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?
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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