Busted Halo
feature: politics & culture
August 23rd, 2009

For I Was Ill and You Cared For Me

A Catholic convert calls on his Church to be a positive force in extending health care to all



‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’

And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’ (Matthew 25:37-40)

People of faith are not of one political party or the other — not all conservative or all progressive, all right or all left. But most people of faith believe as a core principle that we should love one another and care for one another — that this is how we express Divine Love.

Can we agree on this: Can we agree that it’s a scandal that tens of millions of Americans live in fear of getting sick, because of the ruin it might bring to their lives? And that many of the rest of us are only a layoff away from the same situation? This is not a statement of rights. This is not an argument for exactly how to extend to those people the security of universal coverage. But can we agree that it is for the Common Good that this be done?

It upsets me how little I’ve heard from religious leaders. Most notably, what I’ve heard from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. While the bishops have gone on record multiple times in favor of universal coverage, their recent focus on attacking the current proposals gives the impression they are hostile towards the whole effort. I know the bishops want universal coverage. I’ve read the urgency of their words on the subject. But that’s not the message that’s reaching politicians or the general public.

I know the bishops want universal coverage. I’ve read the urgency of their words on the subject. But that’s not the message that’s reaching politicians or the general public…

Part of what called me to the Catholic faith was the centrality of the messages that God is Love and that we have a responsibility to care for those who are suffering. So I am especially frustrated and pained by this impression.

As someone who converted to Catholicism, I’m a little biased. Part of what called me to the Catholic faith was the centrality of the messages that God is Love and that we have a responsibility to care for those who are suffering. So I am especially frustrated and pained by this impression — all the more striking in the immediate wake of Pope Benedict’s latest encyclical on charity and social justice.

I did a news search in Google for “catholic” and “health care.” Here were the top headlines:

“Catholics Step Up Fight Against ‘Unacceptable’ Healthcare Bill”
“Catholic Bishops Tell House: Health-Care Bill is ‘Unacceptable'”
“Guard against a stealth mandate for abortion”

There is way too much heat and way too little light in this health care debate. And the Catholic Church, sadly, is mostly making heat . The most frustrating part is that the Catholic Church in the U.S. has an opportunity to offer so much light. This is a remarkable chance to be engaging in a national public discussion of our responsibilities to each other as children of God.

What we know in our hearts

Trying to apply spiritual principles to worldly affairs can be tricky. So, sometimes it’s important to go back to Truth, to what we know in our hearts. And for Christians nothing is more foundational than Jesus’ challenge to love one another as children of God. To love your neighbor as yourself is not to love your neighbor as much as yourself, but to love your neighbor as yourself — to see them as family, as a part of you.

As Pope Benedict said in his phenomenal book, Jesus of Nazareth:

“The Sermon on the Mount is not a social program, per se, to be sure. But it is only when the great inspiration it gives us vitally influences our thought and our action, only when faith generates the strength of renunciation and responsibility for our neighbor and for the whole of society — only then can social justice grow, too. And the Church as a whole must never forget that she has to remain recognizably the community of God’s poor.”

Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn,” because empathy is an expression of Divine Love. To see suffering in another person and feel something yourself shows your connection to them.

In this context, I ask in all sincerity, free of rhetoric and partisan maneuvering: How can the Catholic Church — which I was called to and love with all my heart — not be at the forefront of the effort to enact universal health care coverage?

The other day, when in an online discussion with left-leaning folks I made a libertarian-sounding comment — I was called a “troll” and told to go back to Fox News. This is what political discourse has come to in this country. It has moved in the ugly and toxic direction of demonizing opponents — seeing them not just as wrong, not even just as malicious, but as evil. It’s a vicious cycle of cynicism that has brought our political culture to its knees.

Now is a moment for broader thinking

Let’s be pragmatic almost to the brink of cynicism for a moment: It is terrible for the future of religious influence in this country’s politics if Catholics and evangelicals are seen to be opposed to universal health coverage and obsessively fixated on abortion.

But that’s politics. How has the faith community gotten in this position? For several generations, the political focus for Catholics and evangelicals has been abortion. This means that for many, whenever they think of politics, it’s in terms of how to advance the pro-life cause.

Now is a moment for broad thinking, for a holistic approach. I trust in God that things will work out one way or the other in the end. But that doesn’t mean I am not responsible for doing what I can to help my fellow man. And millions of Americans are not getting tests and treatments that might save their lives or relieve their suffering. Tens of millions more are one illness away from destitution. Many more are one layoff away from finding themselves in that situation. Those with insurance are paying two to three times as much as they were a few decades ago — money going to insurance and pharmaceutical companies, doctors and institutional investors. And with co-pays approaching what used to be the full retail cost of an office visit, even the fully insured are rationing their own care — forgoing options that would potentially improve their health.

At this moment in history — when America is more likely than ever to join the rest of the developed world in expanding medical coverage to all those who currently lack it and with greater security for everyone else — the American Catholic bishops could be mounting a massive campaign to make sure that this comes to pass. It is not a question of placing this issue in opposition to pro-life concerns. That kind of scarcity thinking — that if you get what you want I must lose what I want — has no place in this process. I would be thrilled and proud if the Church could be heard in the public square vigorously calling for universal health care, with some caveats, rather than the other way around.

