Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Conscience Protection Key for Health Care Reform

Conscience protection is a key issue in health care reform. The bishops want protection for Catholic and other institutions, especially health care institutions, so they can to be true to their vision, and for all health care personnel so they can be true to their conscience.

Today we often see the rights of institutions challenged. The most obvious concern is the right of hospitals not to perform abortions. The Weldon Amendment, a rider to the annual Health and Human Services funding bill, protects hospitals that do not provide, refer for or pay for abortions. Yet even with its existence this right of conscience is threatened when pro-abortion groups organize campaigns against hospital mergers in which a Catholic hospital assumes responsibility for a struggling hospital that is not Catholic. Some groups fight such mergers unless the “right” to an abortion can be guaranteed there or close by. Sometimes, they make mergers fall through, sad proof that some would rather risk seeing all health care denied, from heart catheterizations to hip replacements to cancer treatment, in order to keep abortion in the neighborhood.

Any health care reform bill needs to have conscience protections for institutions that provide and purchase health care. The Catholic Church, with more than 600 health care institutions serving millions annually, is a major health care provider in the United States. The quality of care in these facilities is proven time and time again. Conscience protection for them benefits not just Catholic hospitals, but the nation’s entire health care system and the patients it serves.

Conscience protection for individuals also needs to be guaranteed. Wherever they work, those who find abortion morally repugnant should not have to participate in it. You don’t have to be a moral theologian to feel abortion is wrong. Some things are instinctive, and some are enshrined in the Hippocratic Oath that has shaped the idea of medicine as a healing profession. No medical personnel should be forced to take another human being’s life.

Today it can be hard to stand up against peers and supervisors; if an individual feels his or her job is on the line, the pressure can be enormous. A case in point: In Ohio, last September 15, according to an Associated Press news report, Dr. Carmelita Bautista was pressed into service by a prison execution team to help find a vein so a lethal injection could be administered. This is something medical ethicists frown upon and the American Medical Association bans. Despite this, Dr. Bautista apparently felt she had to agree to the casual request. Apparently she felt uneasy, noting later that she’d never done anything like that because, she said, “we are supposed to help people who are sick.” Nevertheless, she did what she was asked and tried - unsuccessfully - to help. It was a casual request, to just find a vein, and she wasn’t sure she was really assisting at an execution, but as she drew closer to the death house she felt frightened.

Who else might be casually asked to violate conscience just a little - a medical student, a nurse, someone else low on the totem pole? Such people, no matter where they work, need to know they have the protection of law, and it should be written into the health reform bill.

Resistance to writing in such language makes one pause. Do government leaders fear we’ll be overrun by citizens with consciences?

The battle over conscience rights extends into other areas. Should a doctor be forced to prescribe drugs he objects to, such as those that disrupt a healthy reproductive system? Should pharmacists be forced to fill a prescription for what they know may work by causing an abortion? We’re talking about professionals, here, not vending machines. Forcing someone to violate his or her conscience is an act of violence no civilized society should tolerate.

The poet John Donne said that “no man is an island,” that “any man’s death diminishes me.” Conversely, one might say that “everyone’s living by conscience enhances me,” for we are not isolated individuals but live together in society. Defense of the right to live by one’s conscience, be it an individual’s or an institution’s, helps guarantee access to quality health care reform for all. The defense of conscience rights needs to be written into the health care reform bill.

Friday, December 18, 2009

¡Que viva Menéndez!

Note: The following is the Spanish version of the earlier post of the same name.

El debate sobre la reforma de salud ha llegado a otro punto crítico con algunos senadores amenazando con un boicot por lo que consideran como demasiadas concesiones y otros aprovechando la oportunidad para tratar de descarrilar la reforma.

A pesar de todo, algunos senadores—esperamos que de ambos partidos—todavía se esfuerzan por acabar la tarea en nombre de los millones de estadounidenses que simplemente necesitan con urgencia esta reforma, y por dotar a la propuesta de ley de tanta justicia como les sea posible. Uno de tales senadores es Robert Menéndez (D-NJ) quien ha decidido abanderar la causa de la justicia para los inmigrantes—inmigrantes legales que trabajan duro, pagan impuestos y residen en los Estados Unidos con autorización del gobierno. La Enmienda Menéndez daría los estados la opción de eliminar el periodo de espera de cinco años para que los inmigrantes legales obtengan cobertura médica a través de Medicaid.

