No one knows the outcome of the health care vote – or even when the vote will happen – but already there is an air of recrimination in the air. The stakes are high. People know that this upcoming vote is not only important, it is historic. The sinful itch, and it is a sin, to begin looking for someone to blame, for scapegoats, has begun but it should be resisted.
This morning, my good friend E. J. Dionne writes about the group of nuns who support the bill, including Sister Carol Keehan, the head of the Catholic Health Association. He notes that the nuns’ position is at odds with that of the USCCB. But, EJ does was Sister Carol most emphatically did not do. He questions the bishops’ integrity, accusing them of distorting Sister Carol’s position and that the reason for the distortion "is, to be charitable, a mystery."
Let me clear up the mystery for you EJ. Sister Carol was most definitely not saying that the bishops should wink at unacceptable language on abortion restrictions to pass health care. As she said in the interview – and this is the money quote of the day! – "I was not going to take a little bit of abortion [in the bill] to get federal funding." I suspect that in the course of her many conversations with the bishops who lead the USCCB she made the point, which is undeniable, that health care reform is a work in progress and will continue to be so after the bill is passed. Like Social Security, or Medicare, the program will develop over time. Such shifting sands are expected in the realm of policy and the implementation of policy, but it is problematic when one is doing moral theology.
The bishops’ analysis of the health care bill, and the reason for their opposition to it, has been characterized by "worst case scenarioism" according to a very enlightening post at Commonweal. I think moral theology is always, in its abstractions, prone to this kind of thing and given the hyper-ventilation among many Catholics about President Obama in the first place, the bishops were inclined to fear the worst. Of course, they were also inclined to fear the Freedom of Choice Act which, we were assured, was going to be the first bill President Obama signed into law. Strangely enough, FOCA has not yet been introduced into either house of Congress. But, back to the plot. I think EJ is wrong to question the bishops’ motives. I think their statements show how ambivalent they are, how difficult a decision this was for them. I respect them for their consistency and their principles even if I disagree with their policy conclusions and EJ and other pro-health care reform voices should do the same.
The recriminations from the right are just as offensive and will be even nastier. If the health care bill passes, long-time pro-life advocates like Congressmen Jim Oberstar and Dale Kildee, both of whom have pledged to vote for the bill, will be cast as "Judas" as betrayers of the cause. They have made clear their reasons for supporting the bill and anyone, including any Catholic, can disagree with those reasons. Both have stated that they have reached the conclusion that the current legislation does not permit federal funding of abortion. A bill is not pro-life just because the National Right-To-Life Committee says it is.
Sister Carol, too, has already become the target of abuse. Sadly, even some bishops have questioned her, not her position or her views, but her sincerity. This is absurd. The criticism of Sr. Carol tells us more about the critics than it does about Sister Carol. It must be remembered what is at issue here: Sister Carol is not "pro-abortion." The issue is not the morality of abortion but the politics of abortion. There is room for disagreement, honest, engaged, thoughtful, respectful disagreement about the politics of almost anything.
No one should disagree with Cardinal George lightly about anything except what toppings to have on a pizza. He is a brilliant man. I read his recent book and was constantly putting it down to exclaim, "I wish I had written that sentence." I also read both of his doctoral dissertations, one in philosophy and one in theology, when he was first named to Chicago and they remain well dog-eared volumes in my library. His opinion of the bill, and that of the USCCB, has been stated with clarity and sincerity. The bishops may be right. They may be wrong. But, if health care fails, it will not be their fault. And if it passes, it is not only because of Sister Carol’s support. The day after the vote, I will still admire Congressman Stupak, and Congressmen Kildee and Oberstar, no matter how the vote turns out. And, I will still admire Cardinal George and Sister Carol. Before anyone criticizes any of them, it is good to take a breathe and make sure that we are criticizing their positions and not their persons. The debate on health care should not become an cause for fratricide.
Michael Sean Winters