about health care with their hands and have done so for decades. Congress should listen.
Michael Sean Winters