The USCCB begins its annual plenary session today in Baltimore. On the formal agenda, the bishops will consider a proposed pastoral letter on marriage (which they should scrap and start over) and the final approval of Mass translations (some are good, some not so good but it is past time to fight over them anyway). Behind the scenes, the issue that dominates all the others is the polarization within the Conference, a polarization that seems to have been imported from the political world into the USCCB. The most important thing for the bishops to do this week is to heed the voice of their president, Cardinal George, to resist the political categories of left and right and return to “simply Catholicism.”
In the event, there is a political issue that is tailor-made for the “simply Catholicism” model proposed by Cardinal George: pro-life health care reform. For decades the bishops have backed universal health insurance for all Americans. Since 1973, the bishops have been the leaders, in season and out of season, of the pro-life movement in America. Now, thanks to the 240 members of Congress who voted for the Stupak Amendment banning federal funds for abortion, and the 220 members who voted for the final bill, the possibility of pro-life universal health insurance is that much closer to reality.
The Church’s commitment to pro-life health care reform does not conform to the orthodoxies of either political party. The Republicans have made it abundantly clear that they will do whatever it takes to defeat any substantial reform bill. Many of the most prominent Democratic members are now up in arms because of the pro-life restrictions of the Stupak Amendment. Catholic members of both parties – not just members of Congress but all of us – must ask a simple question of ourselves: Is our commitment to the Church’s teaching prior to our political orthodoxies or is it secondary?
As Pope Benedict made clear in his encyclical Caritas in Veritate, life issues are social justice issues and social justice issues are life issues. The Church’s teaching must be received, understood and accepted integrally. I know that integralism is a word with a sinister history, espoused by Catholic witch-hunters during the reign of Pius X and the last years of Pius XII to brand anyone who disagreed with them as heretics. Among those caught in the web of suspicion in the reign of Piux X were Giacomo della Chiesa and Angelo Roncalli, who became Pope Benedict XV and Pope John XXIII respectively. That is not the integralism Pope Benedict XVI calls for. Instead, he merely suggests that all of the Church’s ethical teachings must be seen to flow from our dogmatic claims about the events on a hillside in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago.
The solidarity with the human condition that caused the Son of God to endure suffering and death surely requires that we spare no effort to make sure our fellow citizens do not have to endure similar suffering and death unnecessarily because of an insane health insurance system. The abysmal loneliness of death which Christ endured requires all of us who invoke His name to propose a Culture of Life that cannot but see abortion as an unspeakable crime against the child and the mother and against all that it means to be human and humane. If you are pro-health care and pro-abortion, you are missing something about the consequences of Calvary. And, if you are anti-health care and claim to be pro-life, your inconsistency is transparent to all.
As mentioned before, the exact language of Stupak is going to be modified because as currently written it makes it impossible for women, with their own money, to purchase health insurance that covers abortions. I pray for the day when no woman wants such coverage, but I have to acknowledge that in this regard, Stupak goes beyond the Hyde Amendment, which only forbids the use of federal funds for abortion. The bishops should not turn Stupak into a totem: Even if the Stupak language stays exactly as it is, many women will still get abortions and the task of building the Culture of Life will remain. The victory in the U.S. House of Representatives was a great victory, and we should not squander it, and kill health care reform, by over-reaching. In politics, as in physics, every action produces a counter-reaction. If we over-reach, we might get pushed back further than we anticipated. The line in the sand is no federal funding of abortion.