The majority of the month of August saw the U.S. bishops' message on health care reform articulated pretty clearly, largely via the Web portal sponsored by the Conference, Web videos on the bishops' position and positive media coverage.
The clear conveyance of this position took a little bit of a hit with an August 28 article in the New York Times, "Despite Church's Push on Issue, Some Bishops Assail Health Plan." The article separates the two thrusts of the bishops' ongoing message, put in simplest terms: 1. Health care must be reformed. 2. Abortion is a deal breaker.
The article's argument that the U.S. bishops are ready to jump ship on health care comes from quotes from bishops' statements in their dioceses, including Sioux City, Iowa Bishop Walter Nickless saying, "No health care reform is better than the wrong sort of health care reform" and Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput applying words like "imprudent" and "dangerous" to the current proposals in Congress.
The article stretches reality a little further, however, when it cites the July 17 letter to Congress by Bishop William Murphy and the August 11 letter to Congress by Cardinal Justin Rigali as examples of leaders of the U.S. bishops divided, with the former "eager to back the Democrats' efforts" and the latter saying lawmakers should "block the entire effort."
This oversimplification misses the point that both Bishop Murphy and Cardinal Rigali write on behalf of the USCCB and that each is addressing his area of specialization and concern (as chairman of Domestic Social Development and chairman of Pro-Life Activities, respectively) against the backdrop of the Conference's position as a whole. The difference is almost entirely one of emphasis.
This is evident as the article (rightly) mentions Bishop Murphy's opposition to abortion provisions in the bill, but (not mentioned in the article) it's even more evident as Cardinal Rigali begins his letter by urging Congress to bear in mind the principles put forth in the Murphy letter. These are hardly two bishops in opposition.
Cardinal Rigali and Bishop Murphy said as much in a joint letter in Sunday's New York Times, in which they restated both parts of the bishops' position and called on President Obama to ensure that any health care reform bill he signs into law "will not force Americans to support the taking of human life at any stage through their taxes or health premiums."
The New York Times article was also the first in a succession of news stories and other coverage that depicted the U.S. bishops as divided on, or simply opposed to health care. These stories also quote subsequent statements from Fargo Bishop Samuel Aquila, Rockford, Ill. Bishop Thomas Doran, Kansas City, Kan. Archbishop Joseph Naumann and Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo. Bishop Robert Finn.
Rather than get into a point-by-point analysis of the arguments of each bishop, I'd much rather do some oversimplication of my own and say that this is ultimately about the richness of Catholic teaching. All of the bishops' statements, including such examples listed above that raise serious red flags about current health care proposals, government intervention in health care, etc., speak to the value of health care and the worthiness of the goal of reforming it.
On the national level, the bishops have put forward their priorities and principles for good health care reform. When you start with overarcing principles, an individual bishop certainly has latitude to reflect on the application of those principles. And it shouldn't be a surprise that different voices will raise different concerns with different emphases and levels of specificity.
Ultimately, the bishops aren't supporting anybody's plan without question or opposed to the notion of reforming health care. They're being bishops ... considering the moral dimensions of public proposals and and proclaiming the teaching of the Church.