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.

Friday, November 13, 2009

What's What at the Bishops' Meeting

If you've been following the media lead-up to the fall 2009 meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, you know that the bishops will be voting on several documents over the course of their November 16-19 gathering. You also know that it can be a chore to keep all of the information straight, as documents, their names, subject matter and purpose they serve can run together.

This post is an attempt to stave off any such confusion.

The (relatively) easy-to-remember items are the liturgy items. The bishops are voting on five separate pieces of the Roman Missal at this meeting. These are the final pieces of the puzzle, as it were, of the larger project of the new English translation of the Roman Missal, which have been going up for votes by the bishops, piece by piece, for several years now.

These final pieces just happen to be the Proper of Saints (prayers for Masses in observance of saints' feast days), The Commons (prayers for Masses in observance of saints for whom there are no proper prayers), Roman Missal Supplement (containing some extra material added in the 2008 reprint of the Missale Romanum), U.S. Propers (prayers for Masses in observance of feast days of Saints for the dioceses of the United States, e.g., St. Elizabeth Ann Seton and St. John Neumann), and the USA Adaptations (a number of adjustments and additions to the rubrics for use in the dioceses of the United States).

Once these are passed by the body of bishops, they go to Rome for recognitio, or approval, and then the implementation of the new translation will begin.

Another area that is getting some attention at this meeting, albeit in unrelated documents, is marriage. The the Pastoral Letter on Marriage: "Love and Life in the Divine Plan" goes up for a vote during the meeting and is an important part of the Bishops' National Pastoral Initiative on Marriage, begun in 2004.

Another document that deals with marriage, but is actually a Pro-Life Committee document is "Life-Giving Love in an Age of Technology." This is a document on reproductive technologies (in vitro, surrogacy, egg and sperm donation, etc.) that is something of an echo of the 2008 Vatican document, Dignitas Personae.

Also taking into account recent Catholic teaching is the proposed revision of the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services. The directives in question concern medically-assisted nutrition and hydration. The current passages on this issue speak cite on documents from state Catholic conferences, individual bishops, and the bishops' Pro-Life Committee. Since those directives were published, however, both a 2004 speech from Pope John Paul II and a 2007 document from the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith addressed this issue much more definitively and stating more strongly the obligation to provide medically assisted nutrition and hydration even to someone in a persistent vegitative state.

Also on the bishops' agenda is a report on vocations and another on the causes and context of clergy sexual abuse.

In one final, but significant bit of voting, the bishops will also elect the chairs-elect of five of their committees. Chairs-elect serve in a sort of apprentice role for one year after their election before taking over as chairman of their respective committees the following November. Bishops serve for three years as chairs.

Of course, all the agendas, rubrics and plans in the world can't predict what will actually be said and done at the bishops' meeting, so everyone is encouraged to follow the meeting on television, on the Web, including Facebook and Twitter, and of course in the reports in various media outlets as they appear.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Obama Should Value Stupak Amendment

You would think Roe v. Wade itself had been overturned from the cry that's gone up from pro-abortion advocates in the wake of the passage of the House health care bill with the Stupak (-Ellsworth-Pitts-Kaptur-Dahlkemper-Lipinski-Smith) Amendment included.

Leaders of Planned Parenthood, members of Congress and others have made the rounds on cable news and even the floor of the House, decrying the Amendment with such claims as that of Rep. Nita Lowey, who asserted that the language of the Stupak Amendment "puts new restrictions on women's access to abortion coverage in the private health insurance market even when they would pay premiums with their own money." This claim has been rejected as false by Politifact.com.

In the midst of this hysteria, National Public Radio (NPR) has done a fair job of breaking down the language of the Stupak Amendment. The quote from Rep. Stupak in the story underscores an essential point about the Stupak Amendment, that it's merely an application of the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits federal funding of abortion and has been attached to appropriations bills since 1976. One question the NPR summary doesn't answer is whether or not the Hyde Amendment also forbids funding entire benefits packages that include abortion. The answer is yes.

In this case, the provisions of the Stupak Amendment are very much in continuity with federal law as it stands now and has stood for decades. It isn't some case of overreaching on the part of pro-lifers, as its opponents are now depicting it.

One voice that has joined the fray of speaking against the Stupak Amendment in the House bill is President Obama himself. The President, as is his style, took a cooler approach, as quoted here from the Washington Post:

"I laid out a very simple principle, which is this is a health care bill, not an abortion bill," Obama said. "And we're not looking to change what is the principle that has been in place for a very long time, which is federal dollars are not used to subsidize abortions. And I want to make sure that the provision that emerges meets that test -- that we are not in some way sneaking in funding for abortions, but, on the other hand, that we're not restricting women's insurance choices, because one of the pledges I made in that same speech was to say that if you're happy and satisfied with the insurance that you have, that it's not going to change." He added: "There are strong feelings on both sides, and what that tells me is that there needs to be some more work before we get to the point where we're not changing the status quo."
ABC News also quotes the President as saying he's confident the final legislation will ensure that "neither side feels that it's being betrayed."

It's striking that this language is President Obama's argument against the Stupak Amendment. He reiterates here what you could call his pledge from his September 9 address to Congress on health care, that federal funds would not go to abortions, a pledge that the U.S. bishops held Congress to over the course of the health care bill's passage.

A major portion of the struggle over the legislation was that the Capps Amendment, the earlier abortion amendment in the House bill, was essentially what President Obama describes above, a "way of sneaking in funding for abortions." The Stupak Amendment rectifies this.

The President also cites his pledge that "if you're happy and satisfied with the insurance that you have, that it's not going to change." As the NPR breakdown explains, the Stupak Amendment "does not apply to private insurance bought with private money." So anyone who currently has a private plan with abortion coverage is going to be able to keep her plan with abortion coverage under the House bill and Stupak.

It seems President Obama simply doesn't appreciate how well the Stupak Amendment meets the goals he's put in place for this legislation.

The President's quote about "this is a health care bill, not an abortion bill" really drives this point home. Health care reform simply isn't the appropriate forum for advancing one's agenda on abortion. The President and the opponents of the Stupak Amendment would quickly use this same argument against the current bill, but the argument falls apart once it's made clear that Stupak merely preserves the status quo. It's the opponents of the Stupak Amendment who, whether they realize it or not, are saying, "We're reforming health care -- while we're at it, let's change long-standing laws so we can finally federally fund abortion."

