The New York Times reports that President Obama’s health plans have caused a "struggle" within the Catholic Church over "how heavily to weigh opposition to abortion against oncerns about social justice."
There are two problems here. First is the suggestion that there is a collision of competing priorities at play, the social justice imperative of achieving health care for the poor and the pro-life imperative of battling abortion, with which Notre Dame law professor Cathleen Kaveny agrees. She tells the Times, "It is the great tension in Catholic thought right now."
Surely there are bureaucratic squabbles between parish or diocesan offices, but this idea that there is some dichotomy in "Catholic thought" is utter fiction. Social justice is concerned with the dignity of the human person, and there is no greater indignity than the taking of innocent human life in the womb; it champions the rights of the poor, and there is no one poorer than the child marked for abortion.
In fact, not only does the Church teach that abortion is a social justice concern, successive popes have called it the preeminent social justice issue of our time, which highlights the second problem in the New York Times report. The competing imperatives are not of equal weight. Teaching documents at all levels of the Church demonstrate that concern for the right to life takes pride of place because it is the foundation for all other rights. Pope John Paul II wrote in Christifidelis Laici that, "the common outcry, which is justly made on behalf of human rights — for example, the right to health, to home, to work, to family, to culture – is false and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right and the condition for all other personal rights, is not defended with maximum determination."
The Catholic Church doesn’t see abortion as an issue that can be given more weight in some circumstances and less in others; it is always and everywhere an attack on innocent human life and gravely immoral. The Church will never embrace "a little abortion" in exchange for achieving another desired goal.
The Catholic bishops have worked for decades to achieve access to quality health care for all, especially the poor, in furtherance of their belief that health care is a basic right belonging to all human beings. But the Church has never taught that this obligation must be met by a government-run health system and certainly not a government system which sponsors the killing of children before birth. Indeed, for the Church, the fundamental requirement of any health care system is that it respects human life. The Church has been extraordinarily consistent throughout the debate on health care: any system that authorizes or subsidizes the killing of unborn children is unacceptable.
On August 11, 2009, Cardinal Justine Rigali, Chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Pro-Life Activities, called the current House health care legislation "seriously deficient" on the issue of mandated coverage and funding of abortion in a letter to the U.S. House of Representatives. He criticized the bill for delegating to the Secretary of Health and Human Services "the power to make unlimited abortion a mandated benefit in the ‘public health insurance plan’" and said, "much-needed reform must not become a vehicle for promoting an ‘abortion rights’ agenda or reversing longstanding policies against federal funding and mandated coverage of abortion."
The message has been clear, yet President Obama and his congressional allies have responded not with respect but derision and dishonesty.
In an August 19, 2009 teleconference with thousands of listeners organized by religious organizations supporting his health care proposals, President Obama described the criticism against abortion in the current plan as a "divisive and deceptive attack" and a "fabrication" spread by "people who are bearing false witness." Yet on August 21st, FactCheck.org said: "Despite what Obama said, the House bill would allow abortions to be covered by a federal plan and by federally subsidized private plans."
The tension is not within the Church, but, once again, between the Church and President Obama. While the Church sees abortion as a violation of human rights and dignity, President Obama sees it as "essential" health care that should be paid for by the government. That was his promise to Planned Parenthood on the campaign trail and by all accounts he intends to deliver.
The tragedy, and what astounds observers of what Father Richard John Neuhaus called The Catholic Thing, is that the Democratic party is so beholden to the abortion industry and its ideology that it is willing to turn its back on its great friend, the Catholic Church, to risk an embarrassing defeat for its new leader, and to squander the opportunity to realize the shared dream of providing access to quality health care for all, especially the poor.
Cathy Ruse, Esq. is Senior Fellow for Legal Studies at the Family Research Council and the former chief spokesman on human life issues for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops