By Frank Wessling
The health care reform bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives last weekend is better prospective law largely because of the American Catholic bishops.
It may be more accurate to credit the pro-life office of the national bishops’ conference, but however the flowers are distributed, the Catholic lobbying effort around that legislation was well done.
The bishops themselves have long made it clear that health care reform is “needed” because the current way we do business “serves too few and costs too much.” But they had to do a balancing act to follow through on that conviction. It would be the Democratic Party taking the initiative on what the bishops wanted, but the Democrats are in thrall to money and emotion that supports liberal abortion rights. The legislation backed by party leadership contained provisions allowing federal money to enter the payment stream for abortion, an expansion in the easy abortion agenda which the bishops would not tolerate.
Going into last weekend the abortion funding elements remained in the House bill, and the bishops risked becoming known as killers of reform if they withdrew their support. But a strong, consistent message from the bishops and a minority of House Democrats who pushed against the abortion funding finally paid off. At the last minute the leadership allowed voting on an amendment that would eliminate the funding, and it passed.
The bishops marched up to the brink without wavering and prevailed. Now the action moves to the Senate and new challenges before we see the needed reform. If Catholics across the country continue telling members of Congress that we stand with the bishops, a historic achievement in justice is possible.
While the bishops “won” one in Congress, last week’s voting across the country was a mixed bag for them. In Maine an attempt to make same-sex marriage legal through the ballot box rather than the courts was defeated. Bishop Richard Malone of the statewide Portland Diocese stood out among opponents of the measure. But over in Washington state, a referendum to grant full marriage-like benefits to same-sex couples registered under the state’s domestic partnership law was successful. The bishops had opposed it.
The Washington bishops did back a winner, though, as voters rejected an attempt to force automatic limits on state spending, tying the hands of lawmakers. The bishops warned that the ballot initiative would cut human services at the very time they would be most needed and make it harder for the state to cope with economic recessions.
Ohio’s bishops tried to slow the gambling train and were run over. A constitutional change to let casinos open in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus and Toledo gained a comfortable majority despite the bishops’ warning that more gambling was “not in the best moral, social and economic interests” of the people.
But casinos look like easy money for the state treasury. Catholic voters along with others are so keenly tuned into that siren song that a word about moral integrity is barely heard.
Bishops also have to be wary of appearing to be pawns in political battles. An interesting case study of this danger happened in the New York City mayoral race. The election was won — or bought, according to some views — by current Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who spent a reported $100 million of his own money on the race. Bloomberg is a multi-billionaire who spreads his wealth and influence around to good causes, including some help for Catholic schools.
He has also publicly supported legalized abortion and same-sex marriage, two issues that the bishop of the Brooklyn Diocese, part of New York City, has been very vocal in resisting. Shortly before the election, the Brooklyn diocesan newspaper, The Tablet, carried a full-page color ad showing Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio with Bloomberg in Yankee Stadium wearing Yankees team uniforms. The message: “Mike Bloomberg: Protecting NYC’s Catholic Schools. Fighting for Us.”
Diocesan spokesmen said the ad was only a reflection of gratitude for the mayor’s support of Catholic schools. But voters also knew that The Tablet had a policy of not taking political advertising — until this year. Did Bloomberg’s millions blur the vision of a bishop who otherwise had an extreme aversion to politicians supporting abortion? We shouldn’t think that.
But from such appearances are cynics made — and the voice of church leadership loses clarity across the full spectrum of moral issues.