On behalf of the U.S. Bishops Conference, three leading prelates —Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Houston, Bishop William Murphy of Rockville Center and Bishop John Wester of Salt Lake City — published a joint statement on May 21 charting the path forward after the passage of the “Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act” by Congress this spring. They reiterated what the Church’s priorities in health care reform have always been and challenged Catholics and members of Congress, while retaining what is good in the new law, to come together to remedy what is bad, particularly with respect to “defense of human life, rights of conscience and fairness to immigrants.” Now that the bill has been passed, they said, the “formidable” challenge is “in some ways simpler.” The bills’ defects “can be judged soberly in their own right” without having to tackle the question of whether “the problems are serious enough to oppose the legislation” as a whole. “We only need agreement that the problems are real and deserved to be addressed.” Otherwise, they said, it would “only leave these genuine problems as ammunition for those who prefer total repeal of the law,” an armory that is only expanding as the November congressional elections approach.

Two groups of Catholics that in justice and reparation should immediately jump on board this initiative of the bishops are the members of the Catholic Health Association (CHA), a for-profit trade association of Catholic health care facilities, and Network, a lobbying group that claims to represent 59,000 U.S. women religious. Both groups played pivotal roles in confusing the teaching of the Church that the bishops were communicating and either scandalously persuaded key legislators to support the legislation despite its problems or gave such legislators “Catholic cover” to oppose the clear moral positions of the bishops.

After the bishops had come out in opposition to the Senate bill, the CHA, led by its president Sr. Carol Keenan, came out in support of it, passing on mendacious talking points from abortion supporters that the bill did nothing to change the status quo on abortion despite the fact that the bishops’ analysis had amply demonstrated how such claims were false. Such an action, the bishops noted, “gave credence to analyses by those who were likewise dedicated to minimizing important concerns so as to pass the legislation … [and] made a judgment that the moral problems in the new law – for example, the fact that the federal government, for the first time in decades, will now force Americans to pay for other people’s elective abortions – simply are not serious enough to oppose a particular health care reform bill.” The CHA claimed that their support of the bill represented “merely a difference of analysis or strategy” with the bishops. The bishops, however, said that was simply more spin. “For whatever good will was intended, it represented a fundamental disagreement, not just with our staff as some maintain, but with the Bishops themselves.” Its harm exceeds that that can be done through the bad bill. They said it also has “resulted in confusion and a wound to Catholic unity.” They had to reply to that wound and confusion by reiterating — to the leaders of the Catholic Health Association, to women religious and to everyone — that “making such moral judgments and providing guidance to Catholics on whether an action by government is moral or immoral, is first of all the task of the bishops, not of any other group or individual.”

In the past two months, several bishops have also addressed the scandal and the harm done by the counter-witness of the CHA and other such groups. On March 29, Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, RI, withdrew St. Joseph Health Services of Rhode Island from the CHA. In a letter to Sr. Keehan, he said, “Your enthusiastic support of the legislation, in contradiction to the position of the Bishops of the United States, provided an excuse for members of Congress [to vote for the bill], misled the public and caused serious scandal for many members of the Church.” He added that any “association with CHA is now embarrassing.”

Bishop Leonard Blair of Toledo, OH, added to the criticism, focusing in a March 30 statement first on how the CHA had not stood with the bishops in fierce opposition to the destruction of innocent human life. “Imagine if the political price for the passage of health care reform were the reintroduction of racial segregation in southern schools. This would rightly lead to moral indignation and block passage of the bill. However, the murder of 50 million unborn children in our country is seen as a legitimate ‘choice’ and is tossed about like a football in the political field.” He continued by pointing to the wounds to Church unity caused by the CHA and Network: “As if the political and cultural challenges were not grave enough, we also see illustrated in the church the words of our Lord: ‘A house divided cannot stand.’ Both the Catholic Health Association and Network … simply dismissed as false and unfounded the grave concerns not only of the bishops but also of pro-life members of Congress regarding abortion in the proposed legislation. …At the very moment that pro-life legislators, subjected to great pressure and even vilification, were working valiantly to change the health care bill so that it would uphold the status quo of federal protections against abortion, these ‘Catholic’ groups were pulling the rug out from under them, as everyone immediately recognized.” And to call both groups to the truth, he reminded them that “the head of Planned Parenthood, the largest abortion provider in the country, has called what the sisters did a ‘brave and important move’ worthy of the organization’s ‘gratitude and support.’” The largest abortion supporter would not be thanking these organizations unless their action was advancing the agenda of Planned Parenthood, rather than the cause of the Church.  

Bishop Gerald Gettelfinger of Evansville, IL, on March 29, called the statements of the CHA and Network “divisive” and added that they “either beclouded ‘skitterish’ pro-life politicians or gave them a cloud to hide under,” as he said Congressman Brad Ellsworth, who represents Evansville, did. In a published report, Congressman Ellsworth cited the published positions of Network and CHA as grounds for his eventual vote in support of the bill.

Bishop Samuel Aquila of Fargo, ND, said in a March 30 statement, that it was “truly tragic” that some groups — CHA, Catholics United and small small groups of religious orders — had come out in support of defective health care reform. Bishop Aquila said that, lamentably, Congressman Earl Pomeroy of North Dakota likewise had cited the encouragement of “Catholic nuns” in his eventual support for the legislation. “These so called ‘Catholic’ groups,” Bishop Aquila stated, “acted in direct contradiction to the bishops as guardians of the authentic teaching of Jesus Christ and his Church on the sacredness of human life as so clearly expressed in the definitive teaching of the Church. …The actions of these groups have betrayed the common good, undermined the teaching authority of the Church and have disregarded the courageous witness by the Bishops and the many millions of faithful Catholics to the gift and dignity of human life. We now face the reality of severe damage to the common good by the expansion of abortion throughout our land because of the counter-witness of these groups. By undermining the legitimate authority of the Bishops, these groups, together with some of our Catholic legislators and laity, have weakened the bonds of communion within the Church and diluted her witness to justice for all, from the moment of conception until natural death.”  He added, “Rather than being a leaven … in society for the good, by ignoring the primacy of the truths of our Catholic faith, they pave the way for secularism and a culture of death.”

It’s time for these groups to repair the damage they’ve done. The best way to begin is to act on the bishops’ call to focus on needed revisions to the Health Care Reform and work, rather than in opposition to the bishops, alongside of them and following their lead.

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