Obamacare and the Bishops

The American bishops had some tough going during the Obamacare debate. They caught lots of flak from media moguls on the left, congressional leaders, and renegade Catholics because they dared to inform their flocks that portions of the health care proposal violate Church teachings on the sanctity of human life.

Syndicated columnist E.J. Dionne, for instance, complained that the bishops were discarding “the flag of social justice” because they said the final bill was not abortion-neutral and undermined the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits using federal tax dollars to pay for abortion except in cases of rape and incest.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a baptized Catholic, insisted on advertising her ignorance of the Church’s position regarding human freedom while dismissing the objections of the bishops: “I practically mourn the difference of opinion because I feel what I was raised to believe is consistent with what I profess, and that we are all endowed with a free will and a responsibility to answer for our actions. And that women should have the opportunity to exercise their free will.” Pelosi, it seems, is blissfully and aggressively unaware that freedom is not an endorsement of bad moral choices. One must avoid immoral actions, such as abortion, that go against an informed Catholic conscience and simple natural law principles. Is she unaware or is there a more sinister explanation?

Then there were other Catholics who simply thumbed their noses at the bishops. The Catholic Health Association, a hospital trade group, endorsed the Senate healthcare bill despite the abortion problem and the absence of language that would protect freedom of conscience for Catholics and other medical personnel. The Leadership Conference of Women Religious, a group of largely dissenting nuns, also broke ranks and supported the bill.

The New York Times and Washington Post applauded these dissidents in front-page stories. Maureen Dowd, the Times’ most prolific anti-Catholic polemicist, joyously proclaimed that “the nuns provided the Democrats with cover” to procure the last votes needed for House passage. She was right – 84 of the 93 Catholic House Democrats voted for passage. (All 37 Catholic Republicans opposed.)

The fact that the U.S. bishops have for a hundred years called “for reform of our healthcare system so that all may have access to the care that recognizes and affirms their human dignity” did not matter in the national debate. Because the bishops did not embrace, without question, a healthcare agenda at variance with several basic American principles, they were portrayed as being out of touch, stepping over the line, and violating separation of church and state.

This line of attack is not new; it has been going on for decades. When New York’s John Cardinal O’Connor said in 1984, “I do not see how a Catholic in good conscience can vote for an individual expressing himself or herself favoring abortion,” the same crowd went ballistic. In an editorial, the Times took this shot at O’Connor: “It might as well be said bluntly . . . the effort to impose a religious test on the performance of Catholic politicians threatens the hard-won understanding that finally brought America to elect a Catholic president a generation ago.” Senator Ted Kennedy accused O’Connor of “blatant sectarian appeals” and argued that not “every moral command” could become law.

In 2004, after distribution of Holy Communion was denied to several recalcitrant Catholic politicians, forty-eight pro-abortion Catholic members of Congress publicly complained that the “right to religious belief and separation of church and state” would be violated if the bishops insisted on enforcing this sanction. The New York Times supported the pols stating that “threats by some bishops to deny communion to Catholic politicians who support abortion rights” are “deeply hurtful.” The Times went on to warn Catholic churchmen that “any attempt to make elected leaders toe a doctrinal line when it comes to their public duties raises multiple risks. Breaching the church-state line that is so necessary to protect religious freedom is one. Figuring out when to stop is another.”

In other words, the bishops violate “separation of church and state” when they set rules about the worthiness of their own members to receive Holy Communion that the secular Times doesn’t like. How ridiculous is that?

On the other hand, these critics apply a different set of rules to bishops when it involves positions they approve. In the 1960s, they lauded the bishop of New Orleans for excommunicating racists Catholics for opposing the civil rights movement. And liberals cheered when the bishops criticized President Ronald Reagan’s nuclear and fiscal policies in “The Challenge of Peace” (1983) and “Economic Justice for All” (1986).

What these critics fail to grasp is that bishops, as shepherds, have a duty to their flocks to offer guidance on the Church’s moral teachings. They also have an obligation to correct any person – especially any Catholic who is a highly visible public figure – who misleads or sows confusion about Church doctrine. Clergy of all faiths explain to their co-religionists how their religions apply in the temporal world. Catholics are no different.

Throughout the healthcare debate, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, led by Chicago’s Francis Cardinal George, acted forthrightly and courageously by insisting on reform that “truly protects the life, dignity, consciences, and health of all.” But it was a rough patch, and after Obamacare kicks in it will probably get rougher, especially if the bishops are forced into a situation in which they conclude that the only way to uphold moral principles within Catholic institutions is for the Church to get out of the healthcare business entirely.

And the pressures probably won’t stop there.

George J. Marlin, Chairman of the Board of Aid to the Church in Need USA, is the author of The American Catholic Voter and Sons of St. Patrick, written with Brad Miner. His most recent book is Mario Cuomo: The Myth and the Man.