Bp. James D. Conley on Health Care Reform

I keep hearing from friends about good things happening in Denver.

Perhaps the fellow who wrote the next piece is one of the reasons why.

From the site of First Things with my emphases and comments comes this from Denver’s Auxiliary Bishop James D. Conley.

A Healthcare Problem Washington May Have Missed
Nov 6, 2009
Bishop James D. Conley

With more than 620 Catholic hospitals serving the public around the United States, hundreds of Catholic medical clinics and shelters, and even a few Catholic-affiliated medical schools, Catholics have a keen interest in healthcare reform. That interest isn’t new. It’s rooted in experience, including the experience of trying to help people with little or no health insurance at all. For decades, the U.S. bishops have pushed for an overhaul of our nation’s healthcare industry and the way it delivers its services. Why? Because the Church sees access to basic health care as a right and a social responsibility, not a privilege.

But Catholic support for the general principle of reform does not bind anyone to endorse a specific piece of legislation[Right.  There are some principles we cannot abandon, but people of good will can disagree about how to tackle certain other social justice issues.] God gave us brains for a reason, to think; and we need to use them, because the practical and moral problems we face on the way to good healthcare reform are as formidable as the goal is admirable. This is why the U.S. bishops’ conference has tried so diligently for the past three months to work with Congress and the White House in seeking sound compromise legislation. As of November 5, all those efforts have failed.

The bishops have a few simple but important priorities.

First, everyone should have access to basic health care, including immigrants. The Church would hope to see that access broadened as widely as possible. But at a minimum, it should include those immigrants who live and work in the United States legally. [We can disagree about how to do these things.] Second, reform should respect the dignity of every person, from conception to natural death. [We can’t disagree about this.] This means that the elderly and persons with disabilities must be treated with special care and sensitivity. It also means that abortion and abortion funding should be excluded from any reform plan, no matter how adroitly the abortion funding is masked. [Absolutely.] Whatever one thinks about its legality, abortion has nothing to do with advancing human “health,” and a large number of Americans regard it as a gravely wrong act of violence, not only against unborn children but also against women.

Third, real healthcare reform needs to include explicit, ironclad conscience protections for medical professionals and institutions so that they cannot be forced to violate their moral convictions. [Right!] Fourth—and this is so obvious it sometimes goes unstated—any reform must be economically realistic and financially sustainable. [And we can disagree about how that can be done.] We can’t help anyone, including ourselves, if we’re insolvent. If we commit ourselves to health services, then we need to have the will and the ability to really pay for them. That’s a moral issue, not simply a practical one.

Note that these priorities do not attack the constitutional status of abortion. That’s a different battle
. Nor do they take anything away from people who regard themselves as pro-choice. But they do protect the rights of the many, many citizens who see abortion as tragic and evil, and refuse to be implicated in supporting it.

Given the broad Catholic support for some kind of comprehensive healthcare reform, the historic links of the Democratic Party to the Catholic community, and the party’s total control of the White House and both chambers of Congress, the reform legislation actually moving through Congress as I write these comments on November 5 is not only inadequate and baffling, but insulting and dangerous.

With the exception of a few leaders, like Democratic Congressman Bart Stupak, Congress has ignored or rejected every attempt at resolving the serious concerns voiced by the bishops—or alternately, has pushed solutions like the Capps Amendment that do not solve the problems, and even create new ones. The White House has done nothing to intervene. “Common ground” thinking in Washington apparently has more reality as public relations than as public policy. And as a result, all of the main healthcare reform proposals in Congress, including the huge, 2,000-page merged House bill, are fatally flawed. Unless they are immediately and adequately amended, they need to be opposed and defeated[Do I hear an "Amen!"?]

For all of Congress’ public talk about “consensus building” and “consensus health care,” Washington has proved once again that hearing loss can be job-related. Most American Catholics, from people in the pews to pastors and bishops, want healthcare reform to work. But too many people in Washington don’t know how to listen, or don’t want to listen, or just don’t care.

