Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Games Continue: Full-Fledged Attack by the Right on Catholic Support for Health Care Reform

Over a week ago, I posted about the strategy of the political and religious right to drive a wedge between the Catholic community and those promoting health care reform. Because Catholicism has a strong, unambiguous moral teaching that health care is a human right and everyone ought to have access to quality health care regardless of his/her ability to pay, Catholics represent a problem for groups that want to block health care reform at all cost in order to damage the Obama administration.

The only way those attacking health care reform at its root—that is, those who resist the provision of access to universal health care coverage by the government, period—can cut Catholics from the herd is to play the abortion card to try to confuse and divide the Catholic community. Their hope is that, if they represent health care reform as a pro-abortion initiative, they will deter Catholics who support health care on every other ground—as a human right, as a moral imperative for moral societies—from doing what they would otherwise do, which is standing behind health care reform.

As I feared, this is the game now underway, and it’s being played by the usual range of ugly right-wing political and economic interest groups in collusion with ugly right-wing Catholic groups for whom right-wing ideology trumps Catholic values regarding many economic and social issues. There is a concerted effort underway now, emanating from well-funded right-wing circles, to torpedo health care reform in the United States. Period. That’s the game plan.

And the abortion issue is the wedge these groups want to drive into the heart of American Catholics to achieve that goal. Unfortunately, those engaged in this shameful crusade to block health care coverage for millions of needy citizens are being aided and abetted both by Catholics of the right who refuse to accept any administration other than a Republican one, and by their brothers and sisters of the center, who continue to bend over backwards to claim solidarity with their brothers and sisters of the fringe right, while refusing solidarity with their co-religionists to the left.

In what follows, I want to provide a sampling of representative recent articles that illustrate points I’ve just made. These are only a handful of what’s available online to anyone interested in this discussion.

First, I’m heartened to hear some Catholic commentators tell it like it is regarding the strategy now underway from the right. Commenting on a thread re: the health care situation that Michael Sean Winters began at America yesterday, John Stangle notes unambiguously that the real game being played by Catholics of the right is to block health care reform. Though these groups are waving the abortion flag, their actual goal is to prevent health care reform from taking place, no matter what cost the poor may pay in the process.

Stangle is responding to an observation Michael Sean Winters makes in his posting about the need for honesty in the health care debate. To his credit, Winters appears to recognize that the Knights of Columbus have lined up behind those intent on blocking health care reform, period, for political reasons, and are using the abortion issue as a red herring to divert attention from their real motive:

The Knights of Columbus, who are keen to demonstrate their loyalty to the bishops, issued a document that would have you think the whole purpose of health care reform is to advance abortion. I looked in vain for the sentence in their resolution that said something to the effect of, "Provided the reforms do not promote abortion in any way, we pledge our whole-hearted support to health care reform." . . . Still, the Knights should know better and they should not be party to this dishonesty.*

The Knights of Columbus document to which Winters links is a resolution they passed at their recent convention—the same convention at which Cardinal George informed the Knights that Catholic identity and unity hinge on obedience to appointed pastors. Winters is correct: the Knights’ resolution makes no mention at all of their support for what Catholic moral teaching regards as a central moral imperative—the provision of access to quality health care for all citizens, as a human right. The lack of any statement of support for health care reform premised on that moral imperative, coupled with the suggestion that health care reform may really be all about promoting abortion, puts the Knights in a definite political camp—an unabashedly Republican and anti-Democratic one.

Remember that the Grand Knight of the Knights of Columbus, Carl A. Anderson, published an editorial less than a year ago, in which he put his powerful Catholic organization squarely behind the Republican ticket by suggesting that faithful Catholics could not in good conscience vote for Obama-Biden? Not much seems to have changed in a year, when it comes to the Knights and their willingness to be used by right-wing political partisans to misrepresent Catholic teachings and values.

And so John Stangle’s response to Winters’ observation that the Knights are playing a political game re: health care reform. Stangle responds:

. . . I too was amazed to see the Knights of Columbus' statement and also to read that 80 bishops attended their convention in Phoenix. They seem to be somehow a tool of those who don't want any health care reform; but remember, these are the type of guys who work for insurance companies!
. . .
The Knights of Columbus don't want federally funded abortions, but even more they don't want health care reform, that is clear . . . . So, maybe making abortion the deal-breaker has its uses - it seems to illustrate the extent of concern of the anti-abortion lobby; but, they are really mostly the anti-health care lobby and they are sailing with the prevailing wind of selfishness. So, ask, with abortion not funded and health care not reformed, where will we be? Right where we are - abortion funded anyhow somehow and health care accessible no-how!

