Catholics Start To Show Their Cards

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As a House vote on the Senate health bill nears, the Catholic Health Association threw its support behind the legislation with a strong statement over the weekend. The CHA, which represents hundreds of Catholic hospitals around the country, noted, “We expect to see charges and counter charges about what is in the bill and how it will work,” in a surprising acknowledgement of some misinformation that has circulated in some Catholic circles recently.

The group’s endorsement is not entirely surprising–the CHA supported the Senate’s approach to abortion funding last December. Throughout the development of health reform and negotiations over abortion language, the CHA has also been more encouraging than the US Conference of Catholic Bishops on the question of whether it is possible to craft legislative language that provides broad coverage while also preventing federal funding of abortion. Because of this, Democrats have sometimes made too much of the CHA’s openness and support, while downplaying the significance of opposition from the bishops conference.

Even so, this endorsement matters, especially for quavering wavering pro-life Democrats who may welcome any sort of cover from a Catholic institution. Among the charges lodged against the Senate’s abortion language by opponents is the idea that it weakens conscience protections for Catholic health providers. The CHA’s statement makes no mention of this concern, and the organization has separately indicated that it is satisfied that conscience protections remain strong.

The bishops are also feeling some heat from the group Catholics United, which has charged that USCCB staff are circulating false information about the Senate bill, and has rallied its members to lobby the USCCB to drop its opposition to health reform. More than 5,000 Catholics emailed the bishops conference in 72 hours–a drop in the bucket compared to the numbers a group like the Christian Coalition could muster in its heyday, but a significant message of dissent directed to the bishops from lay Catholics. The USCCB has yet to declare its final position on the bill that the House will consider, but is expected to oppose it, especially now that negotiations about altering abortion language appear to have ended.

Update: While the USCCB hasn’t declared a final position, I see that it did distribute a statement to parishes over the weekend to be posted or read. The statement clarified the USCCB’s opposition to the Senate version’s abortion funding language and urged Catholics to lobby members of Congress for restoration of the Stupak language.