Over the weekend, I discussed a New York Times story about a possible rift between the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and Catholic Health Association (CHA) — which represents the many Catholic hospitals in the country — over health care reform legislation. The Times reported the following: “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.”
News of a split would be a big deal politically in that it might give some self-identified pro-life Democrats some cover to vote for the bill. There would also be big ramifications for Catholic theology in the public square if a major Catholic group was at odds with the bishops on an important public policy matter. As it turns out, however, the “apparent split” is not so apparent, according to Catholic News Service:
Sister Carol Keehan, a Daughter of Charity, told Catholic News Service in a telephone interview Dec. 28 that her organization has never wavered in its commitment to health care that protects “from conception to natural death,” as outlined in the CHA document, “Our Vision for U.S. Health Care.”
She disputed a report in The New York Times Dec. 26 that a recent CHA statement on Senate negotiations over abortion funding in health reform legislation represented a split with the bishops.
“There is not a shred of disagreement between CHA and the bishops,” Sister Carol said. “We believe there is a great possibility and probability that in conference committee we can work toward a solution that will prevent federal funding of abortion.”
The CNS report also clarified the sequence of events that might have led to the Times reporter getting the impression there was a split:
Sister Carol said Times reporter David D. Kirkpatrick based his Dec. 26 story on a Dec. 17 CHA statement which noted that CHA had not reviewed the language of various amendments on the table at the time but was “encouraged by recent deliberations and the outline” Sen. Robert Casey, D-Pa., was developing.
At that point, “I felt they were making progress and were getting where we needed to be,” she said.
“I understand that it doesn’t make a good story to say (CHA and the USCCB) are working together,” Sister Carol added. “But it would have been an honest story.”
Anyway, go read the rest of CNS’ report and see if you can’t sort out what happened — obviously, if CHA’s statement came out on the 17th they would have had no way of knowing what the final abortion language in the bill would be and whether it would be problematic. It’s certainly possible the Times story resulted from plain old confusion.
It’s also possible that there’s more to this story than meets the eye. While the bishops do a good job of speaking together on public policy issues, there is a lot of rumbling beneath the scenes. It’s entirely likely that not all of the conference staff or the staff of groups such as the hospital association are going to be as concerned with upholding various doctrinal points as the bishops are. The tension between conscience protections and a grander social justice agenda is real and unsurprising. And the reporter may know more about what’s going on than made it into the paper.
I had some pretty pointed (and I think fair) critiques of the original New York Times piece, but it’s my experience that reporter David Kirkpatrick is very able. I hope he stays on this story and helps further illuminate what’s happening here.