Waldman: Why the bishops matter

bishopsAs a rule, your GetReligionistas do not pay much attention to op-ed page pieces and opinion essays.

We waive this rule, however, when there is a piece that we believe would be of immediate interest to mainstream professionals who cover the Godbeat or topics that often collide with faith issues — such as the politics of health care. It also helps if the author of the piece is a religion-news professional.

Thus, please click here and head on over the Beliefnet.com, where the czar of that sprawling domain — Steven Waldman — has published what amounts to a memo to the nation’s political reporters and assignment editors. The title of this God-and-politics piece is blunt: “Why The Catholic Bishops Matter on Health Care Reform.”

The No. 1 reason the bishops matter is the point I have been trying to make over and over in my posts about bishops-free coverage in the mainstream press:

… I believe Bishops matter a great deal politically when it comes to the abortion-and-health care debate.

(1) They want health care reform to pass. Most pro-life groups are either opposed to Democratic-style universal health care plans (e.g. Family Research Council) or neutral (Right to Life Committee). The Catholic Bishops are the only major pro-life group that wants health care reform. As a result, they have no interest in using the abortion issue to block health care. So when they raise objections about abortion provisions, members of congress may perceive them to be substantively rather than politically motivated.

And then there is reason No. 2, which also may sound familiar to GetReligion regulars:

(2) They may influence pro-life Democrats. Pro-life Republicans are unlikely to support health care reform even if the legislation was perfect, from their perspective, on abortion. The more important group is pro-life Democrats, who may be on the fence on health care reform, or lean in favor, but have expressed unwillingness to support it if legislation subsdizes abortion. Even those pro-life Democrats who aren’t Catholic can look at the Bishops as kindred spirits, since they too want to both oppose abortion aid and support health care reform. A reminder: about one quarter of Obama’s coalition came from pro-life voters.

By all means read it all.

Once again, the point is that the action on health-care is a classic left-and-right war. Yes, but it is more than that. If legislation is going to pass, if will need a coalition of all of the people who sincerely want health-care legislation to pass. Duh.

That includes the bishops. That includes the pro-life left and middle. That certainly includes the small circle of people who dare align with Democrats for Life.

As I wrote the other day:

All of the debates that really matter are taking place between Democrats and, once again, they are about abortion and health-care rationing that’s controlled by the government or by independent boards set up by the government. People who care about the latter — hello, U.S. Catholic bishops — are trying to find ways to talk about this issue without the press ensnaring them in a “death panels” trap.

So keep your eye on one story: The attempts by pro-life Democrats to force and up-or-down vote on the status of the Hyde Amendment. Why is that so important? You see, there are all kinds of non-GOP people who are convinced that the legislation favored by President Barack Obama would, one way or another, steer tax dollars toward abortion coverage.

That’s my journalistic instinct and I am glad that Waldman is thinking along similar lines. In other words, reporters, look for the health-care supporters in the evangelical and pro-Catechism Catholic pews. And start calling your local Catholic bishops.

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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.

  • http://faithandreason.usatoday.com Cathy Grossman

    Gotta love Waldman. But… last I checked USAT is mainstream media and is, indeed, dealing with the bishops’s views (that would be plural since they are not speaking with one voice.)

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Just an observation: Shouldn’t “wave” have been “waive” in the second sentence? ….

    And I have yet to see an MSM story that connects the dots in the fact that the people in the White House include some of the most fanatic anti-life, anti-human activists in American History and how they would logically–based on the public record–use any open-ended power the president or the bureaucracy might be given to put their weird fanatasies into effect.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt




  • Davis

    What’s missing from Waldman’s analysis is any evidence that the pro-life issue represents actual votes that can be swayed in the Senate. …

    So why should journalists chase the bishops around for quotes when they don’t appear to have any real sway in the debate? ….

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Spiking away.

    Please stay on the journalism issues.

    Take your health care debates elsewhere.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    The pro-life Democrats who matter are in the House.

    You may want to read a few stories about the actual debates and the factions within the centrist Democrats.

    Also, there are pro-health-care evangelical churches and groups. They are out there and abortion is a key for them.

    You have heard of Jim Wallis?

  • Davis

    You may want to read a few stories about the actual debates and the factions within the centrist Democrats.

    Obama’s plan can pass the House without pro-life Democrats, as long as fiscal centrists are on board. And most of them aren’t interested in pro-life issues. Pro-life Democrats represent only a handful of votes.

    A larger concern is losing the progressive caucus, which will be upset if there isn’t a government-option or if Obama decides to appease pro-lifers again. Arguably he loses more votes by buckling to the demands of the pro-life movement than he does if he remains consistent with the Capps Bill or some variant.

    Jim Wallis, who I admire, doesn’t control a single vote in the Senate which is where this whole proposal will rise or fall. Neither do the Catholic Bishops, except for maybe Mary Landrieu.

    There is not evidence that abortion is a make-or-break issue in health care reform or even is swaying votes. And, yes, I have read stories about the mechinations of the actual debates and factions within centrist Democrats.

