Obama at the CHA

by Michael Sean Winters

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President Obama spoke to the Catholic Health Association meeting in Washington yesterday. Like all politicians speaking in front of religious groups, the president had to navigate some of the hard-to-see currents in the estuary where politics and religion mix and he mostly came out unscathed.

Getting the President of the United States to speak at a group’s annual meeting is one of the biggest coups possible in D.C. And, Obama made it clear why he chose this group to come and give a speech:

So I’m here today to say thank you for your tireless efforts to make health reform a reality.  Without your commitment to compassionate care, without your moral force, we would not have succeeded.  (Applause.)  We would not have succeeded had it not been for you and the foundation you had laid.  (Applause.)  

The President is right in his political analysis: Without the support of the sisters, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) probably would not have passed. The U.S. bishops did not support the law in the end, and while it is true that Catholics – and non-Catholics – have a soft spot for the sisters that they do not have for the bishops, I think the weight of the CHA’s support stemmed more from the fact that they were the ones on the frontline of the Church’s health care ministry and in a better position to weigh the trade-offs that all legislation entails. Yes, we all wish the Stupak Amendment had passed, but it didn’t. Without it, the bishops would not sign off on the legislation. The CHA supported the compromise that issued the Stupak language in the form of an executive order. Millions of Americans who previously did not have access to health care today do have such access. Instances where the essence of the Stupak Amendment – which prevented any federal funds from going to abortion via the ACA, except in cases where the health or life of the mother was in danger, or of rape or incest – have been anecdotal and the administration has taken steps to address those violations. That was a trade-off the bishops should have taken and that the sisters were right to take.

The political fight for the ACA showed what are the worst political biases of both parties. The Republicans, putting their faith in a free market that had demonstrably failed to deliver affordable health care to millions of citizens, could not break free of their ideological or partisan shackles. The President evidences a kind of intellectual detachment when he says “good policy is good politics,” failing to recognize that most people are not wonks, most people respond to moral suasion of the kind the sisters brought to the table, and that the sisters brought the best kind of moral suasion, the kind that comes from daily witness, not just fine arguments.

I have told this story before, but it has been awhile. The day after the ACA passed, I was on the phone with a friend who worked in the administration. And, I said to her, “Remember, the effort to convince people does not stop just because the law passed.” She agreed. Regrettably, she was not directing the Democrats’ congressional campaigns in 2010 when Democrats talked about everything under the sun except the ACA. The Republicans talked about nothing but the ACA. The general public, hearing no competing narrative, bought into the Republican fear-mongering and the Democrats were shellacked. The worst part of the 2010 elections was that the Democrats who lost were those moderate Democrats in swing districts who had supported the law. A large number of them were members of the pro-life Democratic caucus. The party has been out of balance ever since and has fallen further into the grips of pro-choice groups that fail to understand the Democrats will never win Congressman Stupak’s old seat back unless they run a pro-life candidate, and to the pro-choice groups, the ideological purity of the party is more important than re-gaining the majority. That may make sense for special interest groups. It does not make sense for the party, but no one, including a President who is never going to stand for election again, is willing to take them on.

The President is permitted the kind of rhetorical victory lap he delivered at the CHA meeting. He is right that the prophets of doom, who threatened all manner of bad things if the ACA took effect, have been proven wrong. He is right that the law is, so far, costing the government less than anticipated. Most importantly, he is right to acknowledge that when millions more of our fellow citizens have health care than had it before, the law is a success.

More important to me than the President’s remarks was the fact that Cardinal Donald Wuerl presided at the CHA’s opening Mass on Sunday and Archbishop Blase Cupich delivered the Bishop Sullivan lecture to the group on Monday. There are some bishops in this country who would not have anything to so with an event that also included the president. There are some bishops who would not participate in an event having to do with Sr. Carol Keehan. But, the bishops who are the real leaders of the Church at this moment in time understand that no one is helped, including the hierarchy, unless the USCCB and the CHA have a respectful, positive working relationship. +Wuerl and +Cupich are both bridge builders, not culture warriors, and their presence at the CHA meeting should serve notice to their brother bishops that the fight over the ACA is over. The issue of the HHS contraception mandate is still before the courts and everyone will find a way to live with what the courts decide.

Rebuilding the relationship between the USCCB and the CHA is especially important because while the fight over the ACA is effectively over, the struggle against physician-assisted suicide is just beginning. As President Obama noted, the sisters have moral suasion that few of us possess, and the bishops will need the sisters to fight off this horrific threat to human life and dignity. There should be strategy sessions, the annual meeting of state Catholic conference directors should feature a talk by Sister Carol about the ways the Church cares for the elderly and the stakes involved in the struggle against euthanasia. The same goes for the efforts in some states to sue the Church’s hospitals because we do not perform abortions, or in California, to force our insurance to cover elective abortions.

Sr. Carol Keehan deserves all the attention and accolades she has received the past few days. As Archbishop Cupich said in his lecture, Sr. Carol’s “Your leadership and dedication in these challenging times has been unceasingly rooted in the commitment to bring the healing ministry of Jesus to those who need it, especially to the poor and the vulnerable.” She has been treated shabbily in recent years by people who should have nothing but respect for her work, her commitment, and her fidelity to the Church. And, the bishops gathered in St. Louis should find a way to bracket their opposition to the contraception mandate with an fulsome acknowledgment that the ACA has brought health care to millions of Americans, and that this is a good thing.  




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