Bishops v. Nuns in Jeeps? Why a Facially "Intra-Catholic" Health Care Dispute Matters


Catholic institutions have characteristics both as service-providers for large numbers of Americans and as citizens that engage in legislative advocacy with a uniquely nonpartisan voice. Because of this dual role, the Catholic Church’s approach to evaluating legislation matters on a broad scale, both to individual citizens and to institutions of different faith traditions. This is especially the case with the debate surrounding the passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (“PPACA”), which revealed a good deal about the content of the Church’s hierarchy of principles and its methods for evaluating proposed laws. The policy-making body of the U.S. Catholic Bishops (the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops or “USCCB”) scrutinized the PPACA primarily by means of a rigorous and transparent analytical method within the discipline in question—in this case, the law pertaining to statutory interpretation and to executive orders. The principles that the USCCB applied and upon which it relied in its analysis were threefold: 1) respect for life, 2) religious freedom, and 3) truth in love. In order to elucidate the USCCB’s method for evaluating legislation affecting human life and social welfare, this article examines USCCB documents issued in response to the PPACA as well as various documents of the universal Church, explains how the USCCB tested specific provisions of the PPACA against the principles in these documents, describes competing views of the bill, and comments on the strengths and weaknesses of the USCCB’s articulation of its principles and methods, particularly in light of current political and cultural trends.