Single-issue bishops

As landmark healthcare legislation makes it slow way through Congress, the U.S. Catholic bishops are in danger of finding themselves on the sidelines of history, regarded as a single-issue constituency with no view toward the greater good.

That's a growing view among many Catholic writers -- expressed clearly in Wednesday's Los Angeles Times by columnist Tim Rutten, a Catholic. Rutten joins an evolving chorus of voices who note that the bishops have the influence to help push through a change in public policy they have sought for decades: universal health care coverage. Instead, they have become enmeshed in abortion politics, threatening to undermine a bill that would help ten of millions.

Rutten quotes Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, former Lt. Governor of Maryland, who spoke out on Tuesday: "As Catholics, are we so laser-focused on the issue of abortion that we are willing to join the 'tea-partyers' and the like to bring down the healthcare reform bill? And at the enormous expense of million of Americans who suffer every day" without healthcare?

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As many analysts have noted, there is a fragile political consensus in this country on abortion: it ought to be safe, legal, and morally discouraged. Catholic groups have made important contributions to this consensus, by offering ready-alternatives to abortion -- and, most importantly, by demonstrating that the sanctity of life does not end in the birth canal: human dignity carries throughout life, in school, at work, during illness, and with the approach of death.

Health care legislation finally addresses so many of these concerns -- while at the same time doing nothing to upset that abortion consensus. As Rutten writes, the bishops are in danger of breaking "with a long tradition of not disdaining what is inarguably good in pursuit of unattainable perfection, which has been a hallmark of modern Catholicism's contribution to American politics."


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