The President suggests that the "strong feelings" surrounding the current bill mean that it somehow alters the status quo. A more accurate reading would be that current outcry means that proponents of abortion weren't ready to support a bill that reformed health care without expansion of abortion funding.

More interesting, and more challenging, is Obama's assertion that the final bill won't leave anyone feeling "betrayed." Once again, the Stupak Amendment gives him exactly what he asks for, whether he realizes it or not. If one side of the debate wants all women to continue to have access to and coverage for abortions and the other side wants to ensure that federal funds continue to be kept from abortions and abortion coverage, the Stupak Amendment covers both of these bases.

Already Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, according to Politico, is willing to work with both sides to find a compromise on abortion. Referring to the Hyde Amendment, he asserts, "The one thing we are certain to do is to maintain what we have had in the past."

Like President Obama, Senator Reid needs to look no farther than the Stupak Amendment.

Saturday, November 7, 2009


We need Tim Russert for health care reform. Russert could cut through bureaucratic nonsense. On the show he simplified complex matters and defended everyone’s right to speak. I’m sure he would be fascinated by the efforts of Representatives Stupak (Michigan), Ellsworth and others to get their amendment to the floor to clear up the abortion morass in the health care reform bill. The issue? A House rule that could close the bill to amendments. The reason for invoking the rule: the amendment would likely pass.

The health care reform bill as it is without the amendment would allow the Secretary of Health and Human Services to mandate unlimited provision of federally funded abortion coverage in the "public option" (government-run health plan that will compete with private plans nationwide). And it allows federal funds to subsidize private health plans that cover unlimited abortion. The Stupak-Ellsworth amendment, in line with the Hyde amendment and similar language in other federal programs (e.g., federal employees health benefits program), prevents both these results.

The amendment would write into the health reform bill language that says health care reform money cannot be used for elective abortions, much as the Hyde Amendment has done for federal money from the Health and Human Services/Labor appropriations bill. Some politicians say such an amendment is not needed because the Hyde Amendment already exists. Others say it is needed and point out the contradictions between the proposed legislation and the Hyde Amendment. The simplest way to settle the matter is to write in language that says health reform legislation cannot be used for elective abortions, which is what the Stupak-Ellsworth Amendment proposes.

I think of Russert now because he objected 17 years ago when Governor Bob Casey of Pennsylvania was prevented from speaking at the 1992 Democratic Party convention because of his pro-life views. Russert challenged the fairness of that on Meet the Press shortly afterwards. I asked Russert what the reaction had been to his challenge.

“They ‘outed’ me,” he said. Those who would silence Governor Casey dismissed Russert’s argument saying, “Well, you know, he’s Catholic.” The implication annoyed Russert, who was a lawyer as well as journalist, because it suggested that he couldn’t defend Casey’s right to speak simply on the merits that all Americans have freedom of speech or that it denied that Russert might be pro-life from a basic moral conviction transcending any religious denomination.
People do not want to pay for other people’s abortions so accepting the Stupak-Ellsworth Amendment seems like a no-brainer politically. That is unless leaders have been made tone-deaf by the clamoring of those who want expanded abortion even at the cost of a much needed reform of health care, something the U.S. bishops have been working towards for decades, back at least to the days of President Harry Truman.

It would be unfortunate if Stupak, Ellsworth and others cannot be heard. It would be a blow to our fundamental right to speak out, perhaps a blow only exceeded by the loss of the opportunity to reform health care because some insisted on clinging to a minority’s wish to expand abortion rights. What a loss for everyone.


WASHINGTON—The U.S. bishops November 7 urged members of the House of Representatives to vote for the Stupak-Ellsworth Amendment to the health care reform.

“The Stupak-Ellsworth-Pitts-Kaptur-Dahlkemper-Lipinski-Smith Amendment will keep in place current federal law on abortion funding and conscience protections in the Affordable Health Care for America Act (H.R. 3962),” they said.

The letter was signed by Cardinal Justin Rigali, chair of the bishops’ Committee on Pro-life Activities, and Bishop William Murphy of Rockville Centre, New York, chair of the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development

The letter follows.

Dear Representative:

On behalf of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), we strongly urge you to vote for the Stupak-Ellsworth-Pitts-Kaptur-Dahlkemper-Lipinski-Smith Amendment and to support a fair process in the House of Representatives to consider this essential improvement in health care reform legislation. The Stupak-Ellsworth-Pitts-Kaptur-Dahlkemper-Lipinski-Smith Amendment will keep in place current federal law on abortion funding and conscience protections in the Affordable Health Care for America Act (H.R. 3962).

Despite some claims to the contrary, H.R. 3962 does not reflect the status quo on abortion. It fails to explicitly and clearly include the longstanding policy prohibiting federal funding of elective abortion and plans which include elective abortion (Hyde Amendment). Medicaid, Medicare, Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), and other federal health legislation include this provision. Currently H.R. 3962 has some helpful provisions on conscience protection and non- preemption of state laws, but it utterly fails to maintain current prohibitions on abortion mandates and abortion funding. Instead it creates elaborate measures requiring people to pay for other people’s abortions with their taxes, private premiums or federal subsidies. Significantly, the Federal Employee Heath Benefit Program, which covers all members of Congress and their families, has long been governed by the Hyde amendment in all its aspects and is widely seen as a model for reform.

Additionally, H.R. 3962 allows the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services to mandate that the “public option” will include unlimited abortions. Millions of purchasers will be forced to pay an “abortion surcharge,” which requires purchasers of many plans to pay directly and explicitly for abortion coverage. This is unprecedented in federal law.
The Stupak-Ellsworth-Pitts-Kaptur-Dahlkemper-Lipinski-Smith Amendment will not affect coverage of abortion in non-subsidized health plans, and will not bar anyone from purchasing a supplemental abortion policy with their own funds. Thus far, H.R. 3962 does not meet President Obama’s commitment of barring use of federal dollars for abortion and maintaining current conscience laws.
If the Motion to Recommit focuses on denying immigrants needed health care, as reported, we strongly urge Members to oppose the Motion to Recommit.
Our Bishops’ conference has been working for many years to support health care reform legislation that truly protects the life, dignity, health and consciences of all. Adopting this amendment will help move us move toward this essential national priority and moral imperative.
Bishop William Murphy Cardinal Justin Rigali
Diocese of Rockville Centre Archdiocese of Philadelphia
Chairman Chairman
Committee on Domestic Justice and Committee on Pro-life Activities
Human Development

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

New Numbers Among the Bishops

It's that time of year again -- preparing the official U.S. bishops statistics, this time for the media's consumption at the 2009 Fall General Assembly (Nov. 16-19) in Baltimore.

