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.