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Health care: What should the bishops say now?

March 22, 2010

The passage of the Senate health care bill by the House of Representatives was a major defeat for the U.S. Catholic bishops who insisted that stricter anti-abortion language was needed in the bill.
Many pro-life Democrats abandoned the bishops after Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) received a commitment from President Obama to sign an executive order clarifying that the bill would not provide Federal funds for abortions. The bishops did not think the executive order could solve the problems in the legislation.

How should the bishops respond to this defeat? Some would have them read out of the Catholic Church anyone who did not vote with them. This is bad advice. It would be disastrous for the church and the bishops.

What should the bishops say? The bishops need to make four points:

First, the bishops should praise the good things in the bill. They should express satisfaction that the bill expands health care to 32 million people who were not previously covered by insurance. Since the Wilson administration, the bishops have supported universal health care and this is a huge step forward. They look forward to the day when all people in the U.S., including undocumented persons, are covered.

Second, the bishops should express hope that Stupak and others are correct in their view that Federal money will not go to paying for abortions. They have their doubts, but hope they are wrong.

Third, the bishops should acknowledge that their disagreement with Stupak and others was not over abortion or Federal funding of abortion. It was not over principle but the prudential application of principle to specific legislative language. The bishops have no special charism when it comes to interpreting legislative language or guessing how the courts will interpret it.

The bishops must acknowledge the good intentions of Stupak and others who voted for the Senate bill and say that they do not consider them bad Catholics. Catholic social teaching has always acknowledged that Catholics in good conscience can disagree over the prudential application of principles to concrete situations.

Fourth, the bishops can say that they will continue to monitor the situation and if any of their fears are realized, they will ask Congress and the president to keep their promises and fix the legislation.

Such a response from the bishops would be politically and morally correct. It is based on sound Catholic theology and would not alienate the very allies that the bishops need to work with in the future.