Nicholas Cafardi has written one of the best post-mortems yet related to the role of the bishops at the healthcare bill. He goes over ground that is very familiar to Vox Nova. The bishops opposed the final bill because its treatment of abortion was different from the original Stupak approach it had supported, but — as was patently clear from reading the two bills side by side — the differences on abortion were not great. One could argue that the original Stupak language was better and cleaner, but it was also clear the final bill also did a good job in protecting public funding from paying for abortions, and it also (for the first time) began to regulate what private companies could and could not do when it came to abortion. It was much more than many of us expected at the beginning of the process.
When Congress finally passed the healthcare bill, I was delighted. When Bart Stupak supported it, I was even more elated. Sadly, my happiness was tempered by the rapidly failing health of my mother at the time, something which in itself brought home the importance of universal healthcare without any insurance rationing based on cost or pre-existing conditions. I was slightly disgusted, though not too surprised, at the venom directed against Stupak by the right. Stupak voted his Catholic conscience, but was denounced by the denizens of laissez-faire liberalism. Invoking the stark language of Calvinist-inspired dualism, Stupak was a traitor, a fresh Judas for Holy Week.
Up until this point, these people were Stupak’s biggest fans. He was the hero of the unborn. What they failed to understand was that Stupak was a consistent Catholic – he was vigorously pro-life in protecting the unborn and in advancing healthcare to those left behind. Unlike his critics, but like the Church, he saw that healthcare was a human right. Of course, he preferred the language he had successfully incorporated into the House bill. But at the end of the day, he was persuaded that the guarantees were sufficient, and he supported the bill. In his passionate statements after the event, he was well aware of the hypocrisy of his erstwhile supporters. In no way did he deserve the viciousness directed against him.
If we look back at the right-wing criticism of healthcare reform, abortion was always front and center. But these arguments were always suffused by other, darker, arguments – arguments stemming from a tradition alien to Catholic social teaching, from an undistilled Enlightenment -era liberalism that glorifies the supremacy of individual freedom in the economic sphere and pours cold water over notions of solidarity. In this context, they opposed the individual mandate and the concept of the healthy subsidizing the sick, either directly through community rating, or indirectly through budgetary appropriations. Just look at the arguments made. I saw this clearly with comments on the USCCB facebook site. I saw this with the prominent Catholic opponents of healthcare, who mixed moral issues with arguments from American liberalism. You will find arguments related to abortion. You will find hyperbola about rationing and death panels. And you will find liberal opposition to so-called “socialized medicine” and “government-run healthcare”. It’s all part of the same corpus.
Forget that most of these arguments had scant basis in reality. But that is not the point. For these people, killing healthcare was primary, arguments were secondary. Nowhere was this clearer than with the euphoria over the election of pro-abortion and pro-torture Scott Brown. He might be a big fan of Roe v. Wade, but hey, he opposed healthcare reform, and might even cause the whole project to collapse, so he is a hero.
And what about the bishops? As I’ve written before, I think the bishops were duped by the professional pro-life movement, a movement animated as much by liberalism as by life. And here, Nicholas Carfardi hits the nail on the head:
“The bishops were not fighting the real Senate bill. They were fighting a distortion of the bill. Where did these distortions come from? Not from the bishops or their staff—although they were complicit in repeating them. Rather, they came from the far-right groups with whom the bishops in their pursuit of political power found themselves aligned. But unlike the bishops, who truly wished to get the best health care bill possible, their allies wanted no health care bill at all. They wanted, as they have often repeated, to see President Obama fail.”
I find it extremely disappointing that the US bishops backed themselves into this corner, in the end standing not with Bart Stupak but with those who wanted to torpedo the whole reform process. While I was in Ireland attending my dying mother, I had ample opportunities to talk to some wonderful priests – chaplains at the hospital and Dominicans attached to the priory where my mother’s funeral took place. The American healthcare debate was raised. Like most Europeans, the priests I talked to were impressed by Obama. They were puzzled by the stance of the American bishops, though, as they thought they were focusing far too much on the abortion issue. In Europe, it is hard to imagine how an affluent country like the United States could deny health insurance to millions, and how so many people could rally to vigorously defend the status quo. They didn’t get it. Archbishop Burke once complained that people in the Vatican only supported Obama because they were European. In a sense, he was right. American Catholics are too readily influenced by the prevailing secular theologies, especially the theology of rampant individualism and individual autonomy.
I wish the American bishops would exert a stronger leadership stance in pointing out the errors of this culture, and pushing for a stronger understanding of Catholic social teaching across all dimensions. They have done this before, from the 1919 Program for Social Reconstruction to the 1986 Economic Justice for All pastoral. But today, Catholics are barely familiar with the treasure of Catholic social teaching, especially across its economic dimension. It is ignored, downplayed, and (in some cases), distorted. The response of so many Catholics to this healthcare debate should have been a wake-up call to our shepherds. The fact that so many Catholics are getting their economic views from Glenn Beck instead of Gaudium Et Spes should a cause of great concern.
The bishops are doing very little about this. Faithful Citizenship was a wonderful document, a succinct statement of the role and responsibilities of Catholics in the public square. But after Obama was elected, the bishops let themselves be swayed by the worst elements – Catholics associated with a secular partisan ideology mis-named “conservative”. First was the faux-FOCA frenzy. Then came the Notre Dame debacle. While so many bishops interjected themselves in these debates, they were far more muted during the previous eight years of war and torture. Even today, not a single bishop has spoken against the wilful and scandalous distortion of Catholic teaching on torture by Marc Thiessen and Raymond Arroyo on EWTN.
These bishops are good, decent, men. I have real problems with only two or three of them. But they lack courage. They are failing at leadership and at catechesis. They are failing to speak consistently to all who are misled and misguided, across the ideological spectrum – not only secular humanists but American individualists and Calvinist-inspired dualists. They are going with the prevailing currents, rather than trying to navigate. And since the prevailing currents are increasingly violent and tempestuous, I fear shipwreck in the near future.