Given the "circle of life" equilibrium that follows the usual trickle of new appointments, reassignments, promotions, retirements and deaths, these numbers don't really fluctuate that much. But they did it enough to matter. And they've done it recently.

To review, there are currently 429 active and retired bishops in the United States.

Of these 258 are active bishops:
-- 5 Cardinal Archbishops
-- 29 Archbishops
-- 1 Coadjutor Archbishop
-- 153 Diocesan Bishops
-- 70 Auxiliary Bishops

And 171 are retired bishops:
-- 8 retired Cardinal Archbishops
-- 19 retired Archbishops
-- 94 retired Diocesan Bishops
-- 50 retired Auxiliary Bishops

The recent fluctuation in these figures has come almost entirely from the spate of bishops' appointments that have rolled out of Rome since early October.

To recap, on October 7, the pope accepted the retirement of Gaylord, Mich. Bishop Patrick Cooney and named Msgr. Bernard Hebda as his successor. This meant one new retired diocesan bishop, one new bishop overall and a net of zero in the number of active diocesan bishops.

On October 15, the pope named three brand new bishops, sending one to the vacant Diocese of Duluth, Minnesota, a second to replace retired Bishop Arthur Tafoya in Pueblo, Colorado, and a third to be auxiliary of Providence, Rhode Island. The end was result was one more retired bishop, one new auxiliary bishop, a net of one new diocesan bishop, and -- as said before -- three new bishops overall.

On October 19, the pope named Indianapolis pastor Father Paul Etienne the new bishop of Cheyenne, Wyoming, which has been vacant for some time. This was a gain of one active diocesan bishop and one bishop overall.

On October 21, the pope accepted the retirement of Boston auxiliary Bishop Francis Irwin, meaning one less active auxiliary and one more retired auxiliary overall.

On October 28, the pope named Joliet pastor Father Joseph Siegel an auxiliary bishop of his diocese, bringing the number of active auxiliaries back up by one and the total number of bishops up by one.

With the dust settled somewhat, this means that in the month of October, the U.S. bishops gained a whopping six new members. The U.S. bishops also mourned the loss of retired Wilmington Bishop Michael Saltarelli in October, meaning their total membership increased by five. Given the three retirements in October, it means their active membership went up by three.

Even though a number of these newly-appointees aren't even slated to be ordained bishops till after the new year, the prospect of six new bishops in just a month is an exciting sign of life in the U.S. Church.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Abortion Confusion in Health Care Reform

It’s time to clear the air in the current debate over whether proposed health care legislation covers abortion. What’s the truth?

Number one issue: Whether the Hyde Amendment applies now.

The Hyde Amendment has been federal policy since 1976. It states that money from the Labor/Health and Human Services appropriations bill cannot be used for most abortions or for health coverage that includes them. The catch with the proposed health care reform bills is that they will authorize and appropriate their own funds outside the bounds of this appropriations bill. Government money should not be used for abortion or abortion coverage. Hyde-like language needs to be written into the health care reform bills to preserve the longstanding government policy against supporting and facilitating abortions.

What needs to be done: Amend any health care reform bill to explicitly ban use of government money for health coverage that includes elective abortions.

Number two issue: Public Option and the Capps Amendment

Public Option: Language in some health care reform bills, known as the Capps Amendment after its congressional sponsor, explicitly allow the sponsor of each health plan to decide whether it will cover elective abortions. And some of these bills would create a government-run health plan (the “public option”) to compete with private health plans nationwide. This means that the Health and Human Services Secretary, as the public option’s sponsor, may mandate that it cover unlimited abortions, in direct contradiction to other federal programs. These abortions will be paid for entirely with federal funds. Purchasers will pay their premiums to the federal government, and the government will use these federal funds (along with a federal tax subsidy for those who qualify) to pay for abortions.

The Abortion Surcharge: To create the illusion that federal funds will not support abortion, the Capps amendment creates a distinct abortion surcharge, a fee of at least $1 a month that each purchaser of a plan must pay to cover all abortion procedures that are ineligible for federal funding in a given year under the annual Hyde amendment. (Federal funding of abortion for many years has been only for cases of rape, incest or danger to the mother’s life.) To get around forcing citizens to fund elective abortions with tax dollars, the government will help make them pay for most abortions with their premium dollars. Those who object will be told they could have chosen another plan – even if no plan without elective abortions meets their family’s budget and health needs.

Government Abortion Mandate: The Capps amendment states that each region of the country must have at least one plan with elective abortion coverage. This creates a federal mandate for some private plans to cover abortions that every federal program for decades has excluded; the government would promote unlimited abortions by proxy.

Inserting the language of the Hyde amendment into these bills would not prevent insurers from covering abortion in their non-federally-funded plans, or from selling abortion coverage as a supplemental policy funded by the private dollars of those who choose it. But no American would be forced to subsidize abortion against his or her will. The solution to problems rooted in the Capps Amendment and the public option is a matter of a few words, to bring this legislation into line with what every other federal health program already says.

What needs to be done: Amend health care reform bills so that no American would be forced to subsidize abortion against his or her will.

H1N1 Flu, the Church, and You

At Mass last week I saw a pregnant woman shake her head no in response to someone's outreached hand at the Sign of Peace. A smart personal decision in flu season.
Concern for spread of the Swine flu continues and reporters are calling to ask what the bishops are recommending regarding church services. A Q&A at www.usccb.org/liturgy/swineflu.shtml offers some advice. Much of it bottles down to common sense.

Common sense being uncommon, however, here’s the scoop.

1. Practice good hand-washing hygiene and even use a hand sanitizer before Mass begins if you’re a Eucharistic minister.

2. Don’t go to church when you’re sick.

3. Don’t receive from the Communion chalice if you’re wary you’ll catch or pass on the flu. (That’s a decision that usually rests with communicants not the celebrant. Receiving from the cup is nice but not required of anyone but the celebrant.)

