Even before Pope Benedict XVI arrived for his visit in Israel, the new Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu demonstrated it has little, if any, desire to show good will to the church. In a gesture of welcome for the pope, Israel’s President Shimon Peres, who is head of state but not of government, had asked the government to end property disputes with the church over several holy places. Among these are the Cenacle in Jerusalem, Mount Tabor in Galilee and Tabgha, a site on the Sea of Galilee associated with Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances. Repudiating the president’s request, Interior Minister Eli Yishai said ceding the properties would harm Israeli national security. Then the Great Council of the Chief Rabbinate issued a binding edict forbidding the ceding of sovereignty, though sovereignty was never a question, just the return of confiscated land.
While the pope’s pilgrimage continued, the Interior Ministry refused to make provision for multiple entry visas for clergy and church workers, threatening the pastoral work of the local church; and in a ruling on a challenge suit, a court refused to relax rules on Jerusalem residency to permit spouses from the West Bank to live in Jerusalem, threatening the future of Christian family life in the holy city. The decline of the church’s good relations with Israel began with the first Netanyahu government in 1996. With ultra-religious and nationalist coalition partners holding key ministries in the current government, the Holy See, international church institutions and especially local Christians may be facing still harder times under Netanyahu II.
The governor of Vermont is expected to sign into law in June a new physicians disclosure bill. It would prohibit doctors from accepting the free meals that pharmaceutical companies and the makers of medical devices routinely offer as part of their aggressive marketing campaigns. Even more important is a requirement that, while allowing medical practitioners to accept direct payments from such companies, calls for every payment they accept to be posted on the Web in an annual accounting record available to the public. The record would show how much each doctor has received and from which company.
Courting doctors with meals and payments is expensive, but marketers use such gifts and payments to build loyalty for their brand. They hope loyalty will prompt a doctor to recommend their product to patients—this stent instead of that one; this pill, not that—especially when other alternatives of comparable quality compete for sales. In Vermont (pop. 621,270) pharmaceutical and medical device firms spent $2.9 million in 2008 in payments to nearly half of the state’s licensed health practitioners; specialists received the most, more than $100,000 each in some instances. Such marketing significantly ratchets up the cost of health care in our country, increasing the cost of products to consumers without adding value.
The disclosure law could convince health care companies that they have little to gain and much to lose by turning doctors into brokers. Doctors might note how their accepting payment erodes trust between them and patients. And patients have a right to know what is behind a prescription, device or treatment—whether their doctor has been paid to boost sales. The new law would promote the health of the body politic by exposing such payoffs and conflicts of interest to the light of day.
Bishops and Politics
One thing is likely to be on the minds of U.S. bishops when they gather in San Antonio on June 17 to 19. The topic will be discussed over coffee, in private meetings and in executive session, but probably not in the televised general sessions. That topic is the conduct of the conference and of individual bishops in public policy advocacy.
“Public policy advocacy” is a term of art. Advocates are neither lobbyists nor politicians. They make a principled case in public debate but hold back from the rough-and-tumble of partisan politics. The recent controversy over President Barack Obama’s participation in the commencement ceremonies at the University of Notre Dame has cast doubt on whether bishops are now entering the public square as partisan activists rather than as advocates, “pastors and teachers.”
Unhappily, all the bishops have been tainted by the extremist rhetoric of Notre Dame’s most vociferous critics. A few bishops even seem to relish the thrust and parry of the culture wars. A bishop’s style of advocacy is not just a matter of decorum; it is a question of pastoral responsibility. How are bishops to be pastors of a diverse flock when they over-identify with one party and demonize another? How are they to model Christian witness in the public square when they personalize disagreements and withhold respect from their adversary?
It will be a hard discussion and a long one, not likely to conclude in San Antonio. On its outcome will depend not only the church’s public witness but also the internal cohesion of the U.S. church and the conference of bishops.