James D. Conley, S.T.L., is the auxiliary bishop of Denver.

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  1. Thomas G. says:

    Probably the most concise and clearest presentation of how faithful Catholics need to approach the issue of health care reform that I’ve yet read.

    The need for a solution that is also affordable and sustainable is a nuance I have not considered much, at least not as a moral imperative. Yet, once stated, it is obviously true.

  2. wmeyer says:

    My one reservation with those comments is this: “First, everyone should have access to basic health care, including immigrants.”

    There are two concerns here. First, that it must be clearly stated that “basic health care” does not include elective procedures, but comprises those actions essential to good health. Second, that an immigrant is someone who has come here legally, and is a fully participating member of society.

    For illegals, treatment should be given when there is compelling need (emergency treatment, or treatment to prevent the spread of serious disease), but illegals are criminals under the law. Continuing need for care over an extended interval should be cause to involve immigration officials.

    If the rule of law is as important as we keep hearing from politicians on both sides of the aisle, then it needs to be enforced, and not selectively. Health care bills which flaunt the law by making open-ended provision for treatment of illegals should be called what they are: unconstitutional and utterly nonsensical.

    Finally, charity is something we are called to as individuals. It is a personal act, not something accomplished by the government, after it takes bread from our tables. Nor, frankly, does such action relieve us of our obligation to charity. That said, if more people would consider the issues in this fashion, we might find more opposed to government coerced redistribution.

  3. mpm says:

    The need for a solution that is also affordable and sustainable is a nuance I have not considered much, at least not as a moral imperative. Yet, once stated, it is obviously true.
    Comment by Thomas G. — 7 November 2009 @ 9:18 am

    I have considered this nuance quite a bit (for decades), and I agree with you, once formulated, it is obviously true. That’s the nature of moral principles, they are excellent guides to where the foul lines are, but don’t dictate whether to aim for a grounder, or a line-drive, or which field to hit to.

    Bishop Conley, and some of his confreres, are doing a very good job of ennunciating such moral principles of late, I just hope it is not too late for the country’s sake.

  4. mpm says:


    The issue of “illegal immigrants” is a bit more thorny than you mention. If a man comes to work here illegally, and succeeds in getting work, and then brings his family here, and his wife gets pregnant and seeks pre-natal care, should she a) be denied and reported to INS, b) treated and reported to INS, c) treated and not reported?

    (I’m speaking rhetorically here, not asking for you to “respond”.) Does your answer depend on whether she will then be deported and separated from her husband, who will be separated from his wife and child?

    Etc., etc.

    These are the kinds of situations that require a human and humane judge or arbitrator to sort out, rather than some simple clause in a piece of legislation which is complied with strictly, IMO. I know there are many other sides to this question, but I think that is the biggest “moral” concern I have with denying illegals any form of access to health care.

  5. wmeyer says:


    The thorns are created by those who choose to violate the law, not by our society. One of the problem areas hinges on the misapplication of the 14th amendment to the so-called anchor babies. When the 14th amendment was passed, the issues of concern were fundamental to the abolition of slavery, and to ensuring there would be no path back to slavery. Had the legislators had the foresight to imagine the invasion of illegals, and had they added to the amendment the stipulation that any child born of a woman legally resident in the country, we might not have such a mess on our hands.

    I do not suggest denying illegals any and all health care, but I do propose that there is no justice, nor indeed humanity, in leaving them the possibility to unlimited and free health care while they repeatedly violate our laws. Chaos should not be supported by law.

    Also, if I may anticipate one other contention, I am well aware that the violation of immigration law is only a misdemeanor, but am equally aware that the use of forged IDs and the act of accepting employment while not legally empowered to do so are felonies.

    I do not suggest that the issues are simple, nor that their resolution will be, either. But to further entangle an already fouled net is quite stupid.

  6. Sedgwick says:

    If Washington stays on its present course, states will begin seceding from the Union.

  7. wmeyer says:

    All voters should read this report.

