The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that President Obama’s Affordable Care Act for health reform is constitutional but the country’s Catholic bishops remain staunchly opposed. When the president signed the ACA into law in 2010, the bishops claimed that it would force insurers to pay clients who received abortions and birth control services and advice. The president moved to assure the bishops that public money would not be used to provide for abortions, but that still left contraception. The president also made an exception there which, he says would exempt the employees of churches. The bishops say that doesn’t go far enough, and they want the exemption to apply to employees in all Catholic institutions, including hospitals and schools. In short, the bishops are prepared to scuttle health care reform for 300 million Americans because of its limited provision for contraception as an insured service.
Coverage for everyone
The Affordable Care Act (ACA) does not propose a publicly administered, single-payer health care system, such as exists in Canada or Great Britain, but is rather a plan for a patchwork of private and public insurance providers that would assure coverage to everyone. An estimated 50 million Americans, about 16 per cent of the total population, have no health insurance coverage. Many who do have insurance have learned that, for one reason or another, companies refuse them coverage when they find themselves ill.
Under the ACA, everyone will have to purchase insurance and there will be subsidies for the poor to do so. Insurers will not be able to deny coverage to people based on pre-existing medical conditions and will not be allowed to drop people from coverage when they become sick. Companies with more than 50 employees will either have to provide health care coverage or pay a fine.
Church championed reform
Enter the Catholic bishops and their national campaign against the ACA in the name of preserving religious liberty. Ironically, the Catholic Church in the United States had called repeatedly since at least 1919 for the government to assure universal health-care coverage to all Americans.
The bishops issued a pastoral letter in 1981 in which they said: “It is the responsibility of the federal government to establish a comprehensive health care system that will ensure a basic level of health care for all Americans.” The bishops went on to say: “Every person has a basic right to adequate health care. This right flows from the sanctity of human life and the dignity that belongs to all human persons who are made in the image of God.”
Emphasis upon sexuality
What has changed that would lead the bishops to engage in a high profile campaign against a comprehensive health care reform that the American church has supported in principle for almost 100 years?
The answer lies mainly with the church’s hierarchy. In the past 30 years under Pope John Paul II and his successor Pope Benedict, the hierarchy has placed an increasing emphasis upon issues of sexuality, particularly contraception, abortion, and same sex marriage. The popes, and bishops appointed by them, have compounded the error made by Pope Paul VI. In 1968, he decided, against the advice of an advisory body of prominent and knowledgeable Catholics, to maintain the church’s position that brands the use of all forms of “artificial” contraception, even within marriage, as a sin.
A generation and more of Catholics, many of them Americans, have either ignored this decree or have voted with their feet and left the church. In a Gallup poll conducted in May 2012, eighty-two percent of U.S. Catholics say birth control is morally acceptable, nearing the 89 per cent of all Americans who agree.
It is perplexing, to say to the least, that the question of contraception has made its way back into the political debate, but that is just what happened in Senator Rick Santorum’s failed bid for the Republican nomination. This proves the dictum of the deceased Canadian politician Tommy Douglas who warned that victories are seldom permanent and that cherished rights must be defended again and again. Santorum, a Catholic, lost the nomination and tellingly he was more popular and drew more support from evangelicals than he did from fellow Catholics.
Polling done in early 2012, while Santorum was still in the Republican race, found that 65 per cent of Catholic Americans agreed that “employers should be required to provide their employees with health care plans that cover contraception and birth control at no cost.”
The bishops have orchestrated a public campaign warning that the ACA undermines religious liberty and that rank-and-file Catholics should fight back. In June 2012, the bishops launched a two-week action called Fortnight for Freedom. The campaign, which concluded on July 4 (Independence Day), featured religious rallies, prayer vigils and Catholic masses to raise awareness for the church’s opposition to the new health care mandate.
Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, was quoted as saying: “Today we’re simply reminded as we look back over our history and we look back over our freedom, that there are some things worth standing for. There’s some things worth getting up for, and religious liberty is one of them. My brothers and sisters, we simply need to stand.” Cardinal Wuerl denied that the campaign was in any way political.
Bishops and Republicans
The bishops’ campaign plays into the hands of Republicans in an election year, much as was the case in 2004. In that year the bishops were unrelenting in their criticism of presidential candidate John Kerry, a Catholic, because he supported a woman’s right to choose. The New Yorker magazine reported in May 2005 that George W Bush had told a friendly Catholic archbishop that the bishops had decided the race.
In 2012, Republican opposition to the Obama’s health reforms is anchored in a visceral reaction by the Tea Party wing against most government programs and the taxes that support them. Many of those who now have health insurance independently or through their work recoil at having to pay taxes to assist those 50 million people who have no coverage and others whose coverage is precarious.
Yet the bishops have spent decades promoting the Catholic Church’s defence of the common good – where the affluent are called upon to assist those in need – and often the redistributive mechanism is provided by government.
Out of step
The bishops may well be out of step not only with Americans but with most Catholics as well. They could also, inadvertently, have handed the Democrats a potent wedge issue in the culture wars that so characterize American elections.