4. Nod rather than shake hands at the Sign of Peace if you’re wary you’ll catch or pass on the flu. (That’s also a decision that usually rests with congregants and not the celebrant. Again, it’s a personal decision and in flu season no reasonable person need feel shunned or dissed if his neighbor opts for a non-touching Sign of Peace.)

5. All politics is local, and so too is the flu. What’s needed for one part of the country or even one part of a diocese may not be needed in another. What to do has to be rooted in the situation in a parish or city. A national declaration isn’t called for when it comes to the flu; a personal decision is.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

He Was Pope And He Knew It

This October 1-7 marks the 30th anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s papal tour of the United States. The occasions was historic – since no pope before him had undertaken such a trip. John Paul took the United States by storm. I had barely been a reporter when I saw the chance of a lifetime and set out to cover the papal visit -- by hook or by crook. Being inexperienced helped. I didn’t know that I was setting out to do what would seem impossible to an experienced journalist.

Step one involved getting on board the plane that travelled with the pope around the country. I offered my services to the Religious News Service, then a branch of the Association of Christians and Jews. I convinced my editor at The Evangelist newspaper in Albany, New York, to pay for it. I filed for both the home town paper that took pride in having the only diocesan reporter in the country on the plane, and for RNS, a poverty stricken wire service that liked having a rep on the plane even if they had no money. I got a coveted seat on Shepherd 2.

Just like that, I became a wire service. With the pluck of a desperate novice I demanded equal treatment to the bishops’ well-staffed, well-funded National Catholic News Service (for which I later went to work), now known as Catholic News Service. Just being on the plane, however, did not get me into events. For that you needed media tickets. They were scarce. At first I wasn’t getting any but I guess the story can be told now. Someone at the bishops’ conference took pity on me and accepted my argument “I am a wire service.” We made an arrangement: Early each morning and wearing a raincoat, I would stand reading a newspaper in the media hotel lobby. A hand would slip into my pocket. I would continue reading and a few minutes later I would reach in and find the tickets I needed for the day.

Events in each city had their own character. Boston was welcoming – even with a downpour, but no rain could dampen spirits at the Mass on the Boston Common.

Diocesan newspaper reporters multitask. So I was photographer as well as reporter. I remember reporting that it was a day to own Kodak stock. As a “photographer” I got to stand on a platform with a bird’s eye view of this historic event. Boston police were charming. We’d been warned not to move out of media areas and threatened with loss of credentials if we did. I wandered a bit and thought it was all over when a policeman reached out his hand to me. Then I realized he was also stepping on a rope to help me navigate over it.

The next day was New York City, and the pope’s visit to the United Nations and then to Yankee Stadium. I couldn’t believe I was actually walking on the field in this baseball shrine. Catholics from all over the state were on hand. Toward the end of Mass, to get a little color for my stories I wandered out of the media area and soon saw one of New York’s finest coming toward me.

“Officer, I’m lost,” I said. “Could you show me the way out?” “Happy to,” he said, and escorted me on a kind of perp walk past of the stands of the Albany Diocesan pilgrims, where a few who recognized what was going on laughed.

Philadelphia was next on the itinerary, and the mayor welcomed the pope but not the media who accompanied him. When Mayor Frank Rizzo knelt to kiss the pope’s ring at the airport media said it was good to see him on his knees. There was no love lost between the mayor and the media. His revenge this time? He admitted media to events only after what seemed like half of Philadelphia had been led to their seats.

This trip was a first for everyone. Secret Service established a timetable, called a bible, and said we would follow it no matter what. The only problem was that the pope wasn’t reading this bible. For a brief stop in a ravaged part of the Bronx, media were told not to get off the buses. Reporters complained: “There’s no air in here. We can’t breathe. Open the doors.” The bus driver did and we escaped, like caged animals in quest of freedom, or in this case, a story.

My first lead, shortly after covering the pope up close, was “He’s pope and he knows it.” For the power of his personality shone forth from the moment he kissed the ground upon arrival at Logan Airport to his departure from Andrews Air Force Base seven days later.
Several moments still stand out in my memory.

The meeting with youth at Madison Square Garden is one. The rapport between the pope and the youth stunned everyone. People hadn’t seen anything like it since the days of the charismatic President John F. Kennedy two decades before. John Paul liked the young people who came from the area’s 200 public and parochial schools and they knew it. The Polish pontiff started a kind of banter that overcame any language barrier. The youth began to chant and the pope chanted with them. It was a wonderful welcome to the Big Apple.

The unpredictability of the pope kept media on their toes. In Chicago, the second stop after Philadelphia, the pope was supposedly settled in for the night. But instinct told me to go to the residence of Cardinal Cody, where the pope was staying. Sure enough, the pope appeared at the window to kibitz with the teens and collegians who were crowding around -- and to tell them to go to bed. He’d been in three cities that day -- Philadelphia, Des Moines and Chicago.

The pope went to Des Moines to be with the heartland of America. Other cities had hosted Mass in elaborate stadia or public squares. This time Mass was in a field on a complex of three working farms with barns and silos as backdrop. It was a wonderfully unique moment, even for this city girl.

By the end of the trip, in Washington, DC, media were tired. Saturday night in the lobby of the media hotel, some photographers, ever irreverent, called out, “Hey, is there any point of our going to cover the meeting with the nuns at the Shrine tomorrow?”

“Ah, you can never tell with nuns,” I commented. “It’s worth going, just in case.”

For those who don’t recall that meeting, it was when Sister Theresa Kane asked the pope to open all ministries to women, a way of asking for women’s ordination. It became the story of the trip.

An aside: Sister Theresa and I are both Sisters of Mercy, both of us wore blue suits with the Mercy cross on the left lapel. Both of us have round faces and gray hair, mine prematurely so. After her encounter, people kept asking me about “my speech.” It was a challenge to get away just to write a news story on an event which stunned me as much as everyone else in the press corps.

The trip was a blessed experience. I was privileged to see history up close, never imagining that after that I would myself become a member of the Vatican press corps in Rome, moving from Shepherd 2 to the actual plane on which John Paul himself flew. After I left the press corps my work had me organizing some other papal visits.

