Catholic Bishop: 'I Cannot Support' Current Health Care Legislation

Rev. James V. Johnston
By Rev. James V. Johnston | September 24, 2009 | 5:00 AM EDT

Skinning the 'Health Care Cat'
“Heal the sick …” -- Matthew 10:8
A very odd and macabre saying that I have always found somewhat disturbing is that “there’s more than one way to skin a cat.” The point of the saying is that in the undertaking of a complex project, there are usually a variety of ways to reach the goal, some better than others. This is true of the current and often passionate debate concerning health care reform.

Needless to say, health care reform is a very complex issue, with many important peripheral issues, such as cost and how to pay for it, economic impact, the role of the federal government, abortion, euthanasia, tort reform, etc. But as such, health care reform is particularly important in that, as Catholics, we understand the principles that should be at the very heart of this delicate work.
Human dignity

To begin, one must recognize that the provision of health care is rooted in our recognition of the basic dignity of every human person, made in God’s image. Individuals and society both have inherent obligations to protect, respect, and promote the human person and his/her good.
This basic principle is articulated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which reads: “Life and physical health are precious gifts entrusted to us by God. We must take reasonable care of them, taking into account the needs of others and the common good. Concern for the health of its citizens requires that society help in the attainment of living conditions that allow them to grow and reach maturity: food and clothing, housing, health care, basic education, employment, and social assistance” (CCC #2288).

The Catholic Church has responded to these concerns since the first century. In fact, hospitals have their genesis in the Catholic Church, founded in her desire to respond to the teaching of Jesus enunciated in the parable of the Good Samaritan. One out of every six hospital beds in the US today is in a Catholic hospital.
Societies also have an obligation to take a role in assisting in the provision of adequate health care for all. Each person should have access to basic, affordable, adequate health care. This is a goal that should be supported by our nation. However, the goal becomes more complex because there is a variety of opinion as to what “basic, affordable, and adequate” means.
Safeguarding human life

A basic principle for health care reform is that it must not include policies that deliberately attack human life from conception to natural death. This means that health care reform measures must not include provisions for taxpayer-funded abortion or euthanasia. Inclusion of any procedure which attacks innocent human life would be inconsistent with any truly legitimate health care reform measure.
As Pope John Paul II noted in his encyclical, “The Gospel of Life” (Evangelium Vitae): “It is impossible to further the common good without acknowledging and defending the right to life, upon which all the other inalienable rights of individuals are founded and from which they develop.”

Expounding on this basic truth, the U.S. bishops noted in their statement, “Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics”: “Any politics of human dignity must seriously address issues of racism, poverty, hunger, employment, education, housing, and health care. … But being ‘right’ in such matters can never excuse a wrong choice regarding direct attacks on innocent human life. Indeed, the failure to protect and defend life in its most vulnerable stages renders suspect any claims to the ‘rightness’ of positions in other matters affecting the poorest and least powerful of the human community.”

Beyond this, there are other procedures/treatments, such as in-vitro fertilization, voluntary sterilization, sex-change operations, and the provision of contraceptives, that some would consider basic health care.
There is no right to these, as they too are in violation of the moral law and human dignity; as such, they should not be included in any proposal.
Conscience protection

Another concern that must be addressed in any health care legislation is the matter of protecting the freedom of conscience of both patients and health care providers. Recent events show how real is the threat of federal power to coerce health care providers, employers, and individuals into participating in actions contrary to conscience and Catholic teaching, or face sanction and/or dismissal.
Earlier this month the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) took action against Belmont Abbey College, a small Catholic college in North Carolina, for removing coverage for abortion, contraception, and voluntary sterilization from their employee insurance plan after they were inadvertently included.
The EEOC ruled that Belmont Abbey was guilty of discrimination. This action sets a dangerous precedent and highlights the dangers that await if very clear conscience protections are not included in health care reform proposals.

Other concerns

Besides these important principles, other thorny questions must be answered. One might legitimately ask if giving a large, inefficient, but powerful bureaucracy like the federal government control of health care is a wise move. For one, this runs counter to the well-known principle of subsidiarity, so prominent in Catholic social teaching: “a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good."
“The principle of subsidiarity is opposed to all forms of collectivism. It sets limits for state intervention.” (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 1883,1885). One might consider this the principle of social dignity.

How much of a role the government should have is a matter of prudential judgment. However, there are ethical dimensions to this question. Certainly, it has a role to play, but that does not necessarily mean that it should be the sole provider of health care. The government can act to remove abuses, and to regulate the health care industry so that the markets efficiently serve all the people.
Government may also be needed to see that no one, especially the working poor and the most destitute and forgotten, falls through the cracks. But the essential element of the principle of subsidiarity is the protection of individual freedoms from unjust micromanagement and manipulation by the state.

Though, as your bishop, I would like to support the provision of adequate health care for everyone, I cannot support the bills/proposals that are currently before Congress, for they do not adequately incorporate the essential principles listed above.
I offer this brief summary in hope that it will assist you in exercising your role as a citizen. Communicate your concerns and pray for those who must make these decisions, our elected officials. May all those engaged in this issue craft a plan that provides universal health care that is affordable to all, distributes costs equitably, and above all, safeguards human life from conception to natural death and the freedom of conscience.
We must never forget as then-Card. Ratzinger stated, “There is only one morality … the morality of God’s commandments, which cannot be temporarily suspended in order to bring about a change in the status quo more quickly.”
The Most Reverend James V. Johnston is the bishop for the Catholic Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau in Missouri. This column was initially published Sept. 4, 2009 in the diocesan weekly, The Mirror. Repint here courtesy of the Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau.