Medicaid expansion has been a hot topic among state legislators since Gov. Dennis Daugaard announced his intention to reject federal funding to increase health coverage for low-income South Dakotans. But just as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops calls believers to action and declares accessible health care "an essential safeguard of human life and a fundamental human right," Sioux Falls Bishop Paul Swain is determined to remain silent, even when asked directly by reporters. This abdication of moral leadership is sad for such a visible church figure, especially on this urgent life issue.
The U.S. bishops provide regular guidance on Catholic political responsibility, and while church leaders are not to advocate for or against particular candidates or parties, the USCCB asserts that "the obligation to teach about moral values that should shape our lives, including our public lives, is central to the mission given to the Church by Jesus." Pope Benedict XVI stressed in Deus Caritas Est that church leaders "cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice." And on this issue, the bishops are unambiguous, calling for "greater assistance for those who are sick and dying, through health care for all . . . the USCCB supports measures to strengthen Medicare and Medicaid." Indeed, Catholic bishops in Ohio, Arizona, Utah, Illinois, New Mexico and other states have publicly urged their governors to embrace Medicaid expansion; Swain should do the same in South Dakota.
Of course, Swain is certainly entitled to any position he likes on Medicaid expansion. But it is wrong for him to remain on the sidelines, as lives literally hang in the balance. Every year, an estimated 26,000 to 45,000 Americans die for lack of health insurance. As one of the most influential religious figures in South Dakota, Swain has a moral obligation to lead. His deliberate and cowardly silence up to now is shameful. But it is not too late.