Action Alert!

another episcopal fumble on health care reform

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Oct 28, 2009

If you read the statement carefully, you'll see that the Louisiana bishops called for a health-care reform package that respects the right to life. But most people don't read statements from the bishops carefully. Most people read about the statements, in newspaper stories with headlines like this one:

Bishops' group supports health reform

The message of that headline is clear and powerful: at a time when pro-life forces are fighting against an unacceptable reform bill, the Louisiana bishops have essentially endorsed it. Moreover this is not just a throwaway statement; the Louisiana bishops have never before taken such a public stand on a piece of federal legislation. So the Louisiana bishops think this is a singularly important bill, and they support it. That's the message of the newspaper story.

True, it's not quite the message of the bishops' statement. You'll notice the first hint of ambiguity creeping in at the 9th paragraph. ("But conference said it only support reforms that: exclude federal funding for abortion…") But not many readers are likely to reach the 9th paragraph.

Should we blame the media, then, for giving a misleading account of the bishops' statement? Only if you're the sort of person who criticizes bees for stinging. The media do what it is in their nature to do. If you don't know their nature, you're responsible for your own ignorance. 

Read the bishops' statement in full-- it's not long-- and ask yourself: As an objective reporter, would you say that their opposition to abortion funding is the main story here? No. The statement was not crafted to emphasize that message.

There was a time, several weeks ago, when this sort of detached, theoretical statement might have made a positive contribution to the public debate. But in any important political debate, there's a point at which the subtle arguments are set aside, and the issue becomes something like a horse race. In the health-care debate, we reached that point at least a month ago. Which side are you on? That's the only question reporters are asking, and no matter how you answer the question, they'll fit that answer into one column or the other: for or against. In that context, there's no doubt where the Lousiana bishops will be placed: they're in the "for" column.

If you can't anticipate the likely response to a public statement on a controversial political issue, you have no business issuing such a statement.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Pete - Oct. 29, 2009 12:11 PM ET USA

    When we the bishops learn? First it's the USCCB, then the Health Care Association, individual bishops, groups of bishops, ad infinitum making statements. It appears the most important message is getting your name or your group's name in front of the media! Never mind the message or how your (mis)quoted. The great deafining silence was the time to explain a position rather than waiting until the last minute when action was being forced upon the majority by a radical minority.

  • Posted by: - Oct. 29, 2009 11:27 AM ET USA

    Mr. michaelrafferty5029: Your response to Mr. Lawler does not allow a response because your statement is murkily unclear.

  • Posted by: - Oct. 28, 2009 6:24 PM ET USA

    Mr. Lawler, I do believe that you ALWAYS anticipate the likely response to your public statements on controversial political issues. Indeed, I believe that's why you make them.