These trips are grueling for media, who quickly get out of sorts. In 1993, in Denver, loud reporters were demanding tickets from me faster than I could distribute them. One observer praised my patience with a particularly energetic journalist. “It wasn’t a problem,” I said, “I once was a screamer.”

Covering that first trip in 1979, with hundreds of thousands of people turning out was a journalistic high and remains so. Yet it did not even compare with the privilege I had working with media 25 years later in Rome, when the pope died. The millions who turned out to pay their respects especially the young, testified to the fact that they knew John Paul was the Vicar of Christ on earth. He had a special affinity for the young and they knew that too. And they showed up to say goodbye. This time I was not covering the story but helping others cover it. I found myself thanking God -- and John Paul II --for the privilege they had given me.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Christians Converging

Ecumenism, or the movement toward Christian unity, has been getting some love in USCCB circles lately. Two recent news releases have dealt with the issue, covering both the basic groundwork of the effort toward Christian unity, as well as one major breakthrough.

The more newsy of the items is the announcement that this Thursday, October 1, USCCB president Cardinal Francis George would be meeting with Lutheran and Methodist leaders in Chicago to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the signing of the Joint Declaration on Justification.
The idea behind the Joint Declaration is summed up nicely by Cardinal George himself in this video:

The second news item tied to ecumenism was this September 18 item outlining "10 Things to Know About Working for Christian Unity." Sometimes concepts like the ones described in the "10 Things" list are difficult to get one's mind around in the abstract. So with the celebration of the Joint Declaration anniversary so close at hand, it's probably worth taking these two news items together to see how they breathe life into and lend context to one another.

For instance, when the Catholic, Lutheran and Methodist leaders get together on October 1, they will be participating in an evening prayer service. Number 6 on the list of "10 Things" asserts that shared prayer is the first work of Christian unity. So that's an encouraging sign. It shows that our leaders can come together on a matter as intrinsic to the faith life as prayer. They form bonds with each other through the shared experience of prayer, and they practice, if you will, for what will be the long-term result of working toward Christian unity: Christians praying together as one.

Number 8 on the list says the third work of Christian unity is dialogue. This is apparent in that the Joint Declaration itself was the work of decades of dialogue between the Catholics and Lutherans, going back to the 1950s. That it took until 1999 to definitively settle this one issue of justification speaks to number 10 on the list -- that Christian unity is going to take a long, long time.

This is a daunting fact in a microwave culture. But there are also encouraging signs, like that it only took an additional seven years for the Methodists to throw their support behind the Joint Declaration, turning a historic two-way agreement into an even more historic three-way agreement. One has to ask, is it only a matter of time before the document draws another signer, the Anglicans perhaps? The Orthodox?

But in the meantime, we don't have to just sit around and wait. For instance, number 5 on the list is that dialogue and work toward Christian unity takes place on many levels. That could be the pope and cardinals engaging Orthodox Patriarchs, priests chatting with pastors and ministers of different denominations and even lay people in the pews learning more about the non-Catholic Christians in their lives -- the Pentecostal friend at the gym, the Presbyterian next door, the Methodist college roommate.

This interaction can also take place on a more formal level. Number 7 on the list says the second work of Christian unity is common work and witness among Christians, or working together where we can. The list gives the example of local church communities working together to operate food pantries and other efforts. This, again, is good practice for an ultimate goal of united Christians who work together as one. It promotes cooperation on a personal level that humanizes the other and makes it harder to stereotype them because of their faith. It also goes a long way toward healing number 2 on the list, that division among Christians is the greatest stumbling block to the credibility of the Gospel.

Growing respect/cooperation between Christians as they work toward unity raises point number 9 on the list, which forbids proselytism (a.k.a. "sheep stealing") or targeting a member of another faith tradition with the intention of getting that person to reject his or her faith tradition in favor of another. Conversions must come from the heart. And no trusting dialogue can be built if either party has ulterior motives. Instead, point number 4 gives the best illustration, that the goal of Christian unity is to move together toward Christ and that, like spokes on a wagon wheel with Christ as the center, the closer Christians get to Christ, the closer they get to one another.

Points number 4 and 1 drive home the final importance of the move toward Christian unity, that it's a key part of our identity as Christians, as expressed by St. Paul and Pope John Paul II, but also that it is the wish of Christ himself, who prayed at the Last Supper that "they all may be one." It can't hurt to offer a similar intention for our faith leaders as they gather in Chicago in prayerful celebration of how far we've come in the journey toward Christian unity.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Bishops and Health Care Reform for Immigrants

A group of Hispanic Catholic bishops visited with members of Congress on Capitol Hill September 17 to emphasize, as they’ve done for decades, the U.S. bishops are in favor of health care reform that is truly universal and respects the life and dignity of all -- from the moment of conception until natural death.

There were other issues on the agenda: immigration reform, education, housing and poverty. The bishops came away feeling that they had been given the opportunity to touch, briefly, on all the issues in each of the meetings. The congressmen were not only courteous but truly engaged on each of the issues. On the bishops’ side the experience was positive.

At the media briefing immediately after the meetings, the questions posed to the bishops narrowed the focus to the current debate on health care reform, particularly as it relates to immigrants. No surprise here.

There are immigrants and immigrants. Not to oversimplify the content of the dialogue, here is what the bishops actually told legislators: that any health care reform bill must allow legal immigrants -- most of whom are taxpayers and many of whom serve in the military -- to participate in any new health care system on the same basis as United States citizens.

The issue of health care for undocumented immigrants was raised during the meetings in the context of a recent proposal in the Baucus Health Care Reform Bill -- currently being considered on the Senate Finance Committee, which Senator Baucus chairs -- to bar undocumented immigrants from spending their own private funds to purchase health insurance for themselves and their families. The bishops expressed opposition to such proposals, telling legislators that proactively barring individuals from spending their own money on health insurance is both morally wrong and contrary to the public welfare. The bishops pointed out that if undocumented immigrants are not permitted to use their own private funds to purchase health insurance, they will wind up going to emergency rooms in greater numbers, which American taxpayers would ultimately have to fund.

Noting that unborn children of pregnant women in the United States will be United States citizens upon birth, the bishops expressed support for ensuring that all pregnant women have access to health care, regardless of their immigration status. The bishops also urged legislators to ensure that no public funds are used to pay for abortions and medical providers are permitted to decline to participate in medical procedures that conflict with their conscience.

