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Monday, March 15, 2010  

The Bishops and Health Care

Whenever any politician or pundit invokes Catholic social teachings to explain or justify a position, I instinctively check my wallet. This is true whether it's an Obamaite glossing the president's utterly ordinary foreign policy views in theological terms or a Bushite arguing that Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine were really gung-ho for aggressive warfare and torture. I say this without satisfaction, since a European-style Catholic Center or Christian Democratic worldview works pretty decently for me. But since Catholic social teachings, broadly understood, cut across our country's usual liberal-conservative divides, the secular politics usually overawe the religious principles.

Unfortunately this is no less true of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops than of a cankered functionary like George Weigel. To the surprise of no one, Cardinal George released a statement, soaked in crocodile tears, lamenting that the Senate bill was going to be passed unaltered by the House--that is, without the even-more-stringent abortion language inserted by Bart Stupak (D-MI) and announcing that the bishops would of course oppose such a measure. The reliance on the Senate bill--an unfortunate necessity given lockstep Republican obstruction in that chamber--"leaves us still looking for a way to meet the President’s and our concern to provide health care for those millions whose primary care physician is now an emergency room doctor." Yes, I'm sure this will keep the Cardinal up nights with worry. Recall, of course, that the original victory of the Stupak Amendment called forth the most pathetic non-endorsement from George. They're capable of being very precise and technical when it comes to abortion and insurance plans purchased on exchanges, but as soon as an actual bill is on the floor that would cover actual human beings who are actually in need, it's all general principles and hand-waving.

This has happened long and consistently enough that it is hard not to imagine that, on some level, the stated desire of the bishops to see people not die for lack of access to adequate medical care is just not very serious. I'm not a fan of the Stupak language, but I argued when it happened that it's part of the cost of doing reform in a democratic system, and I'd much rather see a Stupaked bill pass than the Senate version fail. That's because in politics you have to settle for changes that imperfectly reflect your values and priorities. The bishops, however, seem to be motivated by the possibility of a backlash by their most fervent, wealthy, and politically conservative constituents. This is why they made no noise in support of any actually-existing health care reform bill and why they would rather see the present effort go down in flames, taking with it the last chance we will have for many years to cover all Americans, than take a deal that goes 99% of the way to what they have asked. Getting a Stupaked bill through two dysfunctional houses of Congress, a conference report, and both houses again, given the poisonous politics of the issue, was always a hundred-to-one shot. If the bishops get their way, it will be a hundred-to-zero shot. Heckuva job.

Unfortunately or fortunately, depending on your view, this development may help clarify the church's role in future policy debates. There seems to have been a sense that the USCCB could have been an ally for health reformers--that "Catholic social teachings" would help make the case for expanding health coverage to more people who can't afford it right now. I highly doubt that anyone in the administration or Democratic politics will have this illusion again. Either the bill will go through without their imprimatur, or it will be dead until there is a big enough progressive majority in both houses to pass it without trying to accommodate their conditions. What George and the bishops have done is essentially cut themselves out of any future policy debates. What are the chances that Pelosi will allow a vote to add Stupak language once the current version is on the books, now that the Conference has lined up with AHIP? What kind of reception will George get the next time he asks the White House for a hearing? Here's what I'd say, were I advising the president: "You can have my answer now, if you like. My final offer is this: nothing."

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posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 8:22 PM
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