This time last year American Catholics were caught up in a raging controversy over the University of Notre Dame’s decision to bestow an honorary degree on pro-abortion President Barack Obama and have him as commencement speaker. Notre Dame’s action violated the U.S. bishops’ policy against honoring pro-abortion politicians, and some 80 bishops — an unusually high number — made statements opposing its decision.
But the university shrugged off the critics and gave Obama his degree.
The specifics of this year’s big controversy were different, but the underlying issues were eerily similar: abortion coverage in Obama’s health care plan, defiance of the bishops by several Catholic groups, and whether the Church could present a united front on a national issue of great importance.
The answer turned out to be no. Catholic opposition to health care coverage for elective abortions faltered and split, thus contributing to the measure’s narrow passage by the House of Representatives, 219-212, on March 21.
The bill’s adoption was ensured hours before the vote when Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) and six other pro-life Democrats withdrew their objections in return for the promise of an executive order by the president affirming its limits on abortion funding.
But pro-life groups, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), said they did not believe an executive order — rather than changes in the legislation itself — could remedy serious problems intrinsic to the measure. One executive order can easily be canceled by another, they also pointed out.
Proponents say the health care plan will eventually extend coverage to 32 million previously uninsured people. But besides its abortion provisions, the bishops objected to the fact that it denies legal immigrants access to Medicaid for five years and does not let illegal immigrants buy coverage at all, even with their own money.
Following House passage, the measure went to Obama to sign. The House then adopted several changes unrelated to abortion and sent them to the Senate, where approval was expected.
The bishops’ stand
From the time the debate got under way in earnest last year, the USCCB repeated the hierarchy’s long-standing policy of support for universal coverage while saying it would be obliged in conscience to oppose any bill opening the door to funding for elective abortion.
Standing with the USCCB were national Catholic groups with a stake in the health care debate, notably including the Catholic Health Association, trade association of the country’s 560 Catholic hospitals.
Several times last fall Obama said he wanted to maintain the “status quo” on abortion — that is, the approach of the 1976 Hyde Amendment limiting government funding to pregnancies resulting from rape or incest or involving a threat to the mother’s health. Before adopting its version of the bill in November, the House adopted an amendment to that effect sponsored by Stupak and others.
In December, however, the Senate approved a bill that the USCCB and other pro-life groups said allowed for funding of abortions far beyond Hyde-Stupak. And despite his declared support for the status quo, Obama now said he preferred the Senate bill.
In the weeks that followed, the bishops’ conference reiterated its position on health care — support for universal coverage, opposition to elective abortion funding — and the Catholic Health Association (CHA) stood with the bishops. But less than a week before the crucial House vote, the CHA broke ranks with the bishops and declared support for the bill as it stood, including its abortion provisions.
Also chiming in on the side of the bill were the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), a generally liberal organization made up of heads of women’s religious institutes, and Network, a lobbying organization of nuns that supports left-of-center causes. The New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd echoed widely a shared judgment in writing that “the nuns provided the Democrats with cover” on abortion.
Another group — the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, made up of heads of traditional groups — said it supported the bishops’ stand.
No united front
Last year’s decision by Notre Dame disappointed many, but was hardly a surprise. Official disregard for the magisterium has been the policy of many U.S. Catholic colleges and universities since 1967, when representatives of Notre Dame and six other Church-related schools joined in a statement declaring themselves independent of any external authority.
But the end-game events surrounding the health care bill were different. Although the actions of the LCWR and Network were predictable in light of the past performance of both groups, the Catholic Health Association’s late defection took many people by surprise.
Undoubtedly, there is room for honest disagreement about many aspects of the huge, complex health care measure, including the meaning of its abortion-related provisions. Even so, however, the bishops’ analysis of their likely effect was shared by the rest of the organized pro-life community.
Beyond that, there is no question that the health association’s action, like Notre Dame’s last year, underlined the bishops’ growing inability to control major sectors of the national infrastructure of the Church.
Some Catholics — and others — welcome that. But it bodes ill for the Church’s capacity to present a united front on issues in the future, not just on health care and abortion but on much else besides. It would be difficult to say who — besides the de facto opponents of the Church — benefits from that.
Russell Shaw is an OSVcontributing editor.
Family rift (sidebar)
We hoped Congress would redesign the bill in such a way as to eliminate federal funding for abortion and strengthen the conscience clause so that medical care provided in Catholic hospitals will not be affected. It’s also disappointing that some of those within our Catholic family took a position that, in the long run, will not promote the good of society and does not help us live out the mandate of Christ.
— Archbishop Gregory M. Aymond of New Orleans, in a March 22 statement saying that he and other U.S. bishops were “disappointed that the health care bill passed in its present form.”
Great Progress (sidebar)
The reform law will save and improve lives across our country. It represents great progress in the long effort to make health care available and affordable to everyone in the United States. ...
While not perfect, the reform law significantly expands coverage, especially to low-income and vulnerable populations, and is a tremendous step toward protecting human dignity and promoting the common good.
— Catholic Health Association , in March 22 statement.