Politics & Policy

Nun Too Supportive

Can there be a Catholic position on the health-care bill when so many Catholics say so many different things about it?

‘Congress must not dismantle a social order that respects religious freedom and recognizes that government should never stand between the consciences and the religious practice of its citizens and Almighty God.”

Any questions?

That statement comes from the Catholic bishop of Orlando, Fla., Thomas Wenski, in a column earlier this month.

In recent days, the Catholic Health Association, a lobby headed by Sister Carol Keenan that has invested millions in the health-care fight, has, to the contrary, endorsed the health-care bill being pushed by the White House. Sister Keenan, who recently got front-row seating at a White House health-care event and the CHA, have been joined by politically left-leaning groups of religious sisters and laymen who have issued various letters and statements trying to put a “Catholic stamp” on the bill.

CHA backs health bill; bishops reiterate objection to abortion wording” was the headline that the Catholic News Service, an arm of the bishops conference, produced Monday night as news broke that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops was officially opposing the current health-care push in Washington. But after a weekend of headlines about the Catholic Health Association’s endorsement of the bill, that headline wasn’t exactly a resounding counter-blast.

The statement that Chicago’s Francis Cardinal George issued on behalf of the bishops’ conference was a bit stronger. In it, he made clear that the objection wasn’t “quibbling over technicalities,” as the CHA and some Catholics who claim to be pro-life would suggest it is. He laid out “two basic principles” that “continue to shape the concerns of the Catholic bishops: health care means taking care of the health needs of all, across the human life span; and the expansion of health care should not involve the expansion of abortion funding and of policies forcing everyone to pay for abortions. Because these principles have not been respected, despite the good that the bill under consideration intends or might achieve, the Catholic bishops regretfully hold that it must be opposed unless and until these serious moral problems are addressed.”

On their own, other bishops have been starker — with statements that aren’t vetted by committees. R. Walker Nickless, bishop of the Diocese of Sioux City, tells National Review Online that it is “most regrettable that the Catholic Health Association recently endorsed the Senate’s very flawed health-care-reform legislation. Such an endorsement can only cause undue confusion, in matters already quite sufficiently complex. Sr. Carole Keehan, president of the CHA, said, ‘On the moral issue of abortion, there is no disagreement. On the technical issue of whether this bill prevents federal funding of abortions, we differ with Right to Life.’ Unfortunately, CHA also differs in this from the Catholic Bishops, who find — and have repeatedly called on the Senate to redress, among many other deficiencies in this bill — quite strong fiscal and moral support for abortion.” 

Denver’s Archbishop Charles J. Chaput wrote in a column Monday: “Groups, trade associations, and publications describing themselves as ‘Catholic’ or ‘prolife’ that endorse the Senate version — whatever their intentions — are doing a serious disservice to the nation and to the Church, undermining the witness of the Catholic community; and ensuring the failure of genuine, ethical health-care reform.”

But it was the rebuke from Bishop Robert Lynch of St. Petersburg, Fla., that may have been the most stinging, because he is the only bishop who sits on the board of the Catholic Health Association: “As a member of the Board of the Catholic Health Association, I too want universal access to health care in this country to all our inhabitants. But I do not wish it through a vehicle that expands abortion rights or weakens conscience clause protection. So I side with the USCCB on this one.”

Bishop Lynch’s point is underscored by the ordinary with perhaps the most extraordinary pulpit in the United States. Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York praised the concept of “universal health care” and the work of Catholic sisters in hospitals, but called the inclusion of abortion funding in the legislation “a grave concern.” He added: “We’re not the obstructionists here, since all we’re insisting upon is that the understanding that tax money not pay for abortions, in place since 1975, remains.”

So why would the Catholic Health Association do such a thing?

“It is important to keep in mind that CHA is a trade association that is not subject to the direct control of the USCCB,” emphasizes Leonard J. Nelson III, author of Diagnosis Critical: The Urgent Threats Confronting Catholic Healthcare. “It serves the interests of its members and in this case it is clear that Catholic hospitals feel that they have much to gain from the expansion of insurance coverage with the concomitant reduction in uncompensated care. This dovetails nicely with the support of the Catholic Left for a more expansive role for the federal government in health care under the rubric of social justice. But it ignores the principle of subsidiarity, a basic component of Catholic social teaching that calls for problems to be solved in the most decentralized manner and at the lowest level of government that is feasible. And it is imprudent to support a vast expansion of the federal role in health care under an administration with a president as avowedly pro-choice as Barack Obama.”

If the bishops aren’t authoritative enough, how about Pope Benedict XVI’s latest encyclical, Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth)? Marie T. Hilliard, director of Bioethics and Public Policy at the National Catholic Bioethics Center, asked in a recent piece: “Does the Obama Plan advance the common good? The answer is in Caritas in Veritate. All the hallmarks of a sound health-care-reform policy are contained within Caritas in Veritate.” These include, unsurprisingly, the fundamental rights to life and religious freedom.

Hilliard tells me: “Those who would justify this as providing the greatest good for the greatest number are deluding themselves. When the most vulnerable among us is compromised by the stronger, every member of society is compromised.”

Or, as a statement from the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious — which represents over 100 thriving religious congregations that live in community and wear the traditional habit — put it in a statement echoing the bishops on Thursday morning: “Protection of life and freedom of conscience are central to morally responsible judgment. We join the bishops in seeking ethically sound legislation.”

Ultimately, it’s that concern that appears to be motivating pro-life Michigan Democrat Bart Stupak; the fact that other purportedly Catholic politicians — especially ones who claim the “pro-life” label that being Catholic should imply — are falling away from his stand is a scandal. But we must remember that not everything that claims to be “Catholic” is, in fact, that.

Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online. She can be reached at klopez@nationalreview.com.

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