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Health-care dilemmas for Catholic bishops

In Catholic debates, it always helps to be able to quote the official Catechism of the Catholic Church.

"Life and physical health are precious gifts entrusted to us by God," notes the catechism. "Concern for the health of its citizens requires that society help in the attainment of living-conditions that allow them to grow and reach maturity: food and clothing, housing, health care, basic education, employment and social assistance."

The implication is that governments — as a matter of social justice — should help citizens obtain basic health care, according to a letter by the Domestic Justice and Human Development Committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Health care is a human right, not a privilege, argued Bishop William F. Murphy.

Try telling that to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sibelius, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, surgeon general nominee Regina Benjamin, Vice President Joe Biden and other Catholics who play strategic roles in Washington, D.C., right now — while rejecting Catholic teachings on many critical health-care issues.

That's the political reality that the bishops are facing, said Leonard J. Nelson, a health-care law specialist at the Cumberland School of Law at Samford University.

For the bishops, Catholic teachings on the sanctity of human life are crystal clear, from birth to death, from abortion to euthanasia. Yet the bishops also support health-care for all — rich and poor. It's getting harder to keep these issues woven together.

Meanwhile, he said, leaders of Catholic hospitals and health-care systems will almost certainly face challenges in the near future.

For starters, they could be pressured to join networks and cooperatives that have no reason to follow the bioethical guidelines detailed in the "Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services" adopted by the U.S. Catholic bishops. It will be hard for Catholic leaders to cooperate with government approved health-care programs and receive government funds while declining to offer services such as contraception, sterilizations and referrals for abortions.

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities.