Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Partisan Catholics Working Against Health Care for All: America Magazine Speaks Out

Yesterday I faulted the U.S. Catholic bishops for playing partisan politics with health care reform. The social teaching of the Catholic church strongly and consistently supports the provision of adequate health care to all citizens as a moral obligation of every society. This social teaching is grounded in Catholic teaching that health care is a human right.

The U.S. bishops have a significant tradition of urging the United States to assure that access to quality basic health care is provided to all citizens, and, in particular, to those most excluded from social support networks—the poor. As the 1981 pastoral letter of the U.S. Catholic bishops entitled “Health and Health Care” states,

Every person has a basic right to adequate health care. This right flows from the sanctity of human life and the dignity that belongs to all human persons, who are made in the image of God. It implies that access to that health care which is necessary and suitable for the proper development and maintenance of life must be provided for all people, regardless of economic, social, or legal status (pp. 17-18).

Unfortunately, as Frances Kissling notes in the article to which yesterday’s posting links, in the current health care debate the U.S. Catholic bishops are choosing largely to sit on the sidelines. They are refusing to throw their moral weight behind the health care reform process and the attempt to gain universal health care coverage for all citizens.

They are doing so for partisan reasons. They are doing so because a significant number of the bishops have in recent years sought to move the American Catholic church in a direction of blind one-party partisanship. Those bishops have sought to make being Catholic (a “faithful” Catholic is the phrase they like to use) synonymous with being Republican.

As a body, the U.S. Catholic bishops are now sitting on the sidelines as the Republican party seeks to derail the process of health care reform in collaboration with economic interest groups that do not want to see the health care system changed. The bishops are, to a large extent, doing nothing and remaining silent as mobs energized by this political party and those interest groups rampage at town-hall meetings.

The ostensible reason for the bishops’ diffidence about health care reform is the question of abortion, and whether the health care bill will cover abortions or promote abortion. But the real reason for the indefensible moral malingering of the U.S. Catholic bishops as health care reform that they have a moral obligation to support goes up in smoke is, I fear, more sinister. We’re seeing partisan politics at work among the bishops.

Many bishops do not want to break the cozy, idolatrous ties they have fashioned with the Republican party in recent years. And like Republicans in general, they see an opportunity to undermine the new administration by thwarting health care reform.

Fortunately, not all Catholic leaders are moving in this direction. Since I believe in praising as well as criticizing, when praise is due, I want to point today to an editorial about obstacles to health care reform that appeared this week in the Jesuit publication America.

The America editorial sees what is happening to the health care reform process with clear eyes, and is not afraid to speak the truth about what it sees. The editorial is not afraid to use the P-word—partisanship—to describe the motivation behind the attack on health care reform.

America states,

Passage of a strong health care reform bill could allay one of the deepest legitimate fears Americans have: that of going bankrupt because of illness. Currently, insurance companies can refuse coverage, drop coverage or raise premiums beyond reach for those with a pre-existing condition. The proposed House reform bill would outlaw such practices. Just as auto insurance is currently required of vehicle owners, the bill would require health insurance of individuals and employers; it would offer subsidies for those with low incomes and small businesses. It would also cut waste and curb costs. If the majority party were to pass such legislation without the help of Republicans, it might secure Democratic leadership for years. Such reform would also exemplify the change a majority thought they had embraced when they voted for Mr. Obama: a fairer, more compassionate America.
Health care reform would not solve the job or housing crisis, or send stocks soaring. But it would add the United States to the roster of developed nations with universal health care, where no family need be bankrupt or homeless because of illness or injury. Both parties understand that passage of an effective reform bill would have major political significance. That is what drives the misinformation campaigns and the scare tactics now reaching a fevered pitch.
Finally, Mr. Obama is correct to point out the relationship between health care reform and economic recovery. For the soaring costs of health care insurance and delivery, if unchecked, are unsustainable; they will leave us mired in debt. That is one more reason why these obstacles—joblessness, foreclosures, economic instability, fear of the future and partisanship—must be overcome, and why a strong health reform bill must be passed.

And saying this, of course—speaking simple, middle-of-the-road, morally sound truth about what is taking place with the health care reform process—now opens the door to all those Catholics who want to make being Catholic synonymous with being Republican. Read the comments about this editorial already pouring into the America website, and you’ll see what I mean.

Compare those comments with the 1981 “Health and Health Care” pastoral letter, and you’ll wonder at the astonishing claim of many of these commentators to represent Catholic truth. Many commentators reject the notion of universal health care coverage in toto, and refuse to accept that societies have a moral obligation to provide such coverage for all citizens.

The fact that such fringe, anti-Catholic positions are now permitted to represent themselves as mainstream in American Catholicism—and, indeed, are even permitted to claim the center of American Catholic discourse—speaks volumes about the bishops’ abdication of sound pastoral and moral leadership for quite some time now. And, unfortunately, I’m not seeing strong indicators that they intend to use this health care reform debate as an opportunity to redeem themselves as moral and pastoral leaders.