As the Supreme Court considers the constitutionality of the the President’s health care reform and expansion this week, I would like to talk about why health care is something that Catholics should care about and what the Church teaches on the subject. The short explanation is that Catholics should care about health care because it is a human right in the eyes of the Church. This was first explicitly stated by Pope John XXIII in his 1963 encyclical letter Pacem en Terris (Peace on Earth), where he says:
Beginning our discussion of the rights of man [sic], we see that every man has the right to life, to bodily integrity, and to the means which are suitable for the proper development of life; these are primarily food, clothing, shelter, rest, medical care, and finally the necessary social services. (par. 11)
The U.S. Bishops repeated this articulation of the basic rights of the human person in their 1986 pastoral letter Economic Justice for All (par. 80). They further added that the fulfillment of these rights establishes the minimum necessary for the creation of a society of justice, solidarity, and human dignity (par. 80). Furthermore, these rights require positive action by government and private institutions to ensure that all people have access to these essential rights (par. 82-83). This means that it is not enough to ensure that there are no barriers to the pursuance of these rights, but that government must guarantee that all people have reasonable access to the above.
Government has a special role in ensuring the human rights of its citizens because it is government that is responsible for maintaining the common good. According to the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church, the common good is “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily.” (par 164). This fulfillment necessarily includes all of the rights of the human person and constitutes the only legitimate aspiration of any human society.
The point of all this for our current discussion is that there is no question that health care is considered a human right within the Catholic tradition and that governments have a responsibility to ensure that all of their citizens have access to it, regardless of their social or financial situation. This means that there is nothing particularly anti-Catholic about the recent health care reform act as a whole. The U.S. Bishops were and are critical of some specific and narrow elements relating to long-standing Catholic teaching on abortion and contraception, but this should not be confused with an objection to government regulated or provided health care in general. In fact, the Catholic Church teaches that all Christians have a moral obligation to support universal access to health care. When this is not available by other means, the government not only has the right, but a duty to step in and provide for it.
The health care reform legislation passed in 2010 is not perfect, but it does represent a good and necessary step forward in ensuring that all people can exercise their right to access health care. Catholics can and should be supportive of this effort, even as they work to address its flaws and see that it is expanded to include all people in this country without access to proper medical care.
[Image: CBS News]
Health Care and the Catholic Tradition by Br. Stephen DeWitt, OFM is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.