“Health care is a right, not just a responsibility.” This teaching of the Catholic Church also happens to be a dividing line between Barack Obama and John McCain. I do not advocate deciding political matters by a single issue, but health care provokes a review of the Catholic mindset on important social policy.
At stake is the role of government. If health care is a right, then the burden falls on government to guarantee the services. Just like government ought to intervene if a person is denied voting rights or unfairly denied admission to school, health care becomes a matter for governmental vigilance. Denial of benefits, endless delays in delivery, one-sided bureaucratic decisions to refuse insurance and other current abuses intended to deprive clients of services would become crimes to be prosecuted in defense of the people’s rights. Rather than a question of the victim’s race or gender, this would become a matter of right for every person.
Certainly, there are many (Catholics included) who view universal health coverage as “big government intervention.” But in a democracy, government represents the people. Universal health care – or expanded insurance care on the way to universal coverage – in a true democracy is not intrusion of a third party between the people and an insurance company, but rather the people’s collective tool against injustice in pursuit of profits. This is the Catholic position, taught by the bishops of this country and in accord with papal teaching.
This Catholic view is currently defended in an interview conducted by the Catholic Digest with Senator Obama: “I’ve tried to apply the precepts of compassion and care for the vulnerable that are so central to Catholic teachings to my work, [such as in] making health care a right for all Americans — I was the sponsor in the state legislature for the Bernardin Amendment, named after Cardinal Bernardin, a wonderful figure in Chicago I had the opportunity to work with who said that health care should be a right.” Perhaps work as a community organizer in Chicago for the Catholic Campaign for Human Development and living in a Catholic rectory for half a year have played a role in Obama’s endorsement of the Catholic position.
The alternative to Obama’s platform is to view health care as a responsibility placed on individuals to provide for themselves and their family. Since the purpose is to contain the costs of health care, this is a valid approach. Instead of empowering the government to act for the people in defense of their rights, individual responsibility leaves everything to personal choice. That sounds fine, but it leaves the person with fewer tools to fight injustice. After all, one of the choices may be “to take a risk” and not seek any insurance at all. Living without health insurance virtually guarantees that an individual and a family could be deprived of health care.
Personal choice does not override the need for altruism, viz. love of neighbor. Society has a duty to control the spread of disease in order to “provide for the common welfare.” This is not merely a response to the contagious stomach flu for second graders: There are serious diseases that damage the common good, as for example, in the case of deadly epidemics. Moreover, it needs to be recognized that unless health care is viewed as right, health care insurance remains a money-making operation, leaving the unscrupulous able to exploit the helpless. A Catholic conscience does not ignore that the most common cause of bankruptcy is catastrophic illness that wipes out a lifetime of savings when not covered by insurance. Thus, Catholics are taught by faith to be critical of a laissez-faire attitude echoed by Senator McCain who advocates “…opening up the health insurance market to more vigorous nationwide competition, as we have done over the last decade in banking.”
The Catholic Church teaches that health care is best viewed as a right and recent events demonstrate the wisdom of that teaching. Health care as a right is the Pro-Life position. This basic fact needs to be taken into the voting booth along with the abortion issue when deciding who will best implement a Catholic vision for society.