From the editor’s desk
U.S. bishops must back obama
15 August 2009
President Barack Obama’s health-care reforms are in deep trouble. All over the United States rival lobby groups have argued and sometimes clashed as opponents of the reforms sense they may be on the verge of victory. There may be sufficient votes in Congress from an awkward alliance of Republicans and conservative Democrats to ensure that whatever legislation emerges from the hullabaloo is a pale shadow of what Mr Obama intended, and indeed promised, during his election campaign. It is unfortunate that the one body that could turn out to be a decisive strategic force in his favour, the US Catholic bishops, have so far concentrated on a specifically Catholic issue – making sure state-funded health care does not include abortion – rather than the more general principle of the common good. Through the national network of Catholic hospitals, delivering nearly 20 per cent of all hospital care, and through the influence they wield as leaders of America’s largest Christian denomination, they could play a central role in salvaging Mr Obama’s health-care programme.
This is indeed a Catholic matter. Few government proposals have had “preferential option for the poor” stamped over them more clearly. Nearly 50 million Americans do not have health-care coverage, which means they cannot afford to go to their doctor when they have symptoms that ought to be investigated, nor can they buy simple and effective remedies such as antibiotics. The Church’s teaching is clear: health care is a basic right, derived from the right to life itself. Of course abortion is important, but the Catholic bishops have not put anything like equal stress on these other social justice dimensions of the health-care debate. Though some grass-roots Catholic lobby groups have mobilised to support the Obama reforms, without episcopal support they will remain marginal to the debate.
The opponents of change are largely funded by the operators of the health insurance industry, which, as in the early 1990s, sense a threat to their profits. They are the robber barons of their age. All the dark arts of media misrepresentation have been deployed to turn public opinion against Mr Obama’s policy. Through their greed and inefficiency, America spends something like double per head on health care compared with a country such as France, whose state-run health system is acknowledged as one of the world’s best. Even at the level of spin and sound bites, the bishops could make a difference. They could refute the constant slur of “socialised medicine” that opponents throw mindlessly around, simply by saying that health care for all is in fact “Catholic medicine”. Once they began to introduce reason and truth into the debate, they could also point out that what Mr Obama is proposing is in principle no different from extending Medicare – which brings affordable medical treatment to America’s elderly – to everyone.
When Britain’s National Health Service was set up in 1948, the Catholic hierarchy led by Cardinal Griffin was also preoccupied with its own Catholic agenda, not abortion but winning an opt-out for Catholic hospitals. So the birth of the National Health Service, one of the great forward strides for social justice, had no Catholic blessing. The bishops failed to put the promotion of social justice above their churchly priorities. It is a mistake the American bishops may be about to repeat.