Of Politics and Principles…

As some of you who have read my previous postings may be aware, since June of this year – with the infamous mandatory switch to DTV – I have been living without a television (link). As a real news junkie, this required some behavioral modification on my part: time that was once spent watching news program after news program could now be devoted to other pursuits – reading, exercising, more formal meditation and prayer, catching up with friends, or just some nice quiet time to myself. All in all, I have to say that I really haven’t missed television that much. Still – old habits die hard, and every evening before I retire it is my practice to go on-line and check the websites of the local newspapers to see what the most recent headlines are; then, in the morning, I always wake up to the breaking news reported on the local radio station Ten-Ten WINS: as they request, I give them their 22 minutes and they “give me the world” – or at least what’s going on in it! In this manner, I am seldom surprised when I wake up and listen to the radio and hear what’s going on, because I already have an inkling of what the next day’s news will be. Surprises still happen however – and the most recent one was just about a month ago when I awoke to the newscaster’s voice telling me that President Obama was about to comment on his reception of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize. I immediately straightened up – “did I hear that right?” I thought. “Surely” I thought further “they meant that the President was going to make comments and congratulate whoever the recipient of this year’s Peace Prize was”, and so I listened again and discovered that no, what I first heard was correct: that President Barack Obama had been awarded the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize by the Norwegian Nobel Committee for his vision to strengthen the role of dialogue, negotiation and multilateral diplomacy in resolving international crises, for his goal of and work toward a world without nuclear weapons, and ultimately for capturing the world’s attention and giving people hope for a better future (link).

As I got ready for work, that news began to sink in a little more, and I have to admit that my initial reaction was one of surprise. As a person whose work is in the field of “Justice and Peace”, I have always noted with interest the accomplishments of past Nobel Peace Prize Laureates (one of my favorite T-shirts has the ironic comment “I’d kill for a Nobel Peace Prize” emblazoned across the chest!) Generally, people who win the Nobel Peace Prize do so for accomplishing some extraordinary societal change (Martin Luther King Jr., Lech Walesa, Nelson Mandela), living a life of altruism and extraordinary virtue (Mother Teresa), or some combination thereof. I admit that all of the things that the Nobel Prize Committee cited in their announcement of President Obama’s winning of this year’s prize are very good and very humane, yet arguably except for capturing the world’s attention and generating a feeling of hope in people by his election, the remainder of the reasons that the Nobel Committee gave for its selection are more the President’s aspirations, vision and goals then his concrete accomplishments at this point. President Obama seemed to realize this when he called his reception of the prize a “call to action” (link). Reaction to the President’s reception of the Nobel was pretty much mixed and predictable, based upon a person’s location along the political spectrum. One of the most astute observations, I thought, was from dissident playwright turned President Vaclav Havel, who twenty years ago this month led the people of then-communist Czechoslovakia through their “Velvet Revolution”, helping to transform their society from totalitarianism to democracy (link). The one time President of the Czech Republic, when told that President Obama had won the Nobel Peace Prize, asked rhetorically if it were true that President Obama had refused to meet the Dalai Lama (himself a Nobel Peace Prize recipient in 1989) in order to curry favor with the Chinese government. When told that the President had indeed done so as part of the Administration’s new policy of “strategic reassurance” – softening criticism of China’s human rights violations to calm the fears of the nation that is bankrolling the United State’s debt – Havel, no stranger himself to the interplay of politics and principle, commented that “it is only a minor compromise. But exactly with these minor compromises start the big and dangerous ones, the real problems.” (link) Our President – a masterful politician and consensus builder who has yet to make a concrete decision as Commander-in-Chief regarding our continued military involvement in the theater of Afghanistan that he inherited – would do well to consider Mr. Havel’s sage advice as he undertakes his considerable international and domestic responsibilities.

I thought of this interplay – between politics and principle, compromise and real problems – as I read Archbishop Dolan’s October 26th blog post (link) regarding Congressman Patrick Kennedy’s comment in an interview that the Catholic Bishops of the United States were fanning “the flames of dissent and discord” by stating their intent to vigorously oppose a final bill on healthcare reform unless it specifically includes longstanding federal protections restricting abortion funding and mandates, protecting the conscience rights of healthcare providers, and providing adequate access to heath care for immigrants and the poor – concerns that Kennedy termed “a red herring”. Kennedy’s comments came on the heals of other comments in the mainstream media accusing the Church of an “inconsistent approach” to health care reform that has created confusion and led to a breakdown in understanding regarding the Church’s primary concerns (link).

If some people in Congress, the media or even the general public are confused about the Church’s stance on the healthcare debate, they really shouldn’t be if they had been paying attention. While the U.S Catholic Bishops have for decades been at the forefront of the campaign for healthcare reform, their concerns in that debate have always remained constant: as Archbishop Dolan’s blog succinctly states, “The Catholic community in the United States hardly needs to be lectured to about just healthcare. We’ve been energetically into it for centuries. And we bishops have been advocating for universal healthcare for a long, long time. All we ask is that it be just that – universal – meaning that it includes the helpless baby in the womb, the immigrant, and grandma in a hospice, and that it protects a healthcare provider’s right to follow his/her own conscience.” What some people might have become confused over may be in reading the politics of the healthcare debate – the arena where “minor compromise” is possible; regarding the principles that should animate those compromises – specifically here for the Church: health care reform that’s universal, respects human life and dignity, is accessible for all (especially the poor and immigrants) and protects freedom of conscience – there can be no compromise without risking the much bigger dangers that Havel mentions. The Church could no more compromise on these core matters – matters that run to the very purpose of providing healthcare in the first place – then Havel could’ve compromised on the principle of totalitarian rule as he pursued the goal of freedom for his people during the Velvet Revolution of 1989. So seriously, in fact, do the Bishops take these core principles that they have taken the step of asking Catholics from around the country to contact their Senators and Congressional Representatives as they put together final bills on healthcare reform for consideration in the Congress and urge them to oppose any bills under consideration that are deficient on issues of abortion and conscience, and that do not provide adequate access to healthcare for immigrants and the poor. You can send an instant message to your Congressional representatives to that effect by clicking here: www.usccb.org/action.

In the weeks to come, our Congressional representatives will be drafting and debating policies in health care reform that will – for good or ill – have an impact on just about every family for years to come. As they exercise this Constitutional responsibility, each of us has a corollary moral responsibility to learn about the bills under consideration and to remind our representatives that in undertaking those minor compromises that all political negotiation entail, that they keep their eyes on the prize of healthcare that is universal, accessible, and protects life and conscience, and that in pursuit of these goals they don’t – figuratively or literally – throw the baby out with the bathwater!

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