What might Catholics think about the Supreme Court’s narrow vindication of the basic features of the Affordable Care Act (ACA)? Like many Catholic progressives, I shouted out two big cheers. But, I can’t quite yet raise that loud third cheer. The court’s decision wonderfully affirms the act’s basic provisions. And those provisions can get America close to the dream that the institutional Catholic Church has long promoted —government-assured, universal health care for all. So, two boisterous Catholic cheers!
Why not a third cheer? Because despite nearly a year’s hard efforts, faith-based groups and the Obama administration have not been able to hammer out the critical last tweaks on exemptions needed by religious organizations in regard to the ACA’s contraception mandate. With the momentum and enthusiasm from the court’s vindication, let’s put shoulders to the wheel and roll out those needed tweaks now.
With those tweaks, many more Catholics can support the law. At least since 1919, the Catholic Church in the United States has insisted that government must assure universal health-care coverage to all Americans. In recent years, Pope Benedict XVI has insisted that such coverage is a right the foundation of which is found in both the divinely ordained dignity of the human person and the moral imperative of the common good.
This century-long advocacy for government’s role in assuring health-care coverage flows not from Catholic teachings about charity, but from teachings about justice. In the same way that the church perceives the protection of life from conception to natural death as an issue of justice, so, too, it perceives the moral imperative for health care for all as a basic requirement of justice.
Health care for the poor and others who cannot pay is in no way a charitable gift from those who have to those who have not. Its morality is not that of noblesse oblige. Rather, for traditional Catholic teachings, health care’s moral weight comes from the justice at stake in assuring the dignity of life and from the mutual social justice that requires putting the common good ahead of self interest.
Thanks to President Obama, thanks to extraordinary leaders in Congress, and now thanks to brilliant adjudication by the Supreme Court, America, at long last, is close to measuring up to those measures of justice. Many Catholics are poised to join in the cheering.
Like many of those Catholics and other pro-lifers, I’m also gratified that decisions by lower courts have time and again affirmed the effectiveness of President Obama’s executive order against any federal funding of abortions in the ACA. I’m grateful for the stalwart leadership of Democrats like outgoing Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and former Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) in helping to insure that protection. The attorneys of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops remain mistaken in interpreting the ACA’s state exchanges as allowing federal funding of abortion. The leadership of Democrats like Nelson and Stupak resolved those issues.
This week’s Supreme Court decision makes all of this more glorious. Health care for almost all Americans! No more denial of coverage for people with cancer or other expensive conditions! Better health care for seniors! Medicaid coverage for the working poor! Extended family coverage for college-agers! A host of special programs (thanks to Democratic Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania) for at-risk pregnant moms and newborns! The law is not perfect, of course. Some Americans such as undocumented immigrants aren’t covered. But for Catholics, the ACA brings us close to what our church has pushed for since 1919. Hooray, hooray!
So, why not make the celebration complete? With the energy that supporters of the ACA are all feeling today, let’s push through those last couple of tweaks to the law’s religious exemptions to enable millions more Americans to join in the applause for this historic law.
Surely there are ways within the law to provide contraception coverage to all who want it that don’t require religious organizations to compromise tenets of their faith. Indeed, there are ways to exempt religious organizations completely while also providing more comprehensive contraception coverage than under the complicated tangle of existing ACA rules and accommodations. Religious organizations and contraception advocates can both cheer.
Let’s do these last tweaks! Let’s bring millions more supporters of universal health care into our celebration! Hooray, hooray… hooray?
Steve Schneck is director of Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at the Catholic University of America and a board member of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good .