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Three weeks ago, President Barack Obama gave a stirring, and for many Catholics reassuring, speech to Congress on his own plan for healthcare reform. Two lines are worth remembering.

Here’s the first:

“I will not waste time with those who have made the calculation that it’s better politics to kill this plan than improve it. I will not stand by while the special interests use the same old tactics to keep things exactly the way they are. If you misrepresent what’s in the plan, we will call you out.”

And here’s the second:

“And one more misunderstanding I want to clear up”under our plan, no federal dollars will be used to fund abortions, and federal conscience laws will remain in place.”

That was three weeks ago. Three weeks later, there is still no president’s plan. And a growing number of committed Catholics”people who support healthcare reform as a matter of Catholic social doctrine”no longer believe he has one. Here’s a sample of that frustration from a friend who’s a political advisor on the East Coast:

President Obama is running his presidency in much the same way that he ran his campaign”saying things in a way that can be interpreted differently by different audiences. His campaign was a Rorschach test, and I’m afraid he’s treating healthcare reform the same way. The issue of federal funding for abortion is a prime example. Depending upon whom you talk to in Congress, the president’s pledge means very different things. In his remarks to the joint session of Congress on September 9, he seemed to give the impression that his own bill would be forthcoming, or at least outlined in more detail, and yet nothing has been presented to Congress or the American people.

The skeptic”and I am now reluctantly one”believes this is a strategy of delay. As long as people keep defining the debate according to their own interests, then the president can avoid taking sides, surf the confusion, and in the end just throw his hands up and say he must go along with whatever Congress produces, which will very likely be bad. This is not leadership. It is also not honest. But this deliberate ambiguity does serve to keep the Catholic voice largely muted.

The pattern of congressional and White House response to critics of current healthcare proposals has been instructive. Washington’s first impulse was to ignore them and fast track a flawed legislative project. That didn’t work. When grassroots public concern forced elected officials to listen”or at least to go through the motions of listening”a different media message began to emerge. The public was said to be “confused” by agents of the insurance industry, or the Republican Party, or religious fanatics, or racists, or social reactionaries, or special interests.

It’s quite true that some people will resist any kind of healthcare reform for bad motives”just as some people will support it, for equally misleading or manipulative reasons. But “healthcare reform” can legitimately mean different things to different people. It can be achieved in different ways. Catholic social doctrine does not mandate any particular legislative approach to solving our current healthcare problems. And impugning motives and calling people names simply because they challenge a proposed public policy”which is now the signature tactic of too many supporters of the current administration”is a form of lying. It destroys serious democratic debate.

A survey sponsored by the U.S. Catholic bishops in mid-September found that American adults, by a two to one margin, favor “reform to provide affordable health insurance for all.” Sixty-eight percent do not want abortion coverage in their own policy”whether public or private. Sixty-three percent favor keeping conscience protection laws in place.

The U.S. Catholic community and their bishops have supported sensible healthcare reform for decades. That remains true” but not at any cost . The Catholic Church has offered guidelines for moral healthcare reform that are simple, clear, and easily accessible to elected officials and citizens alike. President Obama has the prestige and leadership skill within his own party to insist that these guidelines be hardwired into any legislation.

Three weeks ago, the president spoke powerfully about his plan for healthcare reform. Three weeks later, we’re still waiting. Speaking to the nation as well as to Congress, he stressed, quite appropriately, that “if you [critics] misrepresent what’s in the plan, we will call you out.”

Fair enough. But of course, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. It’s time for Catholics to “call out” the White House to deliver on what it promised.

Francis X. Maier, the father of four, writes from Colorado.

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