"We, the bishops of the United States -- can you believe it -- in 1919 came out for more affordable, more comprehensive, more universal health care."

Timothy Dolan on Sunday, December 1st, 2013 in an interview on NBC's "Meet the Press"

U.S. bishops have supported universal health care since 1919, Cardinal Dolan says

Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York sat for an interview with NBC's David Gregory on Dec. 1, 2013. We checked one of his claims about the bishops' historical support for expanding health care.

The Catholic church and the White House have been clashing over contraception requirements in President Barack Obama’s signature health care law.

As we’ve noted before, the Affordable Care Act requires Catholic hospitals to provide all birth control approved by the Food and Drug Administration to their employers with no out-of-pocket costs, including birth control pills, Plan B, diaphragms and hormone shots. Coverage for emergency contraception, but not abortion, is required.

"Religious employers" are exempt from the requirement, but the hospitals don’t qualify for exemptions because they both employ and serve people who may not share their religious beliefs.

In an interview with David Gregory on NBC’s Meet the Press, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, perhaps the most prominent member of the Catholic heirarchy in the United States, spoke out against a mandate for hospitals to provide these services, including emergency-contraception pills.

At the same time, though, Dolan cited some common ground between the church and the administration it’s been battling.

"We bishops have been really kind of in a tough place because we're for universal, comprehensive, life-affirming health care," Dolan said. "We, the bishops of the United States -- can you believe it -- in 1919 came out for more affordable, more comprehensive, more universal health care. That's how far back we go in this battle, okay?"

We wondered whether the bishops’ support for comprehensive health care really goes back nearly a century.

Experts pointed us to the history of the National Catholic Welfare Council, the predecessor of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. The council held an annual meeting in which U.S. bishops discussed national policy issues such as education, welfare and health care.

During the February 1919, meeting, held just after World War I, a group of bishops, led by a Catholic social reformer, Father John A. Ryan, published the Bishops’ Program of Social Reconstruction, a guide to overhauling U.S. social justice. Dolan was referring to a section on social insurance, his spokesman said.

"The state," the guide read, "should make comprehensive provision for insurance against illness, invalidity, unemployment, and old age."

That wasn’t the last time the USCCB has supported health care expansions. For example, the group has publicly supported a variety of proposals, including former President Bill Clinton’s ultimately defeated health care plan in 1993.

"The flap is over the (contraception) issue," said Maria Mazzenga, a Catholic history archivist at The Catholic University of America. "That’s where it comes to appear that they’re against universal health care."

Mazzenga said that, despite opposition to one specific part of Obamacare, all but the most conservative bishops have consistently supported health care efforts over the years.

Our ruling

Dolan said U.S. bishops have supported expanding health care since 1919. He’s correct that the National Catholic Welfare Council published pro-health-care expansion literature that year, and experts told us that the bishops have regularly supported proposals to expand health care over the years, despite disagreements over specific provisions enacted under Obama, including contraception regulations. We rate Dolan’s claim True.