En una carta a los senadores el 14 de diciembre, los obispos les urgieron a apoyar la Enmienda Menéndez, la cual está en sintonía con uno de tres aspectos preocupantes de la reforma que los obispos han venido pidiendo al Congreso que aborde: respeto por la vida y la conciencia; accesibilidad económica; y acceso justo para los inmigrantes.

Nuestro país se aleja del principio fundamental de “justicia para todos” cuando separa a un grupo de personas y arbitrariamente les niega derechos que son suyos. Incluso aquellos que no consideran que la atención médica sea un derecho humano básico deberían estar de acuerdo en que las personas que contribuyen con sus impuestos y tienen autorización para vivir y trabajar aquí deberían poder beneficiarse en tiempos de necesidad del mismo sistema que ayudan a financiar. Si nacieron o no aquí es algo secundario.

La enmienda propuesta por Menéndez ofrece al Congreso la oportunidad de corregir un error, y de hacerlo de una manera fácil y eficiente.

Algunos estiman que hasta 600,000 personas podrían beneficiarse con esta enmienda si los estados también hacen su parte. Todos nos beneficiaremos al permitir que la comunidad inmigrante tenga acceso al cuidado médico y permanezca saludable.

Los inmigrantes contribuyen. Permitan, pues, que también se beneficien—dicen los obispos.¡Que viva Menéndez y que viva su enmienda!

Que Viva Menendez!

Health care reform has reached yet another make it or break it point, with some digging in their heels on what they consider too many concessions and some others not wasting any time and using the opportunity to try to derail health care reform.

Some senators--of both parties we hope-- still strive to get the job done for millions of Americans who badly need this reform, and to endow this bill with as much fairness as possible. One such senator is Robert Menendez (D-NJ) who has decided to champion the cause of fairness to immigrants -- legal immigrants who work hard, pay taxes and reside in the U.S. with government authorization. The Menezdez Amendment would give states the option to lift the five-year waiting period for legal immigrants to obtain Medicaid coverage.

In a December 14 letter to senators the bishops urged support for the Menendez Amendment, which is in line with one of three key concerns they have been asking Congress to address all along: respect life and conscience; affordability; and fair access for immigrants.

Our country departs from its founding principle of justice for all when it singles out a group of people and arbitrarily denies them rights due to them. Even those who do not consider access to health care a basic human right should agree that people who pay into the system, and who have authorization to work and live here, should be entitled to benefit from it in times of need. Whether they were born here or not is incidental.

The Menezdez Amendment offers Congress and opportunity to right a wrong, and to do so in an easy, efficient manner.

Some estimate that as many as 600,000 people could benefit if the states in turn do their part. We all will benefit from allowing the immigrant community to have access to health care and stay healthy.

They pay. Let them have their fair share, the bishops say.

Que viva Menendez! (Hooray for Menendez!) Let his amendment live!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

'Tis the Season

‘Tis the season of top 10 lists, so here’s mine.

Top 10 church news stories from a media relations perspective

1. The House of Representatives passage of the Stupak Amendment banning expansion of abortion through health care reform. Polls show that the number of people opposed to abortion is on the rise nationwide and includes men and women of many religions and none, which may account for the vote. In the midst of this, seemingly overnight the U.S. bishops went from being perceived by critics as being powerless to being perceived as running the U.S. government. In a world where it’s not reality but perception of reality that’s important, this would be a publicist’s dream.

2. President Barack Obama at Notre Dame. Graduations are dull – except when the President of the United States comes to speak. Amidst the brouhaha, one unheralded star of the day at ND, however, was the Notre Dame salutatorian who led with the Sign of the Cross and a prayer before all of America. When it comes to symbolism, the Catholic Church has it, and the simple prayerful gesture reflected well on her religious training. This gesture spoke simply of the heart of our faith, the cross, which comes before the Resurrection.

