Health care and a house divided

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Tuesday, 30 March 2010 21:06
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The recent health care debate and legislation engage people’s attention on many levels. Controversial issues such as this reveal both differences of opinion as well as differences of belief, depending on whether the issue is viewed from a political or a religious/moral perspective.

Why should the Church enter the debate?
At the time of the Apostles, Christians were a very tiny and suspect minority in the mighty Roman Empire. The New Testament admonishes Christians to pray for the emperor and follow civil laws for the sake of public security and order. These earliest Christians had no immediate hope of overturning the bloodlust and immorality of pagan Rome. They themselves lived by a very different standard, and preferred to be martyred rather than sinning against God’s law. An early witness wrote that Christians relate to the world as the soul does to the body; and just as the body rebels against the soul, so does the world despise and reject Christians, even though the latter are living according to truth and love.

web mug blairWhat happens, however, when the emperor and more and more members of society become Christian? Then the Gospel begins to shape a culture, as it has for almost 2000 years. Pagan bloodlust and immorality will exist until the end of time because of human depravity, but they were no longer sanctioned and promoted by the state in a post-pagan religious culture. This is reflected in the prayer of the first U.S. Bishop, John Carroll, for George Washington’s inauguration: “that his administration may be conducted in righteousness … encouraging due respect for virtue and religion … and restraining vice and immorality.” Any Protestant, Jew or Muslim of the time would have offered a similar prayer.

Now in 2010 we find ourselves in a culture that is repudiating more and more its religious roots.  The trappings are still maintained. God and the Bible are frequently invoked. But a society that embraces contraception, abortion, easy divorce, and homosexual acts as “marriage” is no longer the religion of the Bible or of the Christianity of two millennia.

In today’s world, which is neo-pagan and secularized by turns, we, like the first Christians, pray for legitimately constituted civil authorities and we obey the laws that conscience permits, recognizing like our forebears that “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). And to the extent that there are still enough of us around to do something about it, we do not stand idly by when human beings are murdered, as happens to unborn children aborted in their mother’s wombs. There is a chance that we will be reduced to the cultural catacombs like the early Christians, but the Gospel forewarns us of the world’s rejection and even hatred if we are faithful until Christ comes again.

With this background, what about the new health care legislation?
Almost everyone agrees that we need health care reform. For years the U.S. bishops have appealed to moral principles as a basis of reform, including a special concern for the poor and most defenseless. As pastors and teachers we welcome the effort to make health care available and affordable to all. Whether the new legislation is the right way to go about it is subject to a legitimate diversity of opinion. It is certainly not an article of Catholic faith.

The defense of unborn human life, however, is an article of faith. When it comes to abortion we cannot remain silent if the government intends to fund and/or facilitate abortion and health plans that cover abortion.

There is certainly a grave moral blindness in this: that the murder of the voiceless and nameless unborn should be reduced to one “social issue” among others, a “political position” of relative importance to other social benefits. Imagine if the political price for the passage of health care reform were the reintroduction of racial segregation in southern schools. This would rightly lead to moral indignation and block passage of the bill. However, the murder of 50 million unborn children in our country is seen as a legitimate “choice” and is tossed about like a football in the political field.

Whether or not the new health care legislation maintains the legal status quo of the last 30 years prohibiting government funding for abortion is a matter of debate. Most pro-life Democrats are convinced that what they managed to wring out of the White House and their party leadership at the 11th hour does indeed preserve the status quo. The best legal advice our Bishops’ Conference has received is that these pro-life Democrats are wrong. Perhaps only time will tell, but in the meantime we must do everything possible to ensure that federal law does not fund, promote or facilitate abortions or impose abortion on consciences.

As if the political and cultural challenges were not grave enough, we also see illustrated in the church the words of our Lord: “A house divided cannot stand.” Both the Catholic Health Association (CHA) and Network (a lobbying group claiming to represent 59,000 Catholic sisters) simply dismissed as false and unfounded the grave concerns not only of the bishops but also of pro-life members of Congress regarding abortion in the proposed legislation. The head of Planned Parenthood, the largest abortion provider in the country, has called what the sisters did a “brave and important move” worthy of the organization’s “gratitude and support.”

A Network spokesperson was quoted as saying: “This is politics; this isn’t a question of faith and morals.” Let us look more closely at this claim.

At the very moment that pro-life legislators, subjected to great pressure and even vilification, were working valiantly to change the health care bill so that it would uphold the status quo of federal protections against abortion, these “Catholic” groups were pulling the rug out from under them, as everyone immediately recognized. There is no doubt that this was a calculated political act, but certainly not one in keeping with Pope John Paul’s words that even the “right to health … is false and illusory if the right to life … is not defended with maximum determination” (Christifideles laici, n. 38).

Last year, Pope Benedict reiterated the need for “a mature and committed laity” who are not merely “collaborators of the clergy” but “co-responsible for the Church’s being and action.” Co-responsibility, however, is founded on the obedience of faith by clergy and people alike to the deposit of faith. Nor does co-responsibility mean equality without distinctions. With the flock we bishops too are Christ’s sheep, but we have also been called by Christ and ordained to sanctify, to teach and to govern His people.

Canon Law, reflecting the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, says that the Christian faithful have a right and even a duty to make known their opinion, but “without prejudice to the integrity of faith and morals, with reverence towards their pastors, and attentive to common advantage and the dignity of persons” (CIC, 212). None of these conditions was met by the action of the Catholic Health Association and Network.

Finally, and very sadly, I must point out that in our own diocese the Sisters of St. Francis, Tiffin, were among the signers of the Network statement. Support for health care reform is commendable, but not at the expense of efforts by the bishops and committed pro-life members of congress to protect both the unborn and consciences.

I call upon the Tiffin Franciscans and all the other communities of sisters who signed the Network statement to rededicate themselves to the Catholic teaching reaffirmed by the Second Vatican Council that “abortion and infanticide are abominable crimes” (Gaudium et spes, 51), and to defending with “maximum determination,” as Pope John Paul said, “the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right and the condition for all other personal rights,” including the right to health. I also invite the sisters to join me and the tremendously dedicated pro-life people of our diocese in attending the annual “Right to Life March” in Washington and participating in events like “Forty Days for Life,” prayer vigils, and other visible signs of moral and spiritual support for an end to the scourge of abortion in our country.
Last Updated on Wednesday, 26 May 2010 13:33