The Congress and the White House have little to fear from the bishops' official statements opposing the abortion provisions in the health care bill. Unlike with President Barack Obama's appearance at Notre Dame, there is no chorus of bishops' voices rising in protest against the bill; most of the Catholics in Congress support it, and mainstream Catholic organizations like Catholic Charities USA and the Catholic Health Association -- which some assume speak for the bishops -- have also voiced their support.
The overall impression given by Church leadership thus far is that universal health care coverage is so badly needed that they are not willing to endanger the legislation by protesting too loudly against abortion coverage.
The only notable resistance against the abortion provisions has come from a Catholic, Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ); an Evangelical, Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN); and 20 "blue dog" Democrats, led by Catholic Bart Stupak (D-MI), who signed a letter asking explicitly that abortion coverage be removed from the bill.
Two official letters from the USCCB have been sent to members of Congress. Bishop William Murphy, chairman of the USCCB's Committee on Domestic Policy, wrote on July 17 asking Congress to remove abortion coverage. And on July 26, Cardinal Justin Rigali, Chairman of the Committee on Pro-Life Activities, wrote asking them to support an amendment to exclude the abortion mandate from any health care bill.
President Obama continues to talk about abortion reduction (as he did with Pope Benedict XVI on his Vatican visit) at the very moment the Senate version of the bill -- which contains abortion coverage -- is being considered in committee.
Obama also feigns indifference to abortion coverage as part of federally mandated universal health coverage. When asked directly about abortion and the health care bill in a July 21 interview with Katie Couric, Obama said any decision about abortion coverage would be left to experts, like pro-abortion Health and Human Services secretary Kathleen Sebelius.
Yet only a few days earlier, one of Obama's closet advisers assured members of Planned Parenthood that the Obama administration would not buckle to pressure and remove abortion coverage from the health care reform package. Tina Tchen, director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, supported her promise by quoting from a January 22 statement from the president praising Roe v. Wade.
Tchen's reference to one of Obama's presidential statements is ironic: Obama complained to Catholic journalists about the pro-lifers who expect "the worst" from him, claiming there was nothing in his record as president that should be cause for such concern. He argued, "It's not based on anything I've said or done, but is rather just a perception, somehow, that we have some hard-line agenda that we're seeking to push." Tchen evidently disagrees.
Many Catholics are asking why Catholic Charities USA and the Catholic Health Association are backing a health care bill that two USCCB letters have sharply criticized for its abortion coverage. A LifeSiteNews (LSN) interview with the head of another mainstream Catholic organization supporting the present health care bill may answer the question.
When told by the LSN interviewer that the health care bill included an abortion mandate, Roger Playwin, the national executive director of the venerable St. Vincent de Paul Society, replied:
The bishops' office has advised us that that's not accurate. So I can't speak to it, because all I know is that the bishops' office has said that story is going around, but it's inaccurate. That's all I know.
When asked for clarification about where he got that information, Playwin clarified that it did not come from the USCCB but rather from Catholic Charities USA. In other words, Playwin somehow received a message from Catholic Charities USA that abortion coverage was not contained in the House and Senate versions of the bill -- which is simply not true, as the letters from Bishop Murphy and Cardinal Rigali attest.
Yet both Catholic Charities USA and the St. Vincent de Paul Society sent out legislative alerts asking for support for health care reform and did not mention the issue of abortion services.
So why should either Congress or the White House be afraid of Catholic criticism of the health care bills as they now stand? Yes, the USCCB has made its official statements, but there's no great roar of opposition to the prospect of federally funded abortion services as a part of universal health care.
As far as the public's perception is concerned, the "Catholic" imprimatur on health care reform has come from Catholic Charities USA, the Catholic Health Association, and the St. Vincent de Paul Society. (God help us if L'Osservatore Romano weighs in on this!)
The good news is the two-month delay in voting on the bill. Richard Doeflinger, associate director of the bishops' Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities, told the National Catholic Register, "Right now, these bills are a moving target.... But we will stay on top of it and continue to educate the public."
Whether or not abortion services remain in the health care bill will be a definitive test of the bishops' ability to educate and to put the "fear of God" in the Congress and the White House. It is a test, I fear, they will fail.