3. Encyclical “Caritas in Veritate.” Pope Benedict XVI’s social encyclical caused a spike on the USCCB Media blog where readers were happy to have background on church social teaching. As is bound to happen, when the encyclical made its debut, some of those who usually support church teaching scoffed at its social message and some who usually challenge the church, applauded it. Throughout all of history there’s been no shortage of opinion when it comes to the church and its social doctrine, as seen in the 20th and 21st centuries when the church, to the dismay of many, became involved in working for the New Deal, integration and health care reform.

4. Outreach to traditionalist Society of St. Pius X including Bishop Richard Williamson, who turned out to be an outspoken Holocaust denier. This effort to bring people together gave new meaning to sausage–making. The pope himself bemoaned the unforeseen developments and said he wished he’d first gone to the Internet and Googled the bishop. The quest for Christian unity will go on, however, because it is rooted in Scripture.

5. Funeral of Senator Edward M. Kennedy. When it comes to public activities, the Catholic Church peaks in its funeral liturgies. Be ye pope or pauper or U.S. senator the same comforting liturgical rite speaks of the world beyond, the message of Jesus and the Resurrection. The telecast of the Mass reminds all, with music and song, that God’s love and care surround us. Abortion is a huge issue, for sure, and perhaps the only thing bigger than it is God’s love and forgiveness.

6. Father Alberto Cutié scandal. The short-lived but widely televised soap opera of a Miami priest caught by tabloid media in a love tryst proved once again that the media can turn anything, even a story of infidelity, into an attack on celibacy. The limelight loving priest, who subsequently joined the Episcopal Church, hasn’t been seen in a while, and hopefully his shot at fame is over. But he sure got his Andy Warhol 15 minutes worth.

7. Archbishop Timothy Dolan named archbishop of New York. From his loud knock on the front door of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the sound bite prelate showed he can easily translate religion into real terms. He’s a welcome gift to the world’s media capital, even if a challenge to the Gray Lady, aka, the New York Times. Go Yankees, Go Broadway, Go Archbishop Dolan.

8. Papal trips to Africa and Middle East. Despite the personal strain on him, Pope Benedict made tiring treks that focused attention on world trouble spots when he visited them with his media entourage. His trip to Africa reminded us one again about the scourge of AIDS and the inequality in distribution and use of world’s resources. His trip to the Middle East suggested that religion can be a vehicle for serenity that involves more than prayer. Political leaders can’t seem to bring peace there; perhaps religious leaders can.

9. The traveling exhibit Women & Spirit, which heralds the contributions of the sisters in the United States, is drawing visitors to major museums and many in Washington look forward to its opening at the Smithsonian in mid-January. The exhibit is a wonderful destination for Catholic school and religious education groups who want to learn about an important part of U.S. Catholic history (Did you know nuns tended people on the battlefields during the Civil War?). Older Catholics will find themselves flooded with warm memories of their own times with Catholic sisters.

10. Year for Priests. A great concept from the Vatican to draw attention on the extraordinary cadre of men who give their lives for others, day in, day out. Dioceses around the country laud their service with banners, pray for them at Mass, and remind everyone that you can’t have enough of a good thing. Listen up, young men.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Mostly Caught Up

This morning's appointment of Louisville pastor Father William F. Medley as the next bishop of Owensboro, Kentucky fills what had been the longest-vacant diocese in the U.S. Church. Owensboro has been without a bishop since Bishop John McRaith retired on January 5.

This leaves six Latin rite dioceses currently without an ordinary:

Ogdensburg, New York -- since Bishop Robert Cunningham's April 21 appointment to Syracuse, New York
Springfield, Illinois -- since Archbishop George Lucas' June 3 appointment to Omaha, Nebraska
Austin, Texas -- since Archbishop Gregory Aymond's June 12 appointment to New Orleans
Scranton, Pennsylvania -- since Bishop Joseph Martino's August 31 resignation
Harrisburg, Pennsylvania -- since Bishop Kevin Rhoades' November 14 appointment to Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana
LaCrosse, Wisconsin -- since Archbishop Jerome Listecki's November 14 appointment to Milwaukee

As the oldest of these vacancies is barely eight months old, and a third of them are barely a month old, it's no surprise that Rome hasn't gotten around to filling them yet, as the appointment of a new bishop is a long and involved process.