A summary of the key points on other topics discussed with legislators can be found here.

The Numbers Back the Bishops

The recent survey commissioned by the USCCB on Americans' support/opposition to health care reform and abortion provisions within said reform paints an encouraging picture for the Catholic Church in the U.S. The poll finds strong support for efforts to reform health care so that it covers everyone, strong support for maintaining current conscience protections for medical professionals, and strong opposition to efforts to fund abortion through health care reform -- all positions endorsed by the U.S. bishops.

The survey was conducted by International Communications Research (ICR), a nationally recognized market research organization, and a break-down of their survey finds that:

Americans favor efforts to pass health care reform to provide health insurance for all (60 percent to 30 percent); those favoring health care reform oppose “measures that would require people to pay for abortion coverage with their federal taxes" (60 percent to 25 percent); those favoring reform oppose “measures that would require people to pay for abortion coverage with their health insurance premiums” (49 to 39 percent); those who favor reform also favor maintaining “current federal laws that protect doctors and nurses from being forced to perform or refer for abortions against their will” (60 percent to 30 percent).

When the field is widened to include all adults surveyed, even more are opposed to requiring people to pay for abortion coverage through their taxes (67 percent) or through their insurance premiums (56 percent). Also, when asked “If the choice were up to you, would you want your own insurance policy to include abortion?” the overwhelming majority said no (68 percent to 24 percent who said yes).

These numbers should certainly be encouraging to the Catholic Church for the simple fact that they reflect a real pro-life sensibility. But they're even more encouraging for the bishops in that they confirm that the principles and priorities that the bishops have been calling for on health care reform are in sync with mainstream American values. The proverbial wind is at their backs.

It's something that members of Congress should really stop to consider. Even when the bishops send letters critical of abortion provisions in proposed legislation, they express the view of a majority of supporters of health care reform when they say abortion should not be part of it. They're saying, in effect, we're the leaders of the largest religious denomination in this country, we've advocated in favor of this issue for decades, and we stand with a majority of Americans on this point. I'm not a member of Congress, but I'd like to think that's a powerful message.

It's also a particularly powerful at a time -- now -- when the eventual shape of health care reform is so up in the air. Both houses of Congress have bills, all of which have failings in their abortion language and other areas. But those bills are subject to amendments, and the bishops and their staff are highly engaged in the process of urging legislators to make these bills acceptable. The bishops will not support a final bill that funds abortions or doesn't include adequate conscience protections.

Of course, even stronger than just the bishops speaking out and holding up the principles of Catholic teaching would be the entire Catholic community witnessing to what our teaching and tradition have to say about health care. Hence the call in this video from Bishop Murphy (USCCB Domestic Justice and Human Development chairman) for all Catholics to speak with a united voice on this issue.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

A Jarring Contrast

In a latest instance of Catholic bishops weighing in on health care outside the realm of official USCCB statement, Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington penned a September 16 piece for the Web site Politics Daily.

It's pretty straightforward -- he begins by stating that the moral dimension of health care should be remembered since it really is a moral issue that deals with life-and-death instances of meeting people's health needs. He then states that he sees consensus that it's wrong that so many are uninsured and that the U.S. system, for all its strength, really ought to be able to do better. He then describes at some length the extensive health care provided by the Catholic Church and Catholic teaching on how health care is a human right.

Building off of this, Archbishop Wuerl says the practical moral concerns for health care reform are that it defend the most vulnerable, such as the unborn by maintaining current restrictions on federal abortion funding and coverage, as well as preserving conscience protection. It should also, he asserts, not discriminate because of chronic illnesses, pre-existing conditions, employment or income. He also cites the need to cover "the least of these," referring to legal immigrants who reside her legally, work and pay taxes, but "risk being left out of health care reform."

He concludes by urging public, private and non-profit health care entities to work together for the greater good and prayerfully expresses hope for the challenge and opportunity faced by our lawmakers.

There wouldn't be much to add to this piece, except that it was published on the Internet, where anyone can add to a piece thanks to the comment field. Granted, this is far from new or unusual, but the comments drawn by Archbishop Wuerl's remarks were striking in their unpleasantness. One Twitter handle promoting the article even noted the "vicious anti-Catholic comments at the end."

This description is really an understatement, and a partial one at that. A sampling of the comments finds commenters calling people without health care the "lazy masses," many others saying that all immigrants, legal or illegal, should be barred from any health care assistance from the government, as well as numerous comments disparaging the Catholic Church, i.e. calling its leaders pedophiles.

The resulting queue of comments reads like a diatribe of hateful comments against the uninsured, immigrants and the Catholic Church and isn't improved upon by commenters responding to these points by calling the original commenters names and employing ever harsher and shriller tones.

The real irony in all of this is the jarring contrast between the body of comments and the content of Archbishop Wuerl's piece. By all accounts, Archbishop Wuerl is a gentleman, someone who wouldn't climb down and participate in a mud fight. The discussion generated by his story would be immeasurably improved if the commenters followed his lead and presented their points of agreement and disagreement in calm, reasoned tones. Instead, the points of his argument are passed over in favor of name-calling, questioning his motives, his authority and worse.

Even more discouraging is the nagging -- but unconfirmed -- suspicion that some comments are based on gut-level reactions to reading the article's title, "Health Care Reform a Moral Imperative, But Must Cover Immigrants, Too," maybe skimming the article and then dropping down to the comment field to unload.

A discouraged part of me asks, "Is it too much effort to try to digest what the Archbishop is trying to say before letting fly with a pre-formed opinion?" "Is it too much effort to exercise a little respect or restraint?" "Is it too much effort to be nice?"

Along with the general thoughts about incivility in the days of the blog, this put me in mind of a recent piece by John Allen that discusses, in part, how the Church is facing a culture that no longer pays it any special heed just because it's the Catholic Church. He refers to this as the decline of the "power distance index" of the Catholic Church. And one could argue this concept is reflected in the reception Archbishop Wuerl receives on the Internet, a hyper-democratic entity where no opinion is given any added weight or special deference.

Is this a high-tech example of what then-Cardinal Ratzinger meant by the dictatorship of relativism?

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Health Care Distortions Part 2

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.

