U. of Chicago's Martin Marty and me. He lets me have it.

I'm used to having my columns misread or intentionally distorted by readers whose closed minds keep them from trying to understand my point. (Examples are posts following two of my recent columns, here and here.)

But for a distinguished scholar like Martin Marty, the highly regarded emeritus professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School, to do it is a major disappointment. In this column in the school's Sightings, Martin concludes that I, "to put it mildly, [tend] to Catholic interests," but are among those who are '"evidently a non-reader of the Catholic documents."

This criticism is based on my April 3 column in which I examined the public policy implications of spreading to all Americans the health care costs of those who engage in high-risk behavior (from smoking to engaging in unsafe sex). As I pointed out in the column, this is not a new (or outside of the mainstream) issue. More precisely put, the question is just how much of the costs should be borne by the high-risk actors and how much by the rest of society, whether through Obamacare or higher private insurance premiums?

It is why, for example, cigarets are so highly taxed. Unadressed, for example, are questions of whether  those who sell or purchase guns should pay higher insurance premiums to offset medical costs incurred by the illegal use of the guns. These questions have been raised and intelligently discussed by both ends of the political spectrum, without, I should add, having their religious beliefs or moral integrity questioned. As Marty did mine.

If Marty would go back and re-read my column, he might notice that while I was raising the question, nowhere did I state or imply that smokers, etc. should be thrown out onto the street, or something like that. As I said in the column's last sentence:

However fanciful are the horribles I conjure up, the issue still remains: Should the government force responsible people to pay more for health insurance so that irresponsible people can pay less?

Maybe it was the "tone" of the column that set off Marty, and if so, I acknowledge the literary criticism. But Marty goes on beyond that to question my religious understanding or values, because I left them out of the article.

Byrne spends no compensatory editorial lines that might match up with Catholic social teaching.

Indeed, I didn't, but I was raising the question as a public policy issue. I chose not to mix religion and public policy, as so many of my critics often accuse me of doing. If Marty wants a discussion about my religious beliefs regarding Obamacare, I can accommodate him.

Contrary to Marty's assumption, I am well aware of Catholic documents and teachings relating to social justice and charity. A Catholic education through college will do that.  In a later column, I briefly touched on those teachings when I said:

Not going it alone seems to me to be the entire point of organized religion. Jesus made it pretty clear that our relation with him is defined by the quality of our relations with others. It strikes me that it's a lot harder to get to where you're going when you're alone. And the church provides the structure that facilitates that trip.

In that column, I itemized (but not completely) the many ways that Catholic institutions fulfill their commitment to their fellow humans, a mission that is inherently a part of the faith.

It is not a necessary  part of church teachings that commitment to the common good requires the support of this or that government program that addresses societal needs. Christ's directives to do good can be applied through other means than government programs.

For their part, America's Catholic Bishops, indeed, have supported Obamacare and have encouraged American Catholics to do the same. But as in any large institution, Catholic opinions can and do vary on Obamacare and a number of other matters. Disagreement with church teachings on birth control, to name one. I and many other Catholics also choose not to agree with the bishop's support of Obamacare. That does not make us apostate.

At base, Martin's perspective is a typical slander made against people who feel as I do. Because we do not support a particular government program, we are accused of having no compassion or caring for the downtrodden or even the "undeserving." His readings of my columns leads him to believe that I typically argue "...against government involvement in 'welfare.'" Hyperbole on Martin's part? Perhaps so, but I have not argued against government welfare; I have argued that it should not  divert resources to others that are not truly needy or create a culture of dependency. That's quite different than asserting that I'm "against government involvement in 'welfare.'"

I won't pretend to match Martin's knowledge of religious theory and practice. I won't question his faith. I'm just one of those guys "in the pews," trying as mightily as God's grace allows me, to follow my conscience and Christ's teachings. But to conclude that my political and public policy opinions corrupt my ability to see Christ in others and acknowledge their instinct merit is a calumny that I can't let pass.

CHICAGO TRIBUNE VIDEO

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