Bishops v. health reform

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David Kirkpatrick has a good piece in today’s NYT outlining opposition to health reform on the Catholic right generally, and in particular among some bishops in the Chaput wing of the church. Exhibit one is a diocesan letter from Sioux City Bishop Walker Nikless, who served as Archbishop Chaput’s vicar general in Denver. Nikless begins, of course, with the life issues.

and most important, the Church will not accept any legislation that
mandates coverage, public or private, for abortion, euthanasia, or
embryonic stem-cell research.
We refuse to be made complicit in these evils, which frankly contradict what “health care” should mean.

It would be good to know if the bishop would like to pull the plug on Medicaid, which mandates (i.e. provides) publicly funded coverage of abortion services in cases of rape, incest, and where the life of the pregnant woman is at stake.

To be sure, figuring out how to deal with abortion in the health reform effort is complicated. (Here’s Steve Waldman’s latest effort to sort things out.) But important as abortion is per se to the Catholic right, there’s little doubt that it’s also serving as a wedge issue for a broader ideological agenda–one at odds with the church’s own social justice tradition, most recently articulated in Pope Benedict’s encyclical, Caritas in Veritate. Here’s Bishop Nikless on the right to health care:

the Catholic Church does not teach that “health care” as such, without
distinction, is a natural right.  The “natural right” of health care is
the divine bounty of food, water, and air without which all of us
quickly die.  This bounty comes from God directly.  None of us own it,
and none of us can morally withhold it from others.  The remainder of
health care is a political, not a natural, right, because it comes from
our human efforts, creativity, and compassion.
a political right, health care should be apportioned according to need,
not ability to pay or to benefit from the care.  We reject the
rationing of care.  Those who are sickest should get the most care,
regardless of age, status, or wealth.  But how to do this is not
self-evident.  The decisions that we must collectively make about how
to administer health care therefore fall under “prudential judgment.”

As I’ve pointed out here, the pope’s encyclical teaches that food, drinkable water, “basic instruction and elementary health care” are all “elementary and basic rights.” Sure there’s politics and prudential judgment involved in determining the best way to provide people with health care, but so is there in determining the best way to provide people with food and drinkable water and breathable air.

Nikless is simply falling into step with right-wing ideologues inside the church and out who have set their hearts on defeating comprehensive health reform. To what extent will his fellow bishops follow suit, stand up on the other side, or sit on their hands? Ted Kennedy would have wanted to know.