  • Jerry

    That includes the bishops. That includes the pro-life left and middle. That certainly includes the small circle of people who dare align with Democrats for Life.

    Religion & Ethnics Newsweekly’s current show had a segment on how the religious right and left are faring in the Obama administration. The basic point of the story is that we won’t know for a while what kind of influence the religious left will have on issues such as health care and that seems reasonable to me.

    GREEN: Influence is always a difficult thing to judge while a process is under way. You know, we can look back ten years later and say, “Boy, that made a difference.” But it is certainly widely perceived by scholars, by journalists, by other observers that religious progressives are having an impact on the Obama White House, on the Democratic Congress, on the development of a wide range of policy proposals, from health care to climate change to poverty, and so forth. Exactly what that turns out to be we don’t know, because the process is not finished yet.


    We’ll see what the outcome is in the next few months but I would personally bet, Terry, that you’re significantly underestimating the influence of Democrats for Life.

  • Martha

    Please also note that “pro-life” within Catholic teaching covers more than just “anti-abortion”.

    Any hopes of progressives that euthanasia may be slipped in under the radar is going to be dashed on the rock of Catholic teaching.

    I’m not saying that all progressives are pro-euthanasia; I’m just saying that from my perspective as an outsider, your health care reform bill is (a) badly overdue and (b) a total mess as currently constituted – every one is trying to pack in his pet notion as to what needs to be done, and this is naturally leading to Tweedledum shoving in Clause 96 which is contradicted by, and contradicts, Tweedledee’s Clause 103.

    And I’m sure that there are medical ethicists who think assisted suicide as a human right-of-decision-making should be an option, and that it’s up to the government to give a lead on this, and that some kind of wording in the bill would be just the ticket.

  • dalea

    It strikes me that two points are missing in this coverage. First, the Bishops are part of a Universal Church, one that has hospitals etc in countries with Universal HC. It would be helpful to know what the situation is in Canada, UK, Germany and Holland regarding the RCC, healthcare and abortion. Have not seen anything on this in the MSM.

    Second, there has been no coverage I am aware of on the state of RC hospitals’ finances. Preventing the closure of RC hospitals, which HCR will do, has to be a concern for the Bishops. The reason is something I have only seen covered in the Feminist press, not the MSM nor the religious. Under federal regs to prevent duplication of services, hospitals are required to specialize in services. Invariably, the Catholic hospitals specialize in maternity health care. All women with problem pregnancies are to be referred to the RC hospital, where specialized care is available. Which means that those most likely to have a late term abortion are being treated and supported by the RCC, which really reduces abortions. And frequently the RC hospital is the area lead on parenting classes, pregnancy support groups, maternity clinics, etc.

    If HRC fails, some RC hospitals will close. Others will be forced to curtail programs, including many that do reduce abortions. One sixth of all hospital patients in the US are treated in Catholic facilities. Most likely the percentage of maternity cases is higher.

    It amazes me that this is not being reported on.

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

    Some bishops have come out against the health care reform bills, recognizing the problems with a remote federal government and family primacy. These bishops talked about subsidiarity. The USCCB has not been strong enough on the concerns for the care for elders and disabled or terminally ill. The pro-life belief extends beyond abortion. Yet, it seems that the bishops are a-okay with all this so long as abortion isn’t covered.

    I am not sure whether I have seen secular media coverage on those individual bishops: Nickless, Chaput, Finn-Naumann’s excellent analysis, Doran’s opposition..

    Ah: There was this from the NYT which precedes Finn-Naumann and Doran.

  • Chris

    As someone involved in the issue – I work for bishops on public policy – I hesitated to respond to this post, but Peggy’s comments have prompted me to respond. And yes, this is about news coverage.

    Catholic teaching is a whole. Therefore, emphasis on one aspect of the teaching does not mean it comes at the exclusion of other principles. News coverage, however, such as the referenced NYT story and the USA Today story, look at differences in the bishops’ statements as evidence of disagreement.

    Looking through at the statements from the perspective of Catholic teaching, the statements do not indicate disagreement. Moreover, no bishop, contrary to what was stated, has come out against health care reform.

    To illustrate, Catholic News Service’s story (http://www.catholicnews.com/data/stories/cns/0903989.htm) finds harmony among the bishops statements, including Finn-Naumann’s and Nickless’. The NYT, however, looks at the same statements and sees disunity.

    The problem is that the secular press looks at bishop statements on health care reform as statements of political opinion. The Catholic press, and indeed all Catholics, should look at the statements as conveying moral principles for reform in the context of a broader corpus of teaching.

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


    I appreciate your involvement and expertise. I have worked on public policy and economics for years, myself. I looked at the CNS article. I didn’t mean to highlight disagreement among bishops or politicizing their positions, but weakness in the official USCCB position, in my view. The USCCB statements in the CNS article, including Rigali and Loverde (my former bishop–I used to be in NoVa), all say that this reform approach being proposed is good so long as abortion isn’t covered and conscience rights remain. Any further commentary by me would be substantive on Catholic thinking and “healthcare reform” and not appropriate here. This may be spiked as well. Sorry, tmatt.

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