John Gehring is Deputy Communications Director and Senior Writer for Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good


It’s not every day you see a commentary penned by a Catholic priest with this headline: Bishops Wrong: Health Care Not a Right. Feel free to read that again. First time around I thought I blinked and missed something. Given longstanding Catholic teaching about health care as a profound moral issue and the tireless care Catholic hospitals provide in our most vulnerable communities, I would have been less startled by a news flash that read: “Cows Reconsider: Vegetarians Are Fools.” 


Writing in Human Events, a publication that somewhat conspiratorially describes itself as the “Headquarters of the Conservative Underground,” Rev. Michael Orsi, a Research Fellow in Law and Religion at Ave Maria School of Law, takes issue with a recent statement the U.S Conference of Catholic Bishops sent to Congress that says “health care is not a privilege, but a right and a requirement to protect the life and dignity of each person.” Orsi argues that the bishops’ advocacy on behalf of comprehensive health reform implies a “moral imperative which in the case of health care does not exist.”


It would be interesting to see him float that ivory-tower theory with the nearly 50 million Americans who lack medical insurance. I’m sure that argument would be persuasive to a desperately ill patient denied coverage by an insurance company (the ten largest insurers earned $13 billion in 2007) or a father who puts off seeing a doctor because he can’t afford the expense. If people getting sick and dying for lack of quality medical in the richest nation in the world is not a moral imperative then what is? The Compendium of the Social Doctrine on the Church, complied by the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, lists health care as a human right along side food, housing and other basic components of a just society.


While acknowledging Biblical support for medical care is found in the story of the Good Samaritan and the Golden Rule, Orsi makes the case that health care reform is a political issue that people of goodwill can disagree about using prudential judgment. No argument here that applying broad moral principles to the particulars of public policies is not a clear-cut endeavor. The bishops recognize this and offer ethical frameworks that should help guide debates over a range of complicated issues. But Rev. Orsi’s argument that the bishops’ advocacy for comprehensive health reform amounts to an episcopal crossing of the Rubicon is flawed. The USCCB has not been pushing single-payer, the public option or following Republican or Democratic talking points. They are not into legislative sausage making. The bishops are applying timeless Gospel principles and centuries of Catholic social teaching to the shameful reality of a contemporary health care crisis that is particularly impacting the poor and most vulnerable. This is faith in public life at its best, not ideological meddling in politics.


It doesn’t take long before you get to Orsi’s real beef with the bishops: their role in the 2008 presidential election. The way he reads it the bishops had some complicity in helping to elect a president Orsi calls “the most pro-death politician to ever sit in the White House.” The bishops “lack of clarity with pro-choice Catholic politicians had given license for some prominent Catholics to endorse Barack Obama for the presidency and gave permission to 54% of Catholics to vote for him,” he writes.


Along with addressing abortion as a foundational life issue, the U.S. bishops’ election-year document, Faithful Citizenship, is clear that Catholic teaching about the dignity of life also calls us to oppose torture, unjust war, the death penalty, genocide, attacks against noncombatants, racism and poverty. This is broadly understood as a consistent ethic of life or seamless garment philosophy. It was most eloquently articulated by the late Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago. It drives many conservatives crazy. You get the sense that Orsi wishes the bishops would just pipe down about health care and stick to abortion. But we are “not a one-issue church,” as Auxiliary Bishop Gabino Zavala of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles told the Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, Jr before the election. Catholicism can’t be reduced to narrow ideologies, partisan talking points, free-market fundamentalism or any other distortions of a tradition that should make both the left and right uncomfortable from time to time.


As for our “most pro-death politician to ever sit in the White House.” It’s this kind of extremism and, frankly, hateful rhetoric that defiles a faith that has a rich history of engaging in civil dialogue and intellectual inquiry. President Obama has reached out to pro-life leaders and has encouraged comprehensive efforts to support pregnant women and reduce abortions. His meeting last month with Pope Benedict XVI lays the groundwork for productive conversations and common ground on a range of issues. While the president and the pope won’t agree about legal access to abortion, Benedict and Obama share a broad agenda that includes Middle East peace, nuclear deterrence, the plight of refugees, religious freedom, immigration reform and global climate change. While challenging the president when needed, the Catholic Church is right to cultivate the many areas of shared interests with the Obama Administration rather than engaging in what Bishop Blase J. Cupich of South Dakota calls a “prophecy of denunciation.”


Health care distortions: Michael Sean Winters of America magazine blogged on Friday about some low blows directed at Sr. Carol Keehan, a Daughter of Charity who as President and CEO of the Catholic Health Care Association has been the leading Catholic advocate for health care reform during her distinguished career. Jack Smith, the editor of The Catholic Key blog of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, charges that her efforts to support comprehensive health reform and support for President Obama’s “pro-abortion appointees” puts her “at odds with the USSCB and the pro-life cause.” As Winters points out, this is an absurd accusation to make about one of the most respected figures in the Catholic community. Mr. Smith owes Sister Carol an apology. Readers can contact the diocese here.

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