However the national debate on health care reform ends this week, the struggle has shown the worst side of a certain kind of “Catholic” witness.

On March 18, the advocacy group Catholics United, which worried so earnestly about Republican faith partisans controlling Catholic thought in the last election, rolled out an attack-ad campaign against Democratic Congressman Bart Stupak in his home state. Why? Because Stupak insists”along with the U.S. bishops and every major national prolife group”that the Senate version of the reform bill now being forced ahead by congressional leaders and the White House fails to exclude abortion and its public funding from the legislation.

On the same day, writer E.J. Dionne lamented the nation’s “viciously politicized battle over health care” in his syndicated column. Then he showed how it got that ugly by savaging the bishops for their alleged defection “from a cause they have championed for decades” and discarding “the flag of social justice . . . under increasing right-wing influence.” He claimed that the president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, Cardinal Francis George, had distorted the views of the Catholic Health Association, which voiced support of the legislation last week. And then he warned of the “moral opprobrium that would rightly fall upon [the bishops] if they succeeded in killing the best chance we have to extend health coverage to 30 million Americans.”

Dionne’s column came just days after Network, a Catholic “social justice” lobby founded by women religious, also broke ranks with the bishops and endorsed the fatally flawed Senate version of health-care reform.

What lessons can we draw from these three examples”each, in its own way, rich in alibis? First, the captivity of some Catholics to the agenda of current congressional leaders and the White House proves that faith partisans are not a monopoly of the political right, and that some Catholics have an almost frantic unwillingness to see the abortion issue for what it is”a foundational matter of social justice and human rights. It can’t be avoided in developing our public policies without debasing the whole nature of Christian social teaching. No rights are safe when the right to life is not.

Second, people who claim to be Catholic and then publicly undercut the teaching and leadership of their bishops spread confusion, cause grave damage to the believing community and give the illusion of moral cover to a version of health care “reform” that is not simply bad, but dangerous.

Third, for supporters of health care reform at any cost, facts don’t seem to matter when a coveted goal seems within reach. The American bishops have repeatedly shown their support for good healthcare reform. They’ve worked tirelessly and honestly for more than seven months to help craft acceptable legislation. But they’ve also shown”and posted readily on the web”how and why the current Senate version of reform fails in at least three vital areas: abortion and its public funding; conscience protections for medical professionals and institutions; and the inclusion of immigrants. Congressional leaders have no one to blame but themselves for the opposition they’ve had to face. And this makes the arguments of columnists like Dionne”whose March 18 article was little more than a mixture of emotion and disinformation”all the more baseless. Blaming the bishops is a cheap and useful way to divert attention from one’s own embarrassing partisanship.

If the defective Senate version of health-care reform pushed by congressional leaders passes into law”against the will of the American people and burdened by serious moral problems in its content”we’ll have “Catholic” voices partly to thank for it. And to hold responsible.

Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M Cap., is the archbishop of Denver.

Articles by Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap.

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