Not all Catholic groups are created equal

usccbThe Senate's passage of health care reform legislation was a major victory, though there's a big difference between winning a battle and winning the war. There's no solid evidence as of yet that the House is going to accept the Senate's legislation as it's written. The President appears to concede the issue may not be resolved into February. And of course a major sticking point for the passage of health care reform is abortion funding. The House passed its own version of the health care bill by 220-215, and that was only after pro-life Democratic Congressman Bart Stupak led a revolt to ensure that the legislation didn't use tax dollars to fund or subsidize abortion. The Senate bill contains no such guarantee, although Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska did force the inclusion of some other abortion language.

You can see what kind of pickle this has created. Even with language explicitly removing abortion funding from the House bill, health care legislation barely squeaked through the lower chamber. Switch three more votes and it won't pass, and the likelihood of three pro-life Democratic holdouts given the way the Senate bill handles abortion is awfully high.

So that's the legislative sitrep. There's a lot of tension over whether the abortion issue can be resolved. Yesterday's New York Times looked at one important development in the abortion impasse with "Catholic Group Supports Senate on Abortion Aid":

In an apparent split with Roman Catholic bishops over the abortion-financing provisions of the proposed health care overhaul, the nation's Catholic hospitals have signaled that they back the Senate's compromise on the issue, raising hopes of breaking an impasse in Congress and stirring controversy within the church.

Further, here's the Times' description of the abortion, ahem, "compromise" in the Senate bill:

The Senate bill, approved Thursday morning, allows any state to bar the use of federal subsidies for insurance plans that cover abortion and requires insurers in other states to divide subsidy money into separate accounts so that only dollars from private premiums would be used to pay for abortions.

Technically, that's accurate -- but it doesn't at all spell out what's particularly controversial about the Senate's abortion language, and as we all know the unintended consequences of a piece of legislation often outstrip what it was meant to do. Stupak sure isn't happy about the Senate's abortion language. Then in an interview early this week Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius gave to a feminist blogger, Sebelius essentially admitted that language in the Senate bill means that everyone in government insurance exchanges will be forced to pay for abortion. The Times should really be a bit more explicit about what's going on here and exactly why people object.

That objection aside, the thrust of the Times piece is contrasting the stance of Catholic hospitals and Catholic bishops on Democratic health care legislation:

Just days before the bill passed, the Catholic Health Association, which represents hundreds of Catholic hospitals across the country, said in a statement that it was "encouraged" and "increasingly confident" that such a compromise "can achieve the objective of no federal funding for abortion." An umbrella group for nuns followed its lead.

The same day, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops called the proposed compromise "morally unacceptable."

The divide frames one of the most contentious issues facing House and Senate negotiators as they try to produce a bill that can pass in both chambers.

One big thing that the Times article gets right, is that the fact that it makes it pretty clear Catholic hospitals and Catholic bishops aren't on equal footing when it comes to speaking with the authority of the church:

And in practical political terms, some Democrats -- including some opponents of abortion rights -- say that the Catholic hospitals' relative openness to a compromise could play a pivotal role by providing political cover for Democrats who oppose abortion to support the health bill. Democrats and liberal groups quickly disseminated the association's endorsement along with others from the nuns' group, other Catholics and evangelicals.

The key phrase here is "providing political cover for Democrats who oppose abortion to support the health bill." There's no split on doctrine or confusion over who has more authority to speak for the church here, it's just a matter of practical politics. Allegedly pro-life Democrats may welcome a "Catholic group" to point to as backing their decision if they decide to vote for the bill.

In that sense, however, the Catholic hospitals and Catholic bishops are decidedly not dueling moral authorities on the same footing. Fortunately, near the bottom of the article we do get this quote:

After the Catholic Hospital Association's endorsement of the proposed compromise, Catholic conservatives and some abortion opponents accused the group of selling out to the Democrats.

"The Catholic Health Association does not represent the teaching of the Catholic Church on the non-negotiable defense of innocent life," the conservative Catholic activist Deal Hudson said in a statement, calling the association's move "utterly offensive."

stupakBut the way this characterization is presented it seems to be more of an opinion. Certainly, the the "utterly offensive" statement certainly is Deal Hudson's opinion and it doesn't help that Hudson is viewed by many as a Republican mouthpiece. However, that the Catholic Health Association is not in a position to "represent the teaching of the Catholic Church on the non-negotiable defense of innocent life" is pretty much a fact. At the same time, the perspective that Catholic hospitals are acting out of moral concern is explicitly presented:

"We have known for quite some time that the Catholic hospitals and also the nuns are really breaking from these hard-line bishops and saying, 'This really is our goal: to get more people into health care coverage,' " said Representative Diana DeGette, Democrat of Colorado.

DeGette's position as a leader of the abortion rights contingent of the House is not mentioned in the article. Which brings us to the final thing I wanted to note about the article. It is perhaps the most egregious:

Catholic scholars say their statement reflects a different application of church teachings against "cooperation with evil," a calculus that the legislation offers a way to extend health insurance to millions of Americans. For the Catholic hospitals, that it is both a moral and financial imperative, since like other hospitals they stand to gain from reducing the number of uninsured patients.

That last sentence is the only mention in the entire article of motivation that Catholic hospitals might have to support the Senate's health care legislation other than the moral considerations over abortion. This is a 2,000+ page piece of legislation that could potentially dictate how trillions of tax dollars are spent for health care in perpetuity. We should probably take a much, much closer look at what hospitals -- many of which are deeply in the red right now -- have to gain financially by supporting this legislation. Without going into particulars, it's a lot.

In light of that, readers deserve a clear and compelling idea of what's at stake for hospitals materially to help judge for themselves what exactly is motivating Catholic hospitals' support of Democratic health care legislation. And it's nowhere to be found in the Times piece.

Please respect our Commenting Policy