Monday, August 31, 2009

The Queue

At this morning's news conference announcing Bishop Joseph Martino's resignation from the Diocese of Scranton, a reporter asked how long it might take the pope to appoint another bishop to the diocese. Philadelphia Cardinal Justin Rigali said he would hope a new bishop would come within 6 months. As a member of the Congregation for Bishops (the Vatican office that oversees bishop appointments), Cardinal Rigali knew what he was doing when he refused to say definitively how long such a process would take.

After all, Scranton is the latest of several appointments-in-waiting in the U.S. Church, which come about either due to vacancy or a bishop's serving past the retirement age of 75. In all, Scranton brings the total of waiting U.S. dioceses to 17. In chronological order by how long they've been waiting for a new bishop, the vacant sees are:

Cheyenne -- vacant since July 9, 2008, when Bishop David Ricken was appointed Bishop of Green Bay.
Duluth -- vacant since October 17, 2008, when then-Bishop Dennis Schnurr was appointed coadjutor Archbishop of Cincinnati.
Owensboro -- vacant since January 5, 2009, when Bishop John McRaith retired.
Milwaukee -- vacant since February 23, 2009, when Archbishop Timothy Dolan was named Archbishop of New York.
Ogdensburg -- vacant since April 21, 2009, when Bishop Robert Cunningham was appointed Bishop of Syracuse.
Springfield, Ill. -- vacant since June 3, 2009, when then-Bishop George Lucas was named Archbishop of Omaha.
Austin -- vacant since June 12, 2009, when then-Bishop Gregory Aymond was named Archbishop of New Orleans.
Scranton -- vacant since August 31, 2009, when Bishop Joseph Martino resigned.

Along with vacant dioceses, dioceses whose bishops are serving past the age of retirement are also currently awaiting bishop appointments. By age of bishop, they are:

For Wayne-South Bend -- Bishop John D'Arcy is 77.
Pueblo -- Bishop Arthur Tafoya is over 76.
Lafayette, Ind. -- Bishop William Higi is 76.
Corpus Christi -- Bishop Edmond Carmody is 75.
Seattle -- Archbishop Alexander Brunett is 75.
Brownsville -- Bishop Raymundo Pena is 75.
Spokane -- Bishop William Skylstad is 75.
Gaylord -- Bishop Patrick Cooney is 75.
Oklahoma City -- Archbishop Eusebius Beltran is 75.

It's worth mentioning that the Archbishop of Cincinnati, Daniel Pilarczyk, is also serving past 75, but his successor has already been named, the aforementioned coadjutor Archbishop Dennis Schnurr.

With this sort of list, we'll see if Cardinal Rigali's hope comes to pass. Ultimately, each vacancy will be filled as the Congregation for Bishops is able to identify an appointee who meets the needs of each diocese. It's hard to assign a timetable to that. Meticulous research and vetting goes into a typical appointment, and as the above list suggests, a diocese can wait as long as a year or two.

Hat tip to David Cheney.

Health Care Distortions Part 1

Here at the Conference, we spent much of the month of August promoting the bishops' position on health care reform. This has been most evident in the new Web page dedicated to everything health care. The promotion of the page has led to some good media coverage, with some outlets really getting the idea of the two-fold message of the bishops, that is, strong support for health care reform, particularly affordable universal health care, but strong opposition to mandated coverage of abortion, federal funding of abortion and threats to conscience protection.

This has also led to media coverage that disparages and misrepresents the bishops' position, for instance this August 18 piece from Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, which appeared in the Huffington Post. While the bishops never dignified this piece with an official response, Richard Doerflinger, longtime pro-life expert for the USCCB answered many of her points in a later article.

I asked Deirdre McQuade, spokesperson for the USCCB's Pro-Life Secretariat, for some observations on the Planned Parenthood accusations.

Richards attacks the bishops for opposing federal abortion coverage, funding, etc., finding it "ironic," as if that opposition undermines the call for universal coverage. But McQuade noted, "First of all, Richards really doesn't get what universal health care means. 'Universal' health care means coverage for all people. In the bishops' definition of all people, this includes the poor, immigrants and the unborn."

McQuade added, "'Universal coverage' means that all human beings in need should have access to health care, not that all health plans should cover whatever elective procedures Richards favors. Our Catholic vision -- far from being exclusive or limiting -- supports the most inclusive definition of universal coverage."

McQuade then explained why the exclusion of abortion is completely fitting for the bishops' vision of health care.

"It's simple," she said. "Abortion is not medical care. Pregnancy is not a disease, and fertility is not a pathological condition. Pregnant women are not carriers of illness but human beings with dignity who deserve optimum care along with their children, born and unborn."

Richards also casts the bishops as being out of step with the mainstream and using health care reform to advance their agenda. But McQuade pointed out that the bishops are actually standing up for longstanding and widely supported laws (i.e., the Hyde Amendment) when they oppose federal funding for abortion. Apparently, not only have federal funds long been kept from abortion, but even federal employee health benefits packages (the packages enjoyed by members of Congress) do not cover the vast majority of abortions.

"Since Planned Parenthood is the largest single provider of abortions in the United States, it is perhaps not surprising that Richards wants to consider abortion on demand an essential part of health care," McQuade said. "But most American disagree, and most doctors, nurses and hospitals do not provide abortions. It's really not that difficult to understand that killing is not a form of healing."

In light of these details, Richards' Huffington Post piece takes on something of "when you point a finger, three point back" in terms of her accusations that the bishops are trying to hijack health care for their own agenda. Richards, according to McQuade, "is the one pushing for unprecedented changes in our health care system that have little to do with health care itself and much more to do with promoting abortion -- her very limited agenda. She is the one trying to shift the status quo and who is out of sync with public opinion. Even self-described 'pro-choice' Americans often oppose subsidizing abortion with their own tax dollars."

The bishops, on the other hand, are the ones doing as they've always done, advocating for accessible, affordable health care for everyone, especially the poor and the vulnerable, including the unborn.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Inmigrantes legales y reforma sanitaria

The following is a Spanish version of the August 19 blog post, Legal Immigrants and Health Care Reform.

