The independent Catholic press, health-care reform

Slave or free?

It’s clear that John Wilkins holds the independent Catholic press in high regard (“The Tightrope,” November 6). The word “independent” appears in his piece more than a dozen times. But how independent is it, exactly? Are editorial decisions not influenced by the fear or favor of subscribers, or, for example, the Henry Luce Foundation? Not even a little? As Bob Dylan says, “You gotta serve somebody.” Even if your editorial decisions are based on the most pristine motives, aren’t we left with, on the one hand, publications “dependent” on the church’s teaching authority, handed down through the ages by the Apostles under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and, on the other hand, publications “dependent” on the current state of the conscience of the current editor on the current publication date? Viewed that way, it’s hard to see the “different dependence” as a terribly strong selling point.

Not that there’s no value in the Catholic press—I’ve been a subscriber to Commonweal for a number of years because I see its value. Count me as one of those much more conservative Catholics Paul Baumann mentions—people sufficiently invested in Catholicism to make their way through an issue of Commonweal. But the magazine’s value is greatest not when it sounds discordant notes, but rather when it complements the other sections of the orchestra—when it thinks with the maestro, not around him; when it understands that it is dependent, and that that’s not a bad thing.

Mark R. Proska

Springfield, Pa.

The Editor Replies:

First, I want to thank Mark Proska for reading the magazine, and urge him to continue doing so, if perhaps a bit more carefully. As to his suggestion that Commonweal not hit discordant notes but rather notes that complement other sections of the orchestra, it would be helpful if he could be more specific about what those notes might be. Was it discordant of Commonweal to embrace religious liberty and the separation of church and state while the rest of the orchestra was playing a very different tune? Was it discordant of Commonweal to dissent from the church’s teaching of contempt for the Jewish people and its history of discrimination and persecution of the Jews before the rest of the orchestra was handed the new score at the Second Vatican Council? Allow me to suggest that the value of Commonweal is perhaps greatest when it can show how the Catholic tradition itself calls on the church to be more faithful to the gospel. So no, we are not left with a simple choice between either dependence on the church’s teaching authority or the “current state of the conscience of the current editor.” The very fact that Proska subscribes to Commonweal would seem to suggest that he understands that.

Proska offers little more than a caricature of Wilkins’s argument about how to balance loyalty to the church with journalistic independence. I would urge him to read the piece again, especially the conclusion, where Wilkins writes that “independent Catholic media that are critically loyal have an indispensable role to play provided their approach is founded on knowledge, research, love of the church, humility, self-discipline, self-examination, and readiness to accept correction.”

Finally, does the Henry Luce Foundation influence editorial decisions? Not even a little. Do subscribers? Of course they do.

Paul Baumann

Risky business

I consistently find Cathleen Kaveny’s essays insightful and helpful. Her November 6 column on health-care reform and health insurance (“Risk & Responsibility”) seems to be an unfortunate lapse.

It must be said that her fundamental analysis of the nature of insurance is accurate. Insurance is all about risk transfer; therefore, the basic goals are to avoid moral hazard on the one hand and cherry-picking on the other. Her long explication of the character of insurance, however, does not yield her brief conclusion that solidarity and vulnerability—not risk transfer—should ground health-care reform.

It’s not a matter of either/or. Fair health-risk transfer, where the young support the old and the healthy support the sick, is the concrete expression of solidarity and vulnerability in a health-insurance system. The only alternatives to insurance at the heart of a health-care system are a single-payer system (as in Canada) or a system of national health care (as in the United Kingdom). Yet Kaveny does not advocate either in her column. Therefore it is difficult to see the point of her critique of the insurance model.

Any politically and culturally viable U.S. health-care reform will be based on some version of insurance. Understanding how insurance works, then, is central to crafting a piece of legislation that is just and that embraces solidarity.

Clarke E. Cochran

Lubbock, Tex.

Published in the 2009-12-04 issue: 
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