David Waters, who writes the "Under God" blog for the Washington Post's "On Faith" site, attacks Rep. Patrick Kennedy for having the audacity to argue that church leaders should support health care reform.
The backstory, in a nutshell: some Catholic bishops support universal health care, but say they'll oppose health insurance reform legislation that doesn't bar any government funds from being used to pay for abortions. Kennedy has criticized that as "an absolute red herring and I don't think that it does anything but to fan the flames of dissent and discord and I don't think it's productive at all" and said "If the church is pro-life, then they ought to be for health care reform because it's going to provide health care that are going to keep people alive."
In response, Waters writes:
Kennedy's comments do seem to ignore some crucial facts: Most importantly -- as Georgetown/On Faith blogger Thomas J. Reese points out -- U.S. Catholic bishops for decades have been at the forefront of the campaign for health-care reform. "The bishops are appalled that more than 46 million people do not have health insurance," Reese wrote.
Well, no. Kennedy's comments don't "ignore" the "crucial fact" that the bishops say they are appalled at the number of people without health insurance. Kennedy's comments are in response to the bishops prioritization of abortion over health care. People may agree with the bishops on that prioritization, but Waters is wrong to claim that Kennedy is "ignor[ing] some crucial facts." In fact, Waters is missing the nature of the disagreement between Kennedy and the bishops, which is not about whether it is appalling that people lack health insurance, but about whether the bishops should oppose legislation that would insure them because it doesn't ban federal funds from indirectly paying for abortions.
Now, keep in mind, the question at hand isn't whether abortion should be legal -- that has literally nothing to do with the current debate. Nothing in the health care bill would have any effect on that.
The question, then, is whether to sacrifice what Waters describes as "a basic human right" that "Catholic bishops have spoken out consistently and courageously for" -- universal health care -- so as to avoid the possibility that public funds indirectly pay for abortions that are, regardless, quite legal.
Waters is so intent on siding with the Catholic Bishops and against Kennedy -- and on defending the Bishops for being "consistent" -- that he misses the real question. It isn't whether the Bishops have long held the same position -- that's a standard that could be used to defend any number of unfortunate policy positions. It's whether it is wise to sacrifice what you believe is a "basic human right" for the sake of what is essentially an accounting issue. It's a question about the choices the bishops make when two long-stated priorities are in apparent tension.
At one point, Waters does acknowledge the question of priorities, but he treats it as a side issue:
You can argue about whether Catholic bishops are putting too much emphasis on abortion in this case -- especially given the Administration's assurances that laws prohibiting federal funding of abortions will remain in place. No doubt some bishops have politicized the issue of abortion to the point of becoming partisan shills. But as a group, Catholic bishops have spoken out consistently and courageously for universal health care -- especially on behalf of the poor -- as a basic human right.
The question of whether the bishops are putting too much emphasis on abortion in this case isn't, as Waters portrays it, a side question. It's the whole issue. Waters is essentially arguing that we should ignore the question of what the bishops actually do to bring about universal health care and how they prioritize health care, because they've spoken "courageously" in favor of the concept of universal health care. He has it exactly backwards. (Waters, of course, does not explain what is "courageous" about speaking in favor of health care. The answer, particularly when you aren't willing to make any difficult choices in order to make universal health care more likely, is "nothing.")
And, by the way, that's true no matter where you come down on the question of priorities. Let's say you think it's more important for the church to take the symbolic stand against abortion than to help insure the "basic human right" of universal health care. Now: if the bishops supported health care reform legislation that explicitly expanded abortion rights, would your position be "oh, well, the bishops have spoken out consistently and courageously against abortion, and that's what's important"? Of course not.
The whole question is about prioritization. That much is clear, no matter what you think the priority should be. And it's clear that's what Kennedy is talking about. Waters, however, seems to think how you prioritize goals and values isn't important, as long as you pay lip service to both of them. In Waters' approach a politician who says he supports universal health care but votes against it because he doesn't like government should be given credit for supporting universal health care. It just doesn't make any sense.