A loud silence in health-care news

Light House in Stormy NightOnce again, it’s time to tell that familiar parable about the old lighthouse keeper. Shall me?

Once there was a man who lived in a lighthouse on the foggy Atlantic. This lighthouse had a gun that sounded a warning every hour. The keeper tended the beacon and kept enough shells in the gun so it could keep firing. After decades, he could sleep right through the now-routine blasts. Then the inevitable happened. He forgot to load extra shells and, in the dead of night, the gun did not fire.

This rare silence awoke the keeper, who lept from bed shouting, “What was that?”

I like the lighthouse image, myself. If you prefer to meditate on the Sherlock Holmes story about the dog that didn’t bark, that will work, too.

The point is that there has been a strange silence in the mainstream coverage of the health-care wars here on Capital Hill.

Let me ask this question: What religious body, in recent years or even decades, has been the most outspoken when it comes to demanding — as a basic issue of social justice — some kind of universal health-care coverage for all Americans? While it’s possible to debate whether or not there is a definitive answer to that question, I think the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops would have to be right at the top of any list.

No one should doubt the commitment of the bishops to universal health-care coverage, of some kind. The problem, of course, is the clash between a secular approach to issues of birth, life and death and 2000 years worth of basic, core Christian doctrines. Abortion is the obvious point of conflict, but recent debates about health-care rationing, euthanasia (active or passive) and “conscience clauses” for medical professionals have shown that other crucial issues are in play.

But the issue of using tax dollars to fund abortions, or a government mandate for insurance companies to cover abortions, will not go away. That’s obvious.

So, listen for the strange silence as you read the following Los Angeles Times report on that very issue? Here’s a key passage:

The Hyde Amendment, passed in 1976, explicitly prevents the federal government from using tax dollars to fund abortion through Medicaid. But the reach of that law grows murkier if the government establishes its own competitive health insurance plan, or if it assists in creating a new market in which the public could sort through various private insurance plans. Both ideas could be included in the healthcare bill under consideration in Congress.

The Obama administration has tried to stay neutral on the matter.

“I think that it’s appropriate for us to figure out how to just deliver on the cost savings and not get distracted by the abortion debate,” President Obama said in an interview with CBS News last week.

When asked about abortion prohibitions in the bill, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said last week that “a benefit package is better left to experts in the medical field to determine how best and what procedures to cover.”

That is precisely what worries antiabortion advocates.

This is a political story, of course, and most of the attention focuses on the efforts of pro-life Democrats (a niche within the now crucial Blue Dog coalition) to fight government funding of abortion. Taken alone, this story would not have shown up on my lighthouse/non-barking dog radar.

But there have been many others. Consider this recent Washington Post report that specifically focuses on the religion angle. I mean, check out this double-decker headline about these efforts by pro-Obama Catholics, mainline Protestants and progressive evangelicals:

Pulling Together On Health Care

Some community organizations and national faith groups are joining forces and setting aside differences to promote congressional action on what they consider a moral imperative.

CatholicVestmentsHere is a key passage. Once again, listen for the missing voice:

… (O)rganizing groups with disparate religious beliefs around a single goal has been challenging. The coalitions have had to tiptoe around sensitive issues, such as whether to support a government-run health insurance option and whether government-subsidized plans should pay for abortions. They have also had to deal with some clergy members’ fears of offending their congregations by speaking out for universal health care.

“It’s a pretty radical step for this congregation to get involved in the public arena,” said the Rev. Jennifer Thomas, who is pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church, a largely middle-class congregation in Kansas City, Mo., and is also a leader in one collection of grass-roots community and national religious groups. “A few members wonder how much the church should be involved.”

The efforts have been coordinated closely with the Obama administration. A group of faith leaders met with President Obama in April, and administration officials took part last month in a rally at Freedom Plaza with representatives of more than 40 denominations and faith groups in support of comprehensive health coverage. …

One coalition of mostly liberal and centrist religious groups was organized by Sojourners, an evangelical group; Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good; Faith in Public Life, a Washington think tank; and PICO National Network, an alliance of 1,000 U.S. congregations. It originally grew out of frustration that conservative Christian groups were dominating the national faith conversation on social issues.

Crucial information, of course.

But, again, notice that the Catholics in this effort are part of an independent group that keeps clashing with Catholic traditionalists and with some, repeat some, Catholic bishops. Please do not misunderstand my point: These groups have every right to make their voices heard and journalists need that point of view.

However, do you still hear the silence? Do you hear the empty gun, the non-barking dog? Where is the voice of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in these stories?

I know that there are resources on various websites. I plan on quoting some of them myself. I know about the articulate letter (.pdf) to Congress by Bishop William F. Murphy of the Domestic Justice and Human Development committee.

But I do have a basic question here: Are the journalists ignoring the bishops or are the bishops (and their gatekeepers) ignoring the journalists? This is one of the biggest religion-news stories of the year, especially in terms of its potential impact on Catholic health-care facilities and the people who work there. The church’s views on health-care reform are consistent and articulate and, I might add, rather centrist. If the White House wants health-care reform, the U.S. Catholic bishops are a strategic force.

Did you hear that silence? What was that?

Print Friendly

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jerry

    I assumed that when I suggested stories on abortion and health care to you, I was holding the proverbial catnip in front of the proverbial cat. I fully expected you to do a post. But you surprised me by focusing on something I had not noticed. Thanks!

  • dalea

    The Catholic Church is one of the major providers of health care in the US, their silence is strange. Have any RC groups spoken up? There are a number of not for profit hospital associaitions that arose from the various Sisters’ efforts, like Providence Health on the West Coast. Very strange indeed.

  • Davis

    Seems like the answer is in the resources you linked to: the Bishops are more concerned about pro-life issues than health care reform. They likely aren’t able to speak with unanimity on health care reform because they are protecting their interests as health care providers who make huge money under the current regime. To support universal health care more loudly–or to support single-payer–would undercut their own market interests. …

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    Then you have raised several newsworthy subjects for investigation. Try to think journalistically about the topic, rather than politically.

  • http://www.soilcatholics.blogspot.com Peggy


    I only know of the USCCB issuing the letter from Bp. Murphy and the accompanying press release. I did see on FOX News crawl Fri or Sat night that the USCCB also commented on the impact on Catholic hospitals of the legislation, conscience clauses, etc., quantifying the number of persons that are treated in Catholic institutions. It is a good question to ask whether the USCCB and individual bishops have nothing to say, or whether they’re just being ignored. I’ve been frustrated by their lack of statements beyond that Bp. Murphy letter. Of course, I also am frustrated by their support of universal coverage. Perhaps they need to come to terms with the fact that care will be rationed under a socialized insurance/medicine program, and they need to rethink what they really want and suggest something more doable…well, I can hope.

    Also, are the bishops officially shut out of debate by Dems after the Notre Dame event? Look at KKT’s Newsweek boast that Obie is effectively the “American Pope”. That was a big birdie flip to B16 and the US bishops, I’d say.

  • Davis

    I was thinking journalistically. The Bishops–as an institution–haven’t been able to articulate a position in the health care debate beyond the pro-life agenda. So for a reporter who wants to talk about health care reform–as opposed to the pro-life agenda–the Bishops aren’t exactly a helpful source.

    Certainly there are individual bishops who may have an opinion, but even they may be difficult to pin down on specifics. Even self-promoters like Chaput and Mahoney–ideological opposites–are going to have difficulty articulating views on the proposals, at this point, may be why reporters aren’t calling them up.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    And conscience clause issues.

    And immigration issues linked to health.

    And universal coverage, within the context of government mandates.

    And the issue of rationing, of course.

    And end of life issues.


    So the goal is to ignore the leaders of the nation’s largest and most powerful (not to mention racially diverse) religious group, the clerics who are also responsible for a health-care option that treats one out of six Americans?

    Is that politically wise?

    Or is it wise journalism?

    Or are the bishops so divided they can’t address these issues together?

    Lots of stories here.

  • Davis

    All interesting political questions, Terry, but journalistically you’ve found the problem. There are lots of health reform stories that the Bishops can chime in on, but they tend to be political issues on the fringes as opposed to the substantive questions currently being worked on in Congress and the White House.

    Everyone knows what the Bishops are going to say about their usual pro-life agenda topics–conscience clause, end of life, “rationing”–but they have difficulty speaking universally on issues like immigration or on the larger question of how to obtain universal coverage.

    I can see why they don’t get a lot of phone calls since they aren’t, yet, part of the larger debate but instead scrapping around on the political fringes.

  • Davis

    So the goal is to ignore the leaders of the nation’s largest and most powerful (not to mention racially diverse) religious group, the clerics who are also responsible for a health-care option that treats one out of six Americans?

    I’m not sure it’s the goal. It may be because the Bishops have been unable to articulate a particular position or message. There is a great story out there on why the Bishops seems to be focusing on the fringes of the debate instead of being actively engaged at the core, but will anyone talk about it?

  • Jerry N


    How is being pro-life “fringe”? Fringe because more people are pro-choice (an arguable point), or because nobody cares about it? Unpopular might be a better term.

  • Julia

    There are issues that Catholic teaching considers “prudential” and those that are essential.

