Bishops Wrong: Health Care Not a Right

Recently, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development released a statement made to the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate stating that “health care is not a privilege but a right and a requirement to protect the life and dignity of each person.”  They couldn’t be more wrong.

The Committee that composed the document obviously supports President Obama’s desire for national health care reform (with the caveat that taxpayers should not be forced to pay for abortions).  National health care reform is a political issue.  People of goodwill can be for it or against it as the recent congressional debates will readily attest. Yet, when the seeming weight of the bishops is attached to an issue affecting the commonweal, the words they use often connote a moral imperative which in the case of health care does not exist.  The only right that one human being owes to another is “medical care.”  This means care and treatment for an immediate need. For instance, a person has a right to expect that civil society would provide for an emergency appendectomy even if he is without sufficient means to pay for it.  Biblical support for medical care can be found in the Golden Rule and the story of the Good Samaritan.  On the other hand, while preventive medicine such as an annual check-up or the right to elective surgery may benefit some people no where is it found as binding in the natural law or the Christian tradition.

Failure to differentiate between what is a fundamental human right and an opinion of what is deemed to be good by some — and the confusion over what is morally binding and what is not — has had deleterious effects on America’s Catholics and on the country as a whole.  This failure in such statements distorts the truth.  Furthermore, they divide the faithful and affect the political process.

Since I do not wish to engage in an internecine polemic, I will speak solely to my final point.

The religious institutions of any nation have an obligation to inform civil society of proper ethical behavior. In a democracy, freedom of speech and the right to vote have a direct impact on the laws deemed good for structuring society. With over 60 million Catholics in the United States, the voice of the bishops can strongly influence elections and hence legislation. Moral authority and suasion therefore cannot be squandered on social preference. This is especially true for the Catholic bishops, since they are called to proclaim God’s law and not to promote a political agenda. To confuse what is morally right with a perceived social good, no matter how meritorious their intentions, is to abuse their office causing grave intra-Church and societal consequences. 

Two examples will make my point. The bishops’ past lack of clarity with pro-choice Catholic politicians had given license for some prominent Catholics to endorse Barack Obama for the presidency and gave permission to 54% of Catholics to vote for him.  Thus, the Catholic vote secured the election of the most pro-death politician to ever sit in the White House. Another failure caused by imprecise definition has led some people to believe that the Church’s opposition to capital punishment holds the same weight as its stance against abortion.  The failure to declare the former as a prudential judgment and the latter to be intrinsically evil has given some Catholics the cover they needed to vote pro-choice on abortion and argue that they are pro-life because they oppose the death penalty.  Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, a Catholic, is a case in point. Some bishops went so far as to praise him as being pro-life for his rejection of capital punishment.  I think not!

On July 7 of this year, Pope Benedict XVI issued his third encyclical entitled Caritas in Veritate — “On Integral Human Development in Charity and Truth.”  In it, he continually re-emphasized one of the foundational principles of Catholic social teaching — the common good. To achieve a good and just society, the Pope emphasizes that charity is authentic only when it is seen through the lens of truth revealed in faith and reason.  The political process therefore must be so guided in order to achieve this end.

To promote health care as a right under the aegis of Catholic morality by the USCCB is not the truth.  As a matter of fact, it is not even charity because, as the Pope says, “Without truth, charity degenerates into sentimentality.  Love becomes an empty shell, to be filled in an arbitrary way.”

Such carelessness with the truth, whether intentional or unintentional, by the USCCB undermines both the Catholic Church and American society.