By Cardinal Justin Rigali

As the important question of health care remains an issue in our country, it is necessary to continue our vigilance concerning the form it can or may take.

An ongoing concern
During Pope Benedict XVI’s recent pastoral visit to the Czech Republic, he venerated the famous Statue of the Infant Jesus, which is found in the Church of Our Lady of Victory in Prague. It is an image which is beloved throughout the world and perhaps some of you reading this now have a similar image in your own homes or in your parish church. In that marvelous manner which our Holy Father has of expressing deep thoughts in a brief and practical manner, he reflected on the significance of the image of Jesus as a child. This is what he said: “The figure of the Child Jesus, the tender infant, brings home to us God’s closeness and his love. We come to understand how precious we are in his eyes, because it is through him that we in our turn have become children of God. Every human being is a child of God and therefore our brother or sister, to be welcomed and respected. May our society grasp this truth! Every human person would then be appreciated not for what he has, but for who he is, since in the face of every human being, without distinction of race or culture, God’s image shines forth” (26 September 2009).

Pope Benedict’s words are, of course, a reflection of the Gospel teaching of Jesus and the constant teaching of His Church concerning the dignity of the human person. It is a topic I have often addressed in this column because it is basic to our Christian belief. Much of what we do and teach as Christians reflects our sincere attempt to follow this teaching of Jesus. It is often the impetus of our preaching and always the motivating force of our works of charity. It is in this context that the Bishops of the United States have been constantly concerned with affordable and effective health care for our brothers and sisters for such a long time. I think it is necessary to reiterate these concerns of the United States’ Bishops, which are all about the recognition of human dignity.

The core of the issue
In a Resolution approved by the Bishops of the United States at their General Meeting in June of 1993 entitled: “A Framework for Comprehensive Health Care Reform: Protecting Human Life, Promoting Human Dignity, Pursuing the Common Good,” the bishops stated the following as a fundamental point: “Our nation’s health care system serves too few and costs too much. This resolution is addressed to the Catholic community and the leaders of our nation. We seek to outline the values, criteria, and priorities that are guiding our conference’s participation in this vital dialogue. We hope to offer a constructive and distinctive contribution reflecting the Catholic community’s strong convictions and broad experience in health care. The Catholic community has much at stake and much to contribute to this vital national dialogue. For decades, we have advocated sweeping reform. In communities across our land, we serve the sick and pick up the pieces of a failing system. We are pastors, teachers, and leaders of a community deeply committed to comprehensive health reform. Our urgency for reform reflects both on our traditional principles and everyday experience.”

Our response at the present moment
Given the urgency of the health plan proposals which are before the United States Congress at this time, it is necessary to be extremely vigilant concerning several important aspects which can affect these plans in such a way that would make it impossible for the bishops to support them. I call your attention to four recent documents: The Statement for Respect Life Sunday, which I issued on September 29 of this year, as Chairman of the Bishops’ Committee on Pro-life Activities; the Healthcare Letters sent to the members of the United States Senate on September 30 and again on October 8 by Bishop William Murphy, Bishop John Wester and myself, as Chairmen respectively of the Bishops Committees on Domestic Justice and Development, Migration, and Pro-Life Activities and the Statement issued by the Bishops of Pennsylvania following their meeting on October 6. The first three documents can be accessed at and the fourth can be accessed at I would just like to share some highlights of these documents with you at this time.

Writing to our Senators, we cited three central priorities for health care reform, which summarize the concerns of the United States’ Bishops. We urged our Senators to support long overdue health care reform that covers all people and protects the life, dignity, and health of all; support a fair and just health care reform bill that excludes mandated coverage for abortion, and upholds longstanding laws that restrict abortion funding and protect conscience rights; support effective measures to safeguard the health of immigrants, their children and all of society; maintain an adequate safety net for those who remain uncovered. We also called the attention of the Senators to three criteria that called for their special attention in the matter of health care reform: Respect for life and dignity, affordability and the inclusion of immigrants.

Short-sighted vision of life questions
Merriam-Webster defines “myopia” in the following way: “a condition in which the visual images come to a focus in front of the retina of the eye resulting especially in defective vision of distant objects” and “a lack of foresight or discernment: a narrow view of something.” I used this word in the Statement I referenced earlier, which I issued for this year’s observance of Respect Life Sunday. In that document, I made particular reference to current health care proposals which express a narrow and short-sighted view of the dignity of life and the value of the human person. I wrote: “In the current debate over health care reform, it has become evident that a number of Americans believe that the lives and health of only some people are worth safeguarding, while other classes of people are viewed as not deserving the same protection. Such an attitude is deplorable, all the more so in the context of health care. Sanctioning discrimination in the quality of care given to different groups of people has no place in medicine, and directly contravenes the ethical norms under which Catholic hospitals and health care providers operate.” Concerning the treatment of the unborn under the current health care proposals, I wrote: “Unborn children remain the persons whose lives are most at risk in America: Over one million die each year in abortion facilities. Yet despite the opposition of 67 percent of Americans to taxpayer-funded abortion, all current health care proposals being considered by Congress would allow or mandate abortion funding, either through premiums paid into government programs or out of federal revenues.”

At this critical juncture in our nation’s history, when so many good intentions have the possibility of being misused because of a narrow, and oftentimes blinded, vision, we must continue to be vigilant. I am convinced that your concerns in this matter are also those expressed by the bishops of the United States on so many occasions over the course of so many years: that freedom of conscience should be protected, that no one should be forced to pay for or participate in an abortion, and that health care should be affordable and available to the poor and vulnerable.

22 October 2009