¿Por qué debería incluir a los inmigrantes legales cualquier plan que emerja del actual debate sobre la reforma del sistema de salud? La respuesta debería ser obvia: los inmigrantes documentados son residentes legales, y en muchos casos permanentes, en los Estados Unidos. Trabajan —con autorización del gobierno— y pagan impuestos al igual que hacen los ciudadanos, así que deberían poder acceder beneficios federales que garantizan la defensa de derechos humanos fundamentales.

El asunto que se discute tiene que ver con si los inmigrantes documentados tendrán que continuar esperando cinco años antes de poder ser elegibles para Medicaid, lo cual es ley actualmente, y si esta prohibición debería extenderse a inmigrantes legales que gozan de mayores ingresos económicos y que, de no existir esta prohibición, serían elegibles para recibir subsidios que les ayuden a comprar seguro médico.

Los que se oponen a la inclusión de los inmigrantes legales dicen que cualquier plan debe incluir sólo a los ciudadanos estadounidenses. También sugieren que el costo de incluir a los inmigrantes legales sería prohibitivo. La verdad es que los números no dan soporte a tales afirmaciones.

Según la fundación no partidista Kaiser Foundation, los no ciudadanos tienen menor acceso a servicios médicos y reciben menor atención médica primaria que los ciudadanos estadounidenses pero también son menos dados a usar los servicios de urgencia. Un artículo del pasado mes de julio (2009) en la revista médica American Journal of Public Health apoya estas otras afirmaciones.

Según el Immigration Policy Center (Centro de Política Inmigratoria), un inmigrante promedio utiliza menos de la mitad de la cantidad en dólares de servicios primarios de salud que lo que usa un ciudadano estadounidense nativo medio. Esto se debe a que los inmigrantes son normalmente más jóvenes, saludables y menos inclinados al uso de servicios médicos, y también al hecho de que el 78% de las personas no ancianas sin seguro médico en Estados Unidos son ciudadanos americanos.

Aquellos que se oponen a la inclusión automática de residentes permanentes y otros inmigrantes legales deberían hacer números de nuevo. Cuando los costos de salud se distribuyen entre un mayor número de personas, que además en este caso tienden a usar menos estos servicios, el coste por persona disminuye para todos.

Este mismo año se aprobó una ley que permite a mujeres embarazadas y niños que son inmigrantes legales acceder a los beneficios del programa State Children’s Health Insurance Program, conocido como SCHIP por sus siglas en inglés. Todas las mujeres embarazadas y los niños, independientemente de su estatus migratorio, deberían recibir cobertura médica para asegurar, en la medida de lo posible, que los bebés nazcan saludables y que los niños reciben chequeos médicos y vacunas con regularidad.

Los inmigrantes legales pagan impuestos, así que deberían poder acceder a los beneficios como cualquier otro contribuyente.

Estados Unidos reconoció que la atención médica es un derecho humano universal cuando firmó a la Declaración Universal de los Derechos Humanos del 10 de diciembre de 1948 (véase artículo 25). Nuestro país tiene, sin embargo, un record más que dudoso en la defensa de este derecho para su población. Cuarenta y siete millones de personas sin seguro médico son un poderoso testigo en contra nuestra.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Walking the Walk Amid the Health Care Talk

At Providence Hospital, barely five miles from the U.S. Capitol, a broken arm gets you a cast -- and a new pair of shoes. A pain in your right side leads to an appendectomy -- and a new shirt.

At Providence, homeless patients find quality medical care and practical assistance at the Sister's Clothes Closet, which provides everything from new shoes and undergarments to lightly used or new shirts and pants. Providence Health Foundation buys them or collects them from donors for patients who need them.

That's typical of the care provided through the Catholic Church and its nationwide network of hospitals. The Catholic Church walks the walk on health care. Its voice deserves to be heard.

The church seeks four things in health care reform:

1. Respect for life and dignity, from conception to natural death.
2. Access for all, especially the poor and legal immigrants.
3. Pluralism, both through freedom of conscience and a variety of health care options.
4. Equitable cost, applied fairly across the spectrum of payers.

What the church does not want is abortion. Abortion does not cure people; it snuffs out human life. The Hyde Amendment precludes using federal funds for abortion, and that same restriction ought to govern programs emerging from health care reform.

If there's anything that will sink a health care reform bill, it's including a procedure that more than half the nation finds morally and fiscally repugnant. Americans do not want to make a fiscal sacrifice for the taking of innocent life.

Catholic hospitals provide threads of steel in the nation's frayed health care fabric. They serve everyone. In Baltimore, for example, when the city was yielding to urban blight, Mercy Medical Center refused to join the exodus from the inner city. While others escaped, Mercy Medical (named for its founders, the Sisters of Mercy) stayed. Today, it is the city's first line of defense for injured police and firefighters.

Mercy Medical's commitment to the poor can be measured in real dollars. In the most recent fiscal year (2008), the hospital and its affiliated long-term care facility, Stella Maris, underwrote the cost of care for persons unable to pay to the tune of $39.8 million dollars.

At Providence, founded at the behest of President Lincoln by the Daughters of Charity, administrators provided $17.3 million in uncompensated care to the poor the same year.
Catholic hospitals respect the life of everyone, from the newly conceived to those fading into the eternal light. Quality care trumps a patient's financial status, race or religion. In the U.S., one out of every six patients needing a hospital admission goes to a Catholic hospital. These hospitals cost about $84.6 billion to run, including at least $5.7 billion worth of donated services.

Many Catholic hospitals were started by nuns when public hospitals wouldn't provide care for the indigent. Today, the focus on those most in need continues, as people of all socio-economic levels find care -- not just in these hospitals, but also in their outreach services in the community.

The church's commitment to U.S. health care can be documented in hard numbers: 624 hospitals; 499 long-term nursing care facilities; 164 home health agencies; 41 hospice organizations; and 773 other health care facilities, such as those that offer assisted living, adult day care and senior housing.

The American Hospital Association reported in its 2007 annual survey that Catholic hospitals provide nearly 17 million emergency room visits and more than 92.7 million outpatient visits in one year alone. Catholic hospitals counted 5.5 million admissions the same year, according to the
Catholic Health Association.

Rooted in respect for the intrinsic dignity of human life, the church has the moral authority to speak out on health care. Its extensive reach adds further authority born of knowledge and experience.

When it comes to health care reform, Congress and the White House need to hear the church out.

c. 2009 Religion News Service