Catholic Charities describes itself as a “social justice movement,” one that sees its mission as providing “service to people in need” and giving aid to local agencies “in their efforts to reduce poverty.” Given the role of health care expenses in pushing people into poverty, then, you would think Roman Catholic leaders would be big fans of Obamacare, which by extending health insurance to millions of Americans is possibly the most important piece of anti-poverty legislation passed by Congress in decades. Oh yes, and given the demonstrated link between having health insurance and living longer, it may also be a pretty powerful piece of pro-life legislation.
But Father John, a diocese Roman Catholic priest who I spoke with recently, considers Obamacare to be an “Obamanation” and describes Obama himself as “the most evil president of my lifetime."
How is it that the Father Johns of the world have come to despise Obamacare so much? And what do their emotions teach us about the challenge of building public support for anti-poverty legislation more generally?
Father John’s feelings arise from a wellspring of sources. They start no doubt with his deep Republican roots, roots that have been growing further into the ground for many Roman Catholic priests since the time of Roe v. Wade. Before this controversial Supreme Court decision, most American Catholics were Democrats—blue collar, European immigrants with a taste for social justice. After Roe v. Wade, however, the church made it a priority to emphasize opposition to abortion, meaning when the Democrats became the pro-choice party, it set up a clash between the party and the church. Other feminist causes also housed themselves in the Democratic Party—topics like birth control, which also riled the Roman Catholic leadership (if not its congregations).
Father John has been an ardent Republican for years, so he was already skeptical of anything that a Democrat like Obama would come up with. His skepticism was pushed into overdrive, however, when Obama decided to mandate that employers offer birth control coverage in their employee health plans. Obama’s later compromise, to require insurance companies to pay for all contraceptives rather than employers, was too little, too late for Father John: “That’s totally bogus,” he told me.
With strong emotional opposition to Obama never far from his mind, Father John had a difficult time opening himself up to the idea that Obamacare has any potential merits. When I spoke with him about my wife, who has a pre-existing diagnosis of breast cancer, and explained that if she lost her job she would be unable to afford health insurance were it not for Obamacare, he grudgingly admitted that such protection was a good thing. (Indeed, Mitt Romney seemed to make a similar argument recently, but most policy experts don’t see how he could do that—force insurance companies to cover people with pre-existing conditions—without also mandating like he did in Massachusetts that healthy people buy insurance.)
When I explained that people like my wife would be bankrupted by tens of thousands of dollars of medical bills if they didn’t have insurance, Father John commiserated with their fate. But his empathy quickly disappeared, as he found himself ranting again about how Obama wanted to “trample on religious liberty.” He ended our conversation with a terse summary of his position: “I feel for people with illnesses they didn’t bring upon themselves. But I worry that people will become dependent on the government.”
If Father John gets his way, and Obamacare is repealed by Mitt Romney and a Republican Congress, Americans with pre-existing conditions will be free once again to go bankrupt over health care expenses. At that point, they will have little choice but to become dependent on the kindness of strangers—or the generosity of Catholic Charities—to help them escape the grip of medically induced poverty.