Ninety years ago, after the end of World War I, nearly all of America's Catholic bishops joined together to push a program of "social reconstruction," their vision of how America's institutions could be overhauled to better serve the citizenry, particularly the needy.

The program supported public housing, unions' right to organize, a "living wage" for all workers and what today we would call universal health insurance. The bishops lobbied hard on behalf of their proposals and many were eventually enacted into law, especially as part of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. The health insurance proposal, although it once was in the mix as part of Roosevelt's Social Security plan, never did make it, as we know all too well today.

That didn't deter the conference of bishops, which for decades advocated for universal health care and a single-payer system much like Medicare.

But now that President Obama has pushed the health care debate back to the head of the line and is in the fight of his life to get Congress to enact reform, the bishops are sitting on their hands, declining to take a leading role on what to many is a life and death issue.

Instead of helping push a plan aimed at covering the uninsured and the poor in our midst, these days we see bishops like the Madison Diocese's Robert Morlino squandering their time on reactionary silliness like ordering Catholic schools not to show the president's back-to-school address, as if the president of the United States can't be trusted with kids. Others spend their time issuing nonstop sermons on the evils of same-sex marriage.

The reason the bishops won't get behind health care like their predecessors did back in 1919 is, of course, their modern-day fixation on abortion. They'd rather that nearly 50 million Americans, mostly the working poor, continue without health coverage and with the heartbreaks that result than take a slim chance that a health care overhaul might possibly allow an abortion to a rape victim or an imperiled mother-to-be.

As Frances Kissling, the former president of Catholics for a Free Choice, wrote in the online magazine Slate last month: "On health care reform, religious groups opposed to and supportive of legal abortion have adopted an awkward but workable frame for containing the abortion issue. All agree to support the 'status quo' and to not use health care to advance their abortion agendas; and they agree to disagree about what the status quo is and move on. Not the bishops; they are the only religious group that is holding support for health care reform hostage to a complete ban on any form of federal funds being spent on abortion coverage."

Kissling notes that the bishops' posts on the health care reform section of their website get more strident on abortion by the day. And while they're spending hundreds of thousands on anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage campaigns, they're spending virtually nothing on the health care issue.

In Kansas City the archbishop and the bishop have gone so far as joining those who oppose a public option for health coverage, saying that health reforms should emphasize "personal responsibility for health care decisions, and for the cost of treatment, rather than reliance on government or society." That's a smoke-screen position, of course, because it's the public option they fear might allow using government funds for an emergency abortion.

The nation's Catholic bishops have come a long way since 1919, when they sided with those who pushed hard to give a helping hand to America's workers, the poor and the elderly. Unfortunately, it has often been the wrong way.

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times.


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