Naïve Sisters or Paranoid Bishops?

By: Thomas Reese

March 18, 2010

The Catholic bishops of the United States are calling for the defeat of the Senate health care bill because they say it will provide federal funding for abortion. Sister Carol Keehan, the head of the Catholic Health Association, disagrees as does a group of sisters who head religious congregations. Are the sisters being naïve or are the bishops paranoid?

The disagreement is not over the morality of abortion or federal funding for abortion. The disagreement is over the meaning of the legislative language dealing with health insurance exchanges and community health clinics in the Senate bill.

The bishops fear the bill will force people to choose an insurance plan that includes abortion because it might include coverage of other things not in a plan that also excludes abortion. And because there is no explicit language forbidding community health clinics from doing abortions (although they have never done abortions in the past), the bishops fear courts might force them to perform abortions.

Many, including the sisters, think such fears are misplaced.

The arguments on both sides are quite technical. If the U.S. Congress were a functional body, the legal language could be clarified in the conference committee, which is supposed to work out the differences between the two houses. But because the Republicans will filibuster any bill that is returned to the Senate for passage, there is really only two options--pass the Senate bill or have no health care reform.

Catholic social teaching has always acknowledged that on the application of principles, Catholics can disagree even if adherence to the principles must be unbending. The area of disagreement in this case is not over principle but over the interpretation of legal language. Neither the sisters nor the bishops have any special charism when it comes to interpreting legislative language or predicting how legislation will be interpreted by the courts.

Granted that this is a question of prudential judgment, Members of Congress can and must decide for themselves.

Certainly a legitimate case can be made for voting for the legislation granted the certainty of the good it will do in expanding coverage to the poor and the speculative nature of the legislation's potential for funding abortions. Supporters also argue that any failures in the Senate bill can be fixed in the future, whereas if the Senate bill does not pass, we will not see health care reform for another decade.

If the Senate bill does pass, we will know within a few years whether the bishops were paranoid or whether the sisters were naïve. Do you think either will acknowledge that fact when the time comes?

Opens in a new window