Also on a waiting list are six other dioceses, whose bishops are serving past the retirement age of 75. They are:

Lafayette, Indiana -- Bishop William Higi turned 76 in August
Corpus Christi, Texas -- Bishop Edmind Carmody turns 76 in January
Seattle -- Archbishop Alexander Brunett turns 76 in January
Spokane, Washington -- Bishop William Skylstad turns 76 in March
Cincinnati -- Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk turned 75 in August
Oklahoma City -- Archbishop Eusebius Beltran turned 75 in August

Of these six dioceses, however, only five are waiting for a new bishop, as the pope named coadjutor Archbishop Dennis Schnurr to Cincinnati back in October of 2008. When Archbishop Pilarczyk retires, Schnurr will automatically succeed him.

And again, as appointing a new bishop is a lengthy process, to have only five bishops awaiting successors and only one of those bishops over the age of 76 means the Congregation for Bishops Rome is pretty well caught up on its business. As no other ordinaries turn 75 until April of 2010 (Cardinal Justin Rigali in Philadelphia and Bishop Kevin Boland in Savannah, Georgia), this list could really shrink in the meantime.

Hat tip David Cheney.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Quest for Education

It seems like Our Lady of Guadalupe is telling us something here.

On December 11, The Pew Hispanic Center publishes "Between Two Worlds: How Latino Youths Come of Age in America, a new national survey of Latinos ages 16 to 25. On December 12, the University of Notre Dame unveils a report -- "The Catholic School Advantage: The Campaign to Improve Educational Opportunities for Latino Children" -- and launches a campaign to improve educational opportunities for the next generation of American Latinos by expanding their access to Catholic schools. The task force who worked on the report for over a year seeks to enroll one million Hispanic students in Catholic schools by 2020.

The timing of release for both reports is not coincidental, and even though put forth by two very different institutions, both reports seem to be in dialogue with one another.

The Pew survey finds that Latinos ages 16 to 25 are satisfied with their lives and optimistic about their futures. They value education, hard work and career success. But they are more likely than other youths to drop out of school, live in poverty and become teen parents. They also have high levels of exposure to gangs. And when it comes to self-identity, most straddle two worlds. The study also reveals the changing demographics of that huge mixed bag we call Latinos, with two-thirds of Hispanics, ages 16 to 25, being native-born Americans.

The Notre Dame release seems like a timely response and a statement that Catholic education can and must play a role—an important one for that matter—in improving economic and education levels, as well as overall life satisfaction, of Latinos in this country.

With education, both secular and Catholic, being one of the key priorities for the U.S. Catholic bishops, church leaders are sure to applaud this initiative from Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) and others; and the findings from the Pew report are sure to guide their pastoral efforts with this important and growing segment of the U.S. Catholic population that are the Hispanic youth and young adults.

The quest for education is getting a little help. It is to be hoped-- and expected-- many others will step up to the plate. Notre Dame of Guadalupe, pray for us!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Senate Side of Life

When a cadre of pro-life House Democrats, led by Bart Stupak of Michigan, insisted that health care reform live up to long-standing federal law on abortion funding and conscience protections, the U.S. bishops were naturally supportive and applauded the inclusion of these measures in the bill passed by the House.

The inclusion of the Stupak language ensured that federal funds didn't go to abortions and that insurance plans purchased with federal funds didn't cover abortion. This was consistent with the Hyde Amendment (which has been part of every appropriations bill since 1976), as well as current federal health plans (the health care that members of Congress enjoy), which do not include abortion coverage.

The inclusion of this amendment also prompted an outcry from abortion proponents, who said the House bill now restricted women's access to abortion (actually, women receiving federal funds for their health care would be able to purchase abortion coverage with their own money under the Stupak Amendment). The pro-abortion side also turned its ire to the bishops themselves, whose advocacy (so welcome on issues like immigration and war) now amounted to, as they saw it, meddling in politics. They also turned their attention to the Senate, determined not to allow this to happen again.

When the bishops turned to the Senate, they were confronted with a bill that was more lacking than the House bill on not one, but all three of their areas of concern -- affordability, immigrants and life and conscience issues. The bishops told the Senate as much in a November 20 letter (Spanish).

