Catholic Culture Dedication
Catholic Culture Dedication

the US bishops' continued imprudence on health-care reform

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Feb 10, 2010

In the continuing debate about Obamacare-- a legislative proposal which is still very much alive-- the American bishops continue to play a very dangerous game.

For months the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) energetically promoted the concept of sweeping health-care reform, while just as energetically opposing any legislation that would offer subsidies for abortion. The net result was confusion. Both proponents and opponents of Obamacare claimed the support of the US bishops, and both sides could cite statements to back up their claims.

Politics is by nature a partisan business. Lawmakers want to know whether or not they can count on your support. When the debate is heated-- and the health-care debate has been very heated-- politicians want an answer to a very simple question: Are you with me or against me? Subtleties ("I'd be with you if…" or "I'd be against you but…") are not appreciated when it's time to count the votes.

In this very important political battle, the USCCB devised a strategy that made it impossible to build up an effective alliance. The bishops' conference consistently sided with the advocates of health-care reform in their broad policy statements, thereby alienating the conservative lawmakers who would be their best allies in pro-life battles. Then they pressed for an abortion-neutral bill, thereby annoying most of the Democratic advocates of Obamacare, who are generally sympathetic to the abortion lobby. Neither side saw the USCCB as a reliable friend.

Very early on in this debate, other pro-life organizations in Washington recognized what the American bishops could never bring themselves to admit: that any health-care reform proposal brought forward by President Obama and his legislative allies would look favorably on abortion (not to mention contraception, sterilization, and embryo research). With the very conspicuous exception of the USCCB, the pro-life movement was firmly united in opposition to Obamacare.  

The pro-life movement rejoiced, therefore, when the election of Senator Scott Brown ended any realistic hopes for a quick enactment of the Obama proposals. But again the US bishops were the exception. Rather than heaving a sigh of relief and recognizing a setback for the culture of death, the leading spokesman for the US bishops' conference issued a fresh call for health-care reform, calling it "a public good, moral imperative, and urgent national priority." David Gibson, a reliable and astute liberal commentator, reported:

One churchman I spoke with said the bishops were surprised at Brown's victory and were alarmed at the speed with which Democrats appeared to abandon the effort to pass some version of health care reform.

So while other pro-life activists were celebrating a narrow escape, the USCCB was ready to plunge right back into the perilous straits.

In their plea to legislators to keep up the battle for health-care reform, the chief representatives of the US episcopal conference urged Congress to "set aside partisan divisions and special interest pressures." They seemed oblivious to the fact that most observers see the bishops themselves as representatives of a "special interest." In calling upon politicians to accept compromises, the bishops were virtually inviting the response that they too should accept compromise, and support a bill that allowed for abortion subsidies.

The USCCB has tried to take a nuanced position on the most divisive public debate of our day. That's like bringing a fly-swatter to a knife fight: it's a guarantee that one way or another, you'll lose.  

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: - Feb. 14, 2010 10:23 AM ET USA

    With Sebelius and other abortion lovers in key positions, the USCCB is out of its mind to back ANY health care proposal of this administration.

  • Posted by: - Feb. 13, 2010 12:56 PM ET USA

    Is it the "bishops" who have spoken or is it the bureaucrats at the USCCB? Which bishops? This was acknowledged as the great danger of the formation of the USCCB [as it was for the formation of the Amer Med Assoc]: that a limited number - and perhaps not even a majority - would claim to speak for the whole. The USCCB was meant to speak TO the bishops, not for them: to advise, not to vote.

  • Posted by: Gregory108 - Feb. 13, 2010 4:19 AM ET USA

    It's a dangerous bill! It supports and funds abortion,puts health care under government control and is devised by those with no compunction about rationing to the elderly or very sick, who've outlived their usefulness. One of the architects plainly said the old and sick would not be funded so they can live a while longer! Obama said we should give grandma pain medication and let her go! "That drug works, but this one's cheaper." Health care reform = stay healthy or die! We're not paying for you!

  • Posted by: - Feb. 13, 2010 1:18 AM ET USA

    The bishops are not only politically naive, but appear to be damned-fool idiots when it comes to economics. This bill is not about heath care, and we need to get past that and use the correct language - it is about health insurance. The bill(s) proposed have such similarity to the Mass. plan that it is scary - and that plan is already adding to the fiscal bankruptcy of the state, and heading right down the alley of rationed healthcare. What part don't they get? Almost all of it.

  • Posted by: DrJazz - Feb. 11, 2010 5:11 AM ET USA

    Camdens is right: The Bishops are politically naive. They have not addressed the sweeping controls that the bill would put into place, nor its enormous cost. Individual Bishops have discussed how the principle of subsidiarity should be applied to health care, but the USCCB has been silent about it.

  • Posted by: stdecarlow8833 - Feb. 10, 2010 9:07 PM ET USA

    neither the US Congress or our Catholic Bishops know how to deliver efficient health care. They should both stop trying to play God and attend to their vocation.

  • Posted by: Frodo1945 - Feb. 10, 2010 8:54 PM ET USA

    The Bishops are politically naive. The current bill is so flawed that it is not redeemable. I am very puzzled by the Bishops complete disinterest in the cost of this bill and the enormous debt it would place upon our children and grandchildren who work for a living.

  • Posted by: Gentillylace - Feb. 10, 2010 7:58 PM ET USA

    The link below from perceives the USCCB as the greatest barrier to health care reform & asks Pope Benedict to grant a dispensation to the pro-life Democrats so that they can vote for the Senate health care bill that allows abortion subsidies: Timothy Noah is usually a perceptive journalist, but this is something that will happen only in pro-choice advocates' dreams. As for my own position, I agree with the USCCB: I'm pro-life, pro-health care reform.