Cardinal Francis George, President of the Bishops’ Conference, is to be commended for the statement he issued last night opposing the final health care reform bill. I do not agree with the policy conclusion reached by the USCCB, as I mentioned yesterday. Still, unlike some of the previous statements coming from the USCCB, and unlike some of the statements from his brother bishops, Cardinal George is neither unduly strident in his claims nor condemnatory of those who disagree. For example, he acknowledges the USCCB disagreement with the Catholic Health Association, and chides them for being naïve, but he does not question their Catholic identity as some have done. The whole tone of the letter is one of sadness, which would seem to be the appropriate sentiment for someone who genuinely wants health care reform but feels compelled not to support the final bill.
It is painful to see the Church’s bishops unable to support this bill. It is painful, too, to see the charges and counter-charges within the Church, as if legislation had replaced the Creed as the test of orthodoxy. But, one thing seems abundantly clear to me as we near the end of the health care debate: The passage of universal health care will go down as a landmark pro-life victory. In part, this is because of the support for pregnant women in the bill, the fact that countries with universal health care almost always have a lower abortion rate than here in the U.S., and because the bill’s requirement that abortion coverage be paid for every month with a separate premium check will remind millions of Americans that abortion is not health care, and the reminder will come every month.
But, the debate has also exposed something surprising about the pro-life cause: that it means so many different things to so many different people, and that these differences even appear to exist within the Episcopal bench itself. And this leads me to think that the USCCB should consider undertaking a pastoral letter on what it means to be pro-life in America in this second decade of the twentieth century. This thought came to me at the end of my post yesterday, when I pointed out that in the 1980s, the bishops issued two really significant pastoral letters, one on the economy and the other on nuclear war, and that in those teaching documents they made the point that at the level of moral principle the bishops enjoyed a high degree of certainty but that as they got to the legislative and policy level, their moral certainty was necessarily lessened. N.B. This is not to say that prudential political judgment can be used as a cover to dodge moral judgment: Prudence is a virtue, and political judgment, even one on so pedestrian a decision as a parliamentary vote to end debate, can be fraught with moral significance.
The process the bishops adopted in the 1980s was important. A committee of bishops was formed and they listened to experts and ordinary folk across the country. They consulted theologians both here and abroad. They analyzed the statements of other episcopal conferences and the Holy See. The process took several years but it proved to be a learning process all around. The complexities, in the best sense of the word, of the Church’s social teaching became manifest. The Church’s commitment to peace and justice were made clear in ways it had not been before, and the final documents met with widespread concurrence both among the bishops and among the people in the pews. The pastorals changed public opinion among Catholics. In 1983, only a third of American Catholics believed America was spending too much on weapons and defense, the same percentage as among Protestant Americans. In 1984, 54 percent of American Catholics held that belief, while the percentage for Protestants was unchanged.
Many Catholics dismiss the bishops as pawns of the Republican Party, a charge that is false. Others have come to ignore the bishop’s teaching authority entirely. Continuing with a piecemeal approach, issuing statements here, lobbying there, have not served the necessary purpose of uniting the flock around the teachings of the Church. Those teachings demand more than showing up at the March for Life, useful though that March is as a public witness. The Church’s teachings about life are richer than merely opposing abortion, and it is far from clear how one can politically and legally enact the moral principles that flow from our commitment to life. It is time for the bishops to do for the pro-life cause what they did for economic justice and issues of war and peace in the 1980s. It is time to listen, to consult and to teach.