Fortunately, around this time, Senator Ben Nelson, a pro-life Democrat from Nebraska, Republican Senator Orrin Hatch or Utah and another pro-life Democrat, another pro-life Democrat, Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, introduced an amendment that would address the abortion and conscience problems in the Senate bill.

The bishops were supportive of this amendment, but after a day or so of debate, the Senate voted to table it, a procedural way of defeating it for now. The bishops were not supportive, but in fact deeply disappointed by this.

As the legislative process continues to move forward on health care reform, the bishops have stated strongly that the House provisions on abortion funding and coverage should prevail. As always, the bishops want legislation that makes health care affordable to all, respects human life, and does not harm the plight of immigrants. But Cardinal Francis George, president of the U.S. bishops, warned, "Failure to exclude abortion funding will turn allies into adversaries and require us and others to oppose this bill because it abandons both principle and precedent."

The job of the bishops to teach and proclaim the morals and truths of the Catholic faith as they apply to this issue is, of course, made easier when Catholics everywhere educate themselves on this issue and join their voices with the bishops in calling for genuine health care reform.

Progress doesn't always come easy

WASHINGTON (RNS) Recent talk about the Catholic Church's role in politics reminds me of two great moments in church social teaching in the United States: the New Deal and the Civil Rights eras. Both moments found the church embroiled in controversy, with strident cries that it did not belong in the public arena. The eventual rewards for the church's role were huge for society, but came at a cost for the church.

The same, unfortunately, remains true today.

A leading figure of the New Deal era was Monsignor John Augustine Ryan (1865-1945), who headed the social action department of the U.S. bishops' National Catholic Welfare Council, the predecessor of today's U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Critics pejoratively referred to him as "Monsignor New Deal" for his social action efforts, which included fighting to establish a living wage and authoring the 1919 "Program for Social Reconstruction" essentially, an outline for what would become Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal.

What Ryan and the church sought in the early 20th Century seemed radical then, though it is commonplace today. He agitated across the board as he applied the church's social teaching and theology to the ills he saw about him and worked to remedy some of them. Ryan is now a hero in social teaching lore, but he didn't reach such heights without making foes, both inside and outside of the church.

The Civil Rights movement of the 1960s saw church leaders speak out against racism and discrimination, most dramatically in Selma, Ala. During a series of marches in Selma in 1965, Catholics from 44 dioceses were among the peaceful protesters on and after Bloody Sunday, when police attacked marchers with ropes and whips as horrified Americans watched on TV. Among the marchers was the Rev. John Cavanaugh, the former president of the University of Notre Dame, who stood with priests and nuns as they walked alongside Protestant ministers and rabbis. The presence of these religious figures put off those who would have preferred that the men and women of the church had stayed home and prayed instead of disquieting everyone with their peaceful march.

Accusations against the church inevitably arise whenever the church meets its obligation to fight for the weak and speak for those who cannot speak for themselves. In recent years, it's become popular to say that the bishops even the church itself are irrelevant. Some even believed it, which is why it was shocking to some when a majority of House members shared the bishops' concerns and voted to ensure that health care reform does not expand abortion. Critics underestimated the church's sense that Americans abhor paying for someone else's abortion, and now they decry an alleged violation of the separation of church and state. The bishops took their stand as citizens and leaders, and made sure the voice of millions of Americans Catholic and non Catholic was heard. They stood exactly where they should stand, fighting for the poor and voiceless.

The challenge before us is to make health care affordable for all, both for citizens and legal immigrants, and to ensure that reform does not expand abortion. There is nothing new here. Standing for the poor and voiceless is where the church always has been. No one seems to mind when Catholic Charities annually delivers $3.5 billion worth of food and human services to people of all religions and of no religion. Nor do they mind when the church provides $5.7 billion in health care annually through its network of more than 600 health care institutions. It's only when the bishops are heard in the public sector that the critics speak out. American history shows that when the church stays true to its mission, America is a proud nation where the elderly have Social Security and the young do not live in a world of separate water fountains for whites and blacks. It's worth remembering that steps toward those ends did not come without criticism, and they didn't come easy.

Sister Mary Ann Walsh is director of media relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Copyright 2009 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.