Over the past month, the issue of health care has been in the news quite a bit. As Washington struggles with this issue, I thought it would be a good time to examine health care reform through the lens of the church.
In the Gospels, we find Jesus spending much of his time tending the wounds, both physical and spiritual, of those in his community. Since its foundation, the Catholic Church has continued the healing work of Jesus by ministering to people in need, the sick, the homeless, the elderly, the disabled and others. Health care ministry has always been a key part of the church’s identity.
In the United States, the church has a rich history of being involved in health care and that is especially true locally. Thanks to the commitment of Catholic religious orders, priests and countless lay people, Catholic institutions have been leaders in providing health care to the people of northeast Wisconsin going back to the 19th century, when a group of women religious established St. Vincent Hospital, the first hospital in the area.
Moreover, every year our local Catholic hospitals provide millions of dollars in donated services to the poor. Needless to say, the church has significant experience in this field and thus much to offer to this discussion of health care reform.
Given this experience, the bishops of the United States have advocated for health care reform for a long time. This reform has always been rooted in the fundamental belief that access to adequate health care is a right belonging to all human beings. Pope John XXIII, in his encyclical Pacem in Terris, outlined this right as one of the “means necessary for the proper development of life” which flows from our inherent human dignity.
Rooted in this basic principle, the bishops have consistently outlined the moral imperatives of any attempt to reform health care:
Respect for life and dignity: Health care is intended for the development and enhancement of human life, not the destruction of it. Health care reform must not compel citizens to pay for the destruction of human life.
Honoring conscience rights: At the Second Vatican Council, the bishops called a person’s conscience “the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, whose voice echoes in his depths” (Gaudium et spes). All stakeholders in the health care system must be provided with protections that allow them to follow their conscience.
Access for all: Access to health care is a right. Any health care reform must be aimed at providing greater access to health care, not taking this away.
Truly affordable: The church has long held that when evaluating social issues, we must make the needs of the poor and vulnerable a priority. This teaching has been a focus of Pope Francis’s papacy. When it comes to health care, we must find ways to make care affordable for all people, especially the poor and vulnerable.
Comprehensive and high-quality: Health care is aimed toward our human dignity and our ability to develop fully as human beings. Thus efforts to reform the health care system must look beyond ways to provide basic, that is, limited care, and emphasize solutions that promote healthy lifestyles and preventative measures, while also treating disease and disability.
For the church, these are the fundamentals of a health care policy that supports and promotes human life and dignity. Unless and until we develop policies that meet each of these objectives, we will remain in perpetual need of reform, and those in greatest need will pay the price.