    The mechanics of how to get the health care problem solved are “prudential” and there is no Catholic answer to that.

    The abortion, conscience clause, rationing, end of life etc. issues are ones on which Catholic teaching does have something concrete to say. I’m glad the bishops aren’t opining on the ones open to debate.

  • Davis

    How is being pro-life “fringe”?

    Fringe in the sense that it isn’t at the core of the health care reform debate at the end of July 2009. It’s a bit of a sideshow issue–no matter how important or unimportant some may think it is–and isn’t really driving the serious discussion at the moment.

    And is there anyone in America who would be surprised that the Catholic bishops want to make sure abortion isn’t covered under changes in health insurance that could have more government involvement? It’s like quoting someone to report that the sky is blue and the sun came up.

  • dalea

    Perhaps the reason the bishops are not speaking up is that don’t have much experience with health care. From what I have seen, most RC hospitals are run by orders of Nuns or Monks, not by a diocese. It may be that there is involvement by these orders in the debate, as they are experts on the subject. …

  • Dave

    Davis @12, the reporter does not seek an interview with the intent of being surprised, but to get the party’s views.

  • techwreck

    I don’t bemoan the bishops’ lack of statements on the politics of health care “reform”. Commenting on specific political matters is both beyond the bishops competence and contrary to Church teaching regarding voting one’s conscience.

    However, I do believe that the bishops are missing a teachable moment regarding abortion and euthanasia in connection with the health care “reform” debate, as they have with so many issues over the past two decades. Whether they are motivated by a desire not to sound too political, or a desire not to offend the politically powerful I can’t say, but the majority of adult laity in this Church have no idea of the moral principles involved.

    The bishops have clearly failed to “teach as Jesus did”.

  • Pingback: Facts vs. Myths | Xenia Institute

  • David W. Rusch

    Many years ago I spent considerable time and effort calculating the number of poor families in the US and how we might respond to their needs. I wrote a letter to the Denver Catholic Register with my conclusion. Briefly, I suggested that, if each parish adopted 2 poor families, poverty in the US would vanish. I suggested that the size of the parish (or church, as I would invite our Protestant friends to participate) determine how many families they would support. The average was two/parish. The support would include all that was necessary for them to be a part of the community: food, job opportunities from those in the parish, education, and health care. Each parish would voluntarily provide all the essentials. And poverty vanishes and the Good Samaritans (as we are called to be) provide all to them.(isn’t this the object lesson the parable?) The response was less than favorable from readers of the DCR. I do not wish to go there now but just to say that I believe this approach is more relevant and appropriate today then ever.

    The current ‘crises’ in health care is a perfect example of the need for action on the part of our church. I am of the belief that the poor are not the responsibility of government, that Caesar’s involvement can only mean destruction of the dignity and sanctity of human life. I cannot help but wonder why the Bishops, who I admire greatly on many issues and in their depth of faith, support Caesar’s approach to health care if certain conditions are met. I continue to be amazed that the pressure they (rightly) promoted to resist FOCA is not being brought to the forefront in the current climate where Caesar is attempting to confiscate 10% of the Nation’s wealth. Is the sanctity of life less important for the unborn and the vulnerable if there is the promise of an underlying desirable (in their view) reward, in this case health care for everyone? And what convinces that there is really basic health care for everyone? I have certainly not been convinced.

    Let me just say: The right to life is a fundamental right. Nothing precedes it, nothing is more profoundly important than this. This said, the extension of this fundamental right to other areas that support this fundamental principle is not so simple, nor might it be correct. In my humble opinion, a ‘fundamental right’ is one which you or I can enjoy without the imposition on others to make it happen. No other needs are necessary to provide the umbra to my right to life. It is, without imposition on others. Any extension of this, for example, to the provision of food, shelter, or health care, as a basic extension to my right to life, requires either the virtue of charity or compulsion to provide these life necessities. I submit that compulsion is outside the proper avenue of nurture, unless we see Caesar as a morally necessary player.

    If Caesar is a necessary and invited participant, then how do we reconcile the compulsion that follows with the Parable of the Good Samaritan? Remember those who expect rewards from Caesar must pay the price, and it will no doubt cost the innocent their lives.

    The Catholic Church provides wonderful health care for about 10% of the population of the US. Is it not possible for the Church to also provide health insurance for those in need? Remember the two families per parish description at the beginning of this little essay. Can not we provide the needed help or even form a national health insurance company that provides insurance on one’s ability to pay? Can this be the more appropriate answer than the current interesting but, to me, not understandable, approach to helping the uninsured? Surely we can do better than Caesar.

  • Pingback: Health Care Hoopla « Moving Beyond Differences