Matt C. Abbott
Catholics still debating Obamacare
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By Matt C. Abbott
May 13, 2010

The debate over Obamacare continues at least among some Catholics.

To wit: Michael Sean Winters has posted on America magazine's website a commentary in response to Deal Hudson of InsideCatholic.com. Winters writes (excerpted; click here to see his full commentary):

    Deal Hudson has decided to join the recriminations against Sister Carol Keehan, DC, of the Catholic Health Association for her support of the health care overhaul that is now the law of the land. Deal Hudson, of course, was the GOP's go-to guy during the Bush years, and he made his opposition to health care reform well known, so this should not surprise. Still, it is worth noting that in his entire life, Hudson has done about as much to help the sick and the aged as I have, which is to say less than Sister Carol does in a week, perhaps in a day.

    There are two problems with Hudson's attack. First, he claims that Sr. Carol misrepresented her own support for the bill. He takes particular aim at this sentence of hers from a speech she gave at NCR's 'Washington Briefing' last week: 'We [CHA] were in complete accord with our bishops and our church that abortion is a grave evil. There is no justification for abortion, and we would not ever have supported this bill if we thought it funded abortion.' He points out that the USCCB did not support the bill because they argued it did contain federal funding for abortion. There is a sleight of hand in Hudson's argument, a skipped step in reasoning, one common to too many pro-life advocates. Keehan and the bishops did not disagree about the morality of abortion, nor about the need to keep federal funding of abortion out of the health care debate. The difference of opinion between the bishops and CHA was on the issue of whether the legislative language actually did provide federal funding of abortion.

    I have no desire to re-litigate that debate. Bishops, of course, have unique authority when they teach on faith or morals. But, they have no such authority regarding the interpretation of civil legislation or their best guesses as to how market forces will respond to that legislation. To use an analogy that Hudson can grasp, the USCCB also has no divinely guaranteed authority when it comes to intelligently awarding grants through the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. We Catholics are not automatons. We can disagree with bishops about such matters. Our differences may be stupid, they may be short-sighted, they may be based on a difference in perspective, but they are not grounds for a charge of disloyalty....

Now, I do agree with, or at least partially agree with, Winters on one point: Lay Catholics can indeed disagree with the bishops on matters of public policy insofar as said matters do not involve teachings on faith or morals something that, theoretically at least, shouldn't occur very often, if at all. That's not to say that lay Catholics should never criticize the bishops; there are times when such criticism is legitimate and even necessary. (A good rule of thumb: When in doubt, consult the Catechism of the Catholic Church and/or Vatican documents.) But on the issue of Obamacare and Sister Keehan, Winters is wrong.

Stephen Phelan, communications director for Human Life International, posted a few comments on the America website in response to Winters' commentary, and he expanded on those comments in an e-mail to yours truly, which can be seen below (slightly edited):

"It's odd that Winters would actually try to defend Sister Keehan by accusing her critics in this case, Deal Hudson of 'sleight of hand' in argumentation. This is the nun who claimed substantial agreement with the bishops both before and after opposing them in her endorsement of President Obama's health care legislation. She did not issue a correction when Democratic leaders cited her organization's endorsement of the legislation as evidence of 'Catholic support,' even as the bill suffered rare unanimous opposition from the Catholic bishops. She let herself and her organization be used to pass this monstrosity of a bill, damaging the American Catholic Church immeasurably by deliberately challenging the authority of the bishops.

"Winters even goes a step further in calling Hudson out for an apparent 'skipped step in reasoning' in Hudson's 'recrimination' of Sister Keehan. While Winters is vague about what exactly this 'skipped step' was, he implies that Hudson missed the fact that Sister Keehan agrees with the bishops about life issues, but merely has a different opinion about the likely outcomes of the health care legislation. Winters skips the part where one would normally provide evidence to support such a claim, but he does provide a fine example of both rhetorical sleight of hand and flawed reasoning in the following paragraphs.

"Winters implies that the only difference between the position of the bishops and that of Sister Keehan was one of opinion, as if all opinions are somehow equal, before he boldly claims agnosticism about who may actually have the superior argument.

"Talk about flawed reasoning. The bishops' widely disseminated position was based on fact (the actual language of the law) and prediction (about how the law would be applied), not mere opinion. I'd like to find evidence of Sister Keehan's careful reasoning for her position. I just can't find it. It's easy to find dozens of pieces, including those of the bishops, analyzing the legislation in agonizing detail, the great majority of which found that the now-law will indeed funnel federal funds to abortion providers.

"The bishops knew this, which is why they opposed the bill and published their reasoning repeatedly. Planned Parenthood's president, Cecile Richards, knew this, which is why she claimed victory for all champions of 'women's reproductive health' after the bill's passage. The Associated Press, certainly no shills for the right wing, reported that they found the federal funds would indeed go to abortion providers, albeit indirectly. Congressman Bart Stupak, before caving, condemned exactly the language (of the then-Senate bill) he ended up endorsing, after receiving a promise from the president that an executive order would be issued to assuage his concerns. Not 48 hours passed before Robert Gibbs, the president's spokesman, verified that the executive order did nothing to modify the language of the final bill, but merely reiterated it.

"In opposition to all these, Sister Keehan felt (without explaining her reasoning in any detail) that the bill would not result in federal funding of abortion. Amazing. Yet Winters accuses Hudson and others in the pro-life movement of sleight of hand and faulty reasoning. And he does so without mentioning the even the possibility that Sister Keehan's organization, the now-erroneously-titled Catholic Health Association, stands to gain financially from the passage of this bill.

"This isn't just bad reasoning on Winters' part; it's bad journalism. It's also bad form to engage in personal attacks, as Winters does in the same column, essentially accusing (with self-effacing equivalency) Hudson of doing little, if anything, to support the sick and aged. Does Winters have proof of this? And why denigrate one's interlocutor and hurt one's own credibility by engaging in such ad hominem silliness? And when so many serious analysts are troubled by what the law's cost-saving measures may indeed mean for the care of the sick and aged, is it really wise to assume that this law will actually result in improved care for our most vulnerable brothers and sisters, even if one is only doing so for a cheap dig at an opponent?

"With all due respect, Winters owes Hudson an apology, and he owes the rest of us an intellectual defense of Sister Keehan and the Catholic left's position in support of this bill. Sister Keehan surely hasn't provided such a defense, and Winters' attack on Hudson does little to give one confidence that the left is capable of honest debate on this life-and-death legislation."

© Matt C. Abbott

 

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Matt C. Abbott

Matt C. Abbott is a Catholic commentator with a Bachelor of Arts degree in communication, media and theatre from Northeastern Illinois University. He's been interviewed on MSNBC, NPR, WLS-TV (ABC) in Chicago, WMTV (NBC) in Madison, Wis., and has been quoted in The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune. He can be reached at mattcabbott@gmail.com.


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