Universal health coverage preempts politics

You would think that after paragraph 11 of Pope John XXIII’s 1963 encyclical Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth), no Catholic would argue that health coverage is less than a right of every person. It says, “Beginning our discussion of the rights of man, we see that every man has the right to life, to bodily integrity, and to the means which are necessary and suitable for the proper development of life; these are primarily food, clothing, shelter, rest, medical care, and finally the necessary social services.” You would think.

Here Pope John, with no regard for Democratic-Republican arm-wrestling, in 1963 put medical care on the same par as food and shelter. It is not a luxury, such as some right to cable TV or a Lexus. It is a right. All must be accorded the basic medical safety net needed for life. It does not mean cosmetic surgery. It means life.

But we Catholics, who are 24 percent of the U.S. population, are either unaware of the social teachings of recent popes or else more inclined to take our moral teaching and instruction from other sources. This is why there is such a disconnect between Catholic teaching and practice in the social field. Rockville Center’s Bishop William Murphy, representing the U.S. Catholic bishops, testified before congressional committees trying to write legislation to provide for universal health coverage. This was reported in Catholic newspapers and journals if not in the secular media. Few seem to have heard.

Futhermore, there is still debate about how Catholic social teaching should shape America’s political and economic policies. Some have said that the government has no responsibility to provide the social service of national health insurance. While they do not argue that health care is a right, they say that government is free of any duty to provide it. They seem to trust the web of private medical insurers with their rules about pre-existing conditions and ineligibilities for benefits, which has seen to nearly 50 million Americans without coverage, can do the job.

To me, this is like saying it is immoral to throw overboard survivors from a crowded lifeboat but it is moral to throw them up in the air knowing that gravity will usher them into a watery grave. In logic it is called a distinction without a difference. It also sounds more a commitment to a policy of smaller government than to the doctrinal demand for everyone’s health care. Conscientious citizens have to weigh whether small government that allows free rein to rich insurance companies trumps the social and medical care of all citizens.

The same objections were raised historically when innovators wanted government to assure that public education was available for all children. So were they when innovators suggested that a pension policy to assure a dignified retirement was something the government should provide, even though decades had passed since the foundation of the republic without such services. Medicare is yet another innovation to provide a government-run service for everyone’s well being. But objectors always raise the red flag and charge that socialism is about to rear its head.

As the U.S. bishops have made clear, health coverage should be truly universal and must include long-standing policies against abortion funding. It must also include conscience rights that protect the life, dignity and health care of all.

In itself it is healthy to want a government as small as possible. It costs us less in taxes. But we have to investigate motives when objectors cry socialism after having given up trying to call Social Security, Medicare and even public education socialistic. Likewise it is healthy to look to government when, on a lower level, it is impossible or too difficult for the private sector to provide useful social services. But if the real objective is to make jobs for political cronies who staff ever more agencies so as to garner grateful votes in return, that too is reprehensible.

Categories: On Behalf of Justice

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