    American legislators invariably champion the Canadian health care model as an ideal. Be scared, be very scared.

  8. MichaelJ says:

    Can someone please define “basic health care”. I assume this does not mean any medical procedures or care required to save an individual’s life as everybody legal or not already has acces to this type of “healthcare”

  9. mpm says:

    I believe the Church in its social teachings speaks about “basic health care” because it recognizes that not every country or region is capable of providing what is called “state of the art” treatment. Thus its “contents”, so to speak, may vary. Anything required according to Catholic moral teaching, would be a universal requirement, but other procedures might not be strict moral requirements. Doing what is not possible in the circumstances cannot be required by the moral law.

  10. MichaelJ says:

    Attending Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation is not a universal requirement because in some countries or regions it is not always possible to do so?

    Sorry, I suspect that what you may consider “basic helath care” may be vastly different from what I consider “basic health care”. I cannot in good conscience support something unless I know what it is I am supporting.

  11. mpm says:

    Personally, I couldn’t care less what you or I consider “basic health care”, it’s really what physicians consider it to be that matters.

    I was simply responding to your question. An example. If anesthesia is typically regarded as “basic” for some procedure, but in a given situation (say, a battlefield) it is not available, it ceases to be required in that circumstance even if the physician may know that the odds of survival without anesthesia are remote.

    Sorry to bother you. Please feel free to go back to talking in your sleep. I (mistakenly) thought you were actually asking a question.

  12. robtbrown says:

    My understanding is that basic health care means access to primary care physicians (or PA’s).

    IMHO, the purist health care reformers want three things:

    1. A new revenue stream for Medicare, which, when all the baby boomers are in the system, will have more people using Medicare than paying into it.

    2. Universal access to primary care.

    3. Less access to specialized care (where the big bucks are spent). This means the end of the present situation where certain people are denied treatment by an insurance company or HMO. In its place, however, will be a treatment queue.

    Bill Frist, a chest surgeon, talked about working in the British system for a year. He said its great advantage is that everyone has access to primary care. On the other hand, he said that he had a list of 100 cases and would do 3 a day. By the time he got to #60 and beyond, they were already dead.

  13. mpm says:


    I accept what you’re saying here. I think, though, that the Church’s meaning is taken from the moral realm, whereas what you are describing seems more from the professional realm.

    Morally speaking, the Church would have nothing to add to the professional “vocabulary”.

    That’s where I think a lot of “activists” cause great confusion, by equivocating between those two (or more) different meanings, in this case of “basic health care”.

  14. MichaelJ says:


    Sorry if I came across wrong and offended you. I really was asking a question. I should have considered my words more carefully when I rejected your apparent definition of a “moral requirement”. For that I apologize.

    Getting back to the issue at hand, we are told that as Catholics we must support “basic health care”, but are not told what that means. This leaves it up to the individual to define it and decide if a particular initiative will help or hinder, which means that it is absolutely pertinent what you and I consider to be “basic health care”.

    Sorry, but even you have not defined it. The best you have said is “it depends” and “physicians will decide”. Where does that leave us regarding the pending proposed health care legislation? Should Catholics support it (presuming that the sactity of life language is appropriately inserted) or oppose it? How on earth can anyone be expected to make a rational decision with only vaguely defined goals?

    Honestly, if you wanted to attend a Papal Audience, would you hop on the first plane that may be going in the correct general direction becaue the pilot knows where he is flying?

    So how about we start over. I think we can both agree that “basic health care” includes any medical care required to preserve an individual’s life assuming that it has a reasonable chance of success and will not place an undue or impossible burden on the patient or the one providing the care. Given that this level of care already exists, it is safe to assume that “basic health care” includes more. What else should there be? I have my own ideas, but would really like to hear yours.

  15. robtbrown says:


    It seems to me more like the language is political rather than moral.

  16. robtbrown says:

    If I might continue:

    Whenever the Church gets into politics, the language becomes lardy. An example is VatII’s use of the phrase “total war”, which can mean many different things.

Comments are closed.