Catholic Health Care Rifts
Religion & Liberty Online

Catholic Health Care Rifts

As rumors of congressional action on health-care reform continue to swirl (it will happen Sunday, maybe?), fissures in the American Catholic community are becoming increasingly evident.

The rift is highlighted in the current, in some ways unprecedented, public dispute between two important Catholic voices. By size and clout, the principal health-related organization of a Catholic identity is the Catholic Health Association. The official organ of the American Catholic bishops as a collective is the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Although tension between the two on the matter of health-care reform could be discerned a long time ago, the disagreement was largely hidden by ostensibly shared principles of absolute commitment to Catholic moral norms (of chief importance, opposition to abortion and to public funding thereof) and to extending health care access to all people.

But as the rubber hits the road, the CHA has parted ways with the USCCB, in a fashion that can no longer be ignored. In essence, the CHA says that the Senate bill currently under consideration is the best we’re going to get under the circumstances, its benefits outweigh its liabilities, and its protection against public funding of abortion is adequate (or at least will be adequately addressed at some point). The USCCB says no, the bill does permit public funding of abortion. (The matter is complicated–there is a sense in which the bill can plausibly be said not to fund abortions directly with government money–but I believe the USCCB interpretation is the more honest and accurate. The claim that there is no funding of abortion is basically an accounting gimmick: in effect, tax funds collected by the federal government would be enabling abortion in a way that they are not, at present.)

Outside the channels of the USCCB, individual bishops have been even more outspoken. Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver says,

Regrettably, groups like Network and the Catholic Health Association have done a grave disservice to the American Catholic community by undermining the leadership of the nation’s Catholic bishops, sowing confusion among faithful Catholics, and misleading legislators through their support of the Senate bill.

This split between the CHA and the bishops is a shame. Catholic hospitals are a vital part of the Church’s mission, not to mention the American health care sector. But the CHA’s support of flawed health-care legislation in the face of the Church’s leadership is but the culmination of a history of compromise of Catholic moral teaching and a gradual acceptance of secular concepts of social justice and charity.

For further reading, see the Catholic Medical Association’s recent statement.

Acton pundits have already weighed in on the inadequacies of current reform proposals and the path to a more helpful approach. Abortion is understandably at the center of this controversy, but we have also argued that, leaving aside abortion, the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity can be much better served by moving in a direction divergent from that envisioned by congressional plans now being considered.

Kevin Schmiesing

Kevin Schmiesing, Ph.D., is a research fellow for the research department at the Acton Institute. He is a frequent writer on Catholic social thought and economics, is the author of American Catholic Intellectuals, 1895-1955 (Edwin Mellen Press, 2002) and is most recently the author of Within the Market Strife: American Catholic Economic Thought from Rerum Novarum to Vatican II (Lexington Books, 2004). Dr. Schmiesing holds a Ph.D. in American history from the University of Pennsylvania, and a B.A. in history from Franciscan University ofSteubenville. Author of Within the Market Strife and American Catholic Intellectuals, 1895—1955 (2002), he serves as Book Review Editor for the Journal of Markets & Morality. He is also executive director of