Bishops Abandon “a Fundamental Issue of Human Life and Dignity”

Kathleen Reeves

While some Catholics have strongly supported health care reform, others are more interested in fighting for their own interests than in fighting for people’s lives.

The first paragraph of this article was changed at 9:10 pm on September 3, 2009 to correct an inaccurate portrayal of Bishop Pate’s original statement, which was not against health reform per se, but against health reform that includes federal funding for abortion care.  No bill in Congress includes federal funding for abortion care.

The Catholic News Agency reports that a Des Moines bishop is the latest to join efforts to oppose any health care reform legislation that "includes abortion," despite the fact that no bill in Congress includes federal funding for abortion care.  In perpetuating these and other myths about health reform (e.g. that current bills encourage euthanasia) Bishop Pates joins various members of the Catholic hierarchy who have apparently decided to turn their backs on the sick, the poor, and other groups we often hear about in the Catholic Mass.

Last Thursday, the New York Times reported that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops is beginning to turn against health care reform, after years of supporting universal health care. While some Catholics have strongly supported health care reform—like Bishop William F. Murphy, who stated in a letter to the President and Congress in July that “Health care…is a fundamental issue of human life and dignity”—others are more interested in fighting for their own interests than in fighting for people’s lives:

“No health care reform is better than the wrong sort of health care reform,” Bishop R. Walker Nickless of Sioux City, Iowa, declared in a recent pastoral letter, urging the faithful to call their members of Congress.

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The Catholic News Agency’s report focuses on Bishop Richard Pates. Perplexingly, Bishop Pates speaks at length about the Catholic Church’s responsibility to provide health care. He says:

"Health is among the most fundamental of human needs – right up there with food and shelter. Yet, in many ways, we leave it pretty much to chance, to a health-care ‘system’ that may, or may not, care for us depending on our ability to pay.”

And:

“caring for others was one of Jesus’ principal commandments, and Catholics and other Christians have always been involved in providing care. The Sisters of Mercy, for example, established Mercy Hospital in Des Moines in 1893. It’s the longest continually operating hospital in the state, and provides care to people of all faiths.”

Yet Bishop Pates is not interested in continuing this tradition. Instead, he’s thrown his support behind a group of obstructionists that includes his fellow Iowan, Nickless, who explains his commitment to “no health care reform” in the following astounding way:

“The Catholic Church does not teach that government should directly provide health care,” Bishop Nickless of Sioux City wrote, adding, “Any legislation that undermines the vitality of the private sector is suspect.”

No, Jesus did not say anything about whether or not we should let the 111th Congress pass health care reform. But there are many Catholics who believe that health care reform is a chance to improve the human condition. The Times quotes the acting director of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, which supports the health care plan. However, the article does not mention a group that has been advocating for health care reform—among many other social justice issues—for over thirty years. NETWORK, a Catholic social justice lobby, was founded by nuns in 1971 and is now made up of men and women who take seriously teachings that other Catholics seem to have forgotten about. The group lobbies for economic justice, social justice, the environment, and peace. Their knowledgeable and nuanced treatment of health care recognizes the complexity of the issue but argues unequivocally that reform is necessary:

The current state of healthcare in the United States constitutes social sin that must be eradicated through broad and deep engagement of the public conscience.

The health care debate has made it clear—perhaps clearer than anything in a while—that some high-ranking Catholics have forgotten what conscience means. Your moral conscience is not about you; rather, it should guide the way you relate to others, including friends, strangers, and people with whom you agree and disagree. If your moral conscience doesn’t urge you to make health care accessible to these people, then your moral conscience is broken. 

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