“Somehow a tool of those who don’t want any health care reform,” “sailing with the prevailing wind of selfishness”: Stangle sees with clear eyes. One has to wonder what those 80 bishops attending the conference to listen to lectures about obedience to pastors intend to make of the Knights’ apparent disregard of core Catholic moral teaching about health care as a human right, and about the need to consider the poor first and foremost.

And it’s important to note that I do not mean to suggest that Michael Sean Winters supports health care reform at all cost, when he exposes the political game the Knights are playing. His centrist Catholic position is unambiguous: “Health care reform is a moral imperative but abortion is a deal-breaker.”

In case any reader thinks I’m exaggerating when I say that the real game that groups like the Knights are playing vis-à-vis health care reform is a political end-game designed to attack Catholic support for health care reform at its root—the teaching that health care is a human right—then I suggest that you head over to the Human Events website (“Headquarters for the Conservative Underground”). There, you’ll find a 30 July article by Rev. Michael P. Orsi (yes, he’s a Catholic priest) entitled, “Bishops Wrong: Health Care Not a Right.”

Orsi makes no bones about it: he opposes Catholic moral teaching about health care as a human right:

Recently, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development released a statement made to the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate stating that “health care is not a privilege but a right and a requirement to protect the life and dignity of each person.” They couldn’t be more wrong.

And he does so for clearly stated political reasons: he and those with whom he is aligned politically and economically do not intend to accept the results of the last election. Orsi states, astonishingly, “Thus, the Catholic vote secured the election of the most pro-death politician to ever sit in the White House.”

Orsi is a Research Fellow in Law and Religion at Ave Maria University in Florida. I have just said that those with whom he is aligned politically and economically do not intend to accept the new president. If you want to refresh your memory about the political and economic operatives with whom Ave Maria and its founder Tom Monaghan are in bed, have a look at my previous postings about Monaghan’s role as a national GOP political power broker, and his thick ties to major players of the political and religious right determined to undermine Catholic social teaching on issues like health care.

As John Gehring notes in response to Orsi, Orsi is simply wrong in his presentation of Catholic teaching about health care. The teaching that health care is a human right, and that we are morally obliged to consider the poor first in decisions about political policies, is consistent and unambiguous:

Orsi argues that the bishops’ advocacy on behalf of comprehensive health reform implies a “moral imperative which in the case of health care does not exist.” It would be interesting to see him float that ivory-tower theory with the nearly 50 million Americans who lack medical insurance. I’m sure that argument would be persuasive to a desperately ill patient denied coverage by an insurance company (the ten largest insurers earned $13 billion in 2007) or a father who puts off seeing a doctor because he can’t afford the expense. If people getting sick and dying for lack of quality medical in the richest nation in the world is not a moral imperative then what is? The Compendium of the Social Doctrine on the Church, complied by the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, lists health care as a human right along side food, housing and other basic components of a just society.

As Gehring notes, Orsi’s “real beef” is with the bishops for the role he believes they played in the 2008 election: he blames them for Obama’s victory. Orsi would like to see a one-issue church aligned with a single partisan political option that, in his view, hews faithfully to church teaching on that one issue:

You get the sense that Orsi wishes the bishops would just pipe down about health care and stick to abortion. But we are “not a one-issue church,” as Auxiliary Bishop Gabino Zavala of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles told the Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, Jr before the election. Catholicism can’t be reduced to narrow ideologies, partisan talking points, free-market fundamentalism or any other distortions of a tradition that should make both the left and right uncomfortable from time to time.

Other partisan Catholics who are predictably playing the Catholics-vs.-health-care game by using abortion as a wedge issue now? Bill Donohue of the Catholic League, who echoes Orsi’s talking point about Obama as “the most pro-death” politician ever to sit in the White House. In a press release yesterday, Donohue asks why abortion hasn’t been excluded from proposals for health care reform.

He answers his question by stating, “The answer, of course, is that this is the most radical pro-abortion administration in American history.” Abortion as a wedge issue to cleave Catholic support for health care reform, for purely partisan reasons that Catholic mouthpieces for the economic and political right like Donohue don’t even bother to disguise . . . .

And then there’s Judie Brown of the American Life League, who gets the last word in a series of articles (here and here) that Kathleen Gilbert has recently published at Lifesite News, which seek to depict major Catholic organizations including St. Vincent de Paul, Catholic Charities, and the Catholic Health Organization as indirectly supporting abortion by supporting health care reform. Gilbert disingenuously suggests that there is confusion in the Catholic approach to health care reform, even as she deliberately creates that “confusion” by depicting Catholic support for health care reform as support for abortion (and euthanasia, contraception, and most astonishing of all, denial of health care to the poor).

Interestingly enough, both of Gilbert’s articles on American Catholics and health care end by citing Judie Brown of the American Life League, who sows seeds of more “confusion” through statements like the following:

Judie Brown, president of American Life League, responded with outrage at the organizations' failure to address the serious problems inherent in the current health care legislation, saying that "There is no social justice in rationing charity."
Millions of taxpayers will be forced to subsidize abortion, contraception, euthanasia and bureaucratic denial of health care to the poorest of the poor," she said.
"All these organizations claim to be faithful to Catholic social teaching - which unambiguously and passionately puts respect for human personhood at the core of all other social and charitable works," Brown pointed out. "Yet these same organizations are undermining the very foundation they exist to protect and foster: the dignity of human persons and the sanctity of their right to life."


American Life League president Judie Brown said that her position in the debate over health care reform, as a pro-life Catholic, was simple.
They can make all the nuanced statements they want about health care reform," said Brown, "but the two questions I have for them are: number one, why, all of a sudden, is it required that the Catholic Church succumb to the federal government and support national health care reform? That is not the only answer."
"And secondly," she continued, "no Catholic entity, including the USCCB, should be doing anything but requiring and demanding that any health care reform proposal considered by the federal government have a total ban on abortion, euthanasia, health care rationing, sterilization, and birth control. That's all Catholics should be doing."

“Somehow a tool of those who don't want any health care reform”: John Stangle’s assessment of the Knights of Columbus applies to other players in this ruthless politically-driven end-game to derail health care reform at all costs. From its foundation, Judie Brown’s American Life League was closely associated with the powerful right-wing Republican theocrat Paul Weyrich and right-wing political activist Richard Viguerie.

Weyrich founded the Heritage Foundation. If anyone thinks this group is interested in promoting bipartisan health care reform, he or she would be well advised to read through the ever-expanding series of articles attacking the Obama health care initiative that Heritage has been uploading to its website throughout August. As Russ Bellant’s The Coors Connection (Boston: South End, 1991) notes (p. 14), this is hardly a group that endorses key Catholic moral values in the economic and social spheres:

The Heritage Foundation will continue to be a key element in the phalanx of rightist groups with an agenda of austerity for the poor, hostility to minorities and women, upward distribution of wealth for the rich, economic domination of the Third World, with repression and bloodletting for those who rebel.

And Viguerie has been closely associated with Judicial Watch, which filed eighteen lawsuits against President Clinton and his administration in an attempt to gut the effectiveness of that administration before it could enact various political reforms. These attacks relied on funds provided by Richard Mellon Scaife. Media Transparency has concluded that this organization is “essentially a tool” of Scaife and his political agenda.

Interested in seeing Catholic ethical values regarding health care and the poor prevail? I don’t think so. Interested, rather, in undercutting those values in any way possible, because they conflict with a ruthless free-enterprise economic philosophy that gives tremendous advantage to the rich while relegating the poor to the status of objects in economic and social systems that make the rich richer.

What business do Catholic groups like the Knights of Columbus or Ave Maria University, or Catholic priests like Michael P. Orsi, or Catholic activists like Bill Donohue and Judie Brown, have getting into bed with such folks? And what does any of the folderol over health care and abortion have to do with the real question, the glaring moral question, we ought to be asking, if we truly care about the moral values enshrined in Christian teachings regarding health care?

As Michael D. Place notes in an article entitled “A Time for Reform” at America, sound moral analysis of the health care issue has to begin with the recognition of how many of us lack access to ongoing quality health care:

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 46 million Americans were without health insurance in 2007. Families U.S.A., a health care advocacy group, has estimated that over the course of 2007-8, 54 percent of Americans under age 65 were without health insurance at some point. Unpaid medical bills are a primary reason people file for bankruptcy. At the same time, the cost of health care coverage continues to escalate, with the average cost exceeding $4,000 per year for a single person and $10,000 for a family.

Place calls for what it appears that his co-religionists using abortion as a wedge issue to block health care reform do not want: reasoned dialogue. Unfortunately, that's not the game the political and religious right, including their tools in the Catholic world, really want to play. What they want is end-game, scorched-earth warfare designed to destroy the new administration as it begins to implement new policies.

And they may well succeed, these nihilistic warriors for economic and social power and privilege, who spout phrases about morality while undercutting everything that is decent and holy as they seek to keep in place a shameful health care system that excludes millions of citizens, including millions of children, from access to ongoing health care.

* I should note that I have clipped the last line in this quotation from Winters' next paragraph, which is about the Knights' objections to provisions for euthanasia that are not even in the proposed health care reform program. I believe Winters wished to speak of the Knights' approach to health care reform in general as lacking in honesty, and so I have attached the sentence to the paragraph which began that discussion. If I am misrepresenting his point here, I apologize to him.