The Common Good

And, let’s be pragmatic almost to the brink of cynicism for a moment: It is terrible for the future of religious influence in this country’s politics if Catholics and evangelicals are seen to be opposed to universal health coverage and obsessively fixated on abortion.

Does this mean people should abandon their principles? No, I’m not suggesting that at all. But the question is how to best work for the Common Good.

Some would argue that even if President Obama is a righteous leader, some future administration will add abortion and euthanasia to the list of mandatory services. This is a valid concern, however it calls not for stonewalling but for continued political engagement.

I respect — and sympathize with — those who believe the government is never the best option for solving a problem, and that any forfeiture of freedom is dangerous. My own impulse leans libertarian, and I’m suspicious of government solutions. Do I wish this problem could be solved without the government? Sure. But the marketplace has not solved the problem; rather, it’s gotten much worse. And, let’s be clear. What President Obama is pursuing is not socialized medicine. It is a solution as unique as the U.S., adding universal coverage, additional regulations, and the option of a public plan, while carefully maintaining individual choice.

Some would argue that even if President Obama is a righteous leader, some future administration will add abortion and euthanasia to the list of mandatory services. This is a valid concern, however it calls not for stonewalling but for continued political engagement .

I sympathize also with the concern over increasing our national debt at a time when it’s already higher than it’s ever been. But if we can agree that universal coverage is for the common good, or even, as President Obama called it the other day, “a core ethical and moral obligation,” then we can move forward and discuss how to implement it in ways that will not increase the debt or limit our freedom.

And I return to the question I posed before. Which better advances the Common Good? Which best fulfills Jesus’ call that we minster to the needs of the ill: enacting universal health care coverage, or opposing it on even the possibility of its being less than optimal for the pro-life cause?

If, as Bishop Murphy speaking for the USCCB says, “Health care is not just another issue for the Church or for a healthy society. It is a fundamental issue of human life and dignity,” then now is not a time to abstain from the public sphere or to limit our involvement in it to narrow advocacy. As Pope Benedict said in the recent encyclical, “Caritas in veritate”:

To desire the common good and strive towards it is a requirement of justice and charity… The more we strive to secure a common good corresponding to the real needs of our neighbors, the more effectively we love them. Every Christian is called to practice this charity, in a manner corresponding to his vocation and according to the degree of influence he wields in the pólis. This is the institutional path — we might also call it the political path — of charity, no less excellent and effective than the kind of charity which encounters the neighbor directly.

Now is a time to remind ourselves of our first principles, our Truth:

“I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35)

The Author : Phil Fox Rose
Phil Fox Rose is content manager of Busted Halo. He's a writer, editor and content lead based in New York and writes the On the Way blog at patheos.com. He is coordinator for the New York City chapter of Contemplative Outreach, helping promote centering prayer, which has been his contemplative practice for nearly 20 years. Phil has also been a political party leader, videographer, tech journalist, punk roadie, software designer, sheepherder, stockbroker and downtempo radio DJ. A common thread is the process of learning about stuff, figuring it out and then sharing that understanding with others. Follow Phil on Facebook here. Or on Twitter here. philfoxrose.com.
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  • Richard Snow

    Charity does not come from the point of a gun. Give all you want but don’t force someone else to pay for your healthcare with the threat of imprisonment.

  • David Spenard

    Why does anybody in their right mind think that a government-run universal health care program will solve our health care ills? The government is a bloated, corrupt, inefficient bureaucracy that will grow to exorbitant proportions if this debacle is passed, and everyone will suffer because of it. What kind of social justice is that if everyone is knocked down a notch.

    The free market system works ‚Äî period. Phil, you mention that the free market has failed us. Well did you ever stop to think that government is the reason for this failure with all of its over regulation and refusal to stop frivolous lawsuits? If the government just got out of our way and let competition between providers open up across the country, then we would have over 1,700 providers to choose from, rather than just a handful in each state. Imagine when that choice is limited to one ‚Äî the government. What do you think will happen then? There is no social justice in that. And I have some news for you — Obama does want socialized medicine. He said it himself. Do some research and find out. He stated that it might take 10 or 20 years, but after health care reform is passed, the goal is a single provider — the government. Get your head out of the sand.

    Wake up people. Our rights are being eroded little by little. The government wants to fully control health care, education, and energy. Once that happens, we no longer have our freedoms and we no longer have the United States. Use some common sense. The government is horrible at everything it does, except for the military. Health care run by the government will doom us all.

  • Steve

    Roger’s comments are those of the fearful. Did you even read the article, Rog? Some folks, like Roger, only like what is familiar to them. That is fine but some of us like to think outside the box. And outside the talking points.

    First off, where did this “80% of Americans are happy with their health insurance” statistic come from? As of right now, 12 Nov 2009, nearly 55% of American support a public option. And that’s the key word, Rog, “Option.” You mention medicare, medicate [sic], social security as the basis for “socialism does not work” but forget to mention the police and fire depts, public schools, post office, and the MILITARY. All are socialist in nature and all are imperative to daily our daily lives.

    You say that this reform will “destroy our republic” but fail to indicate how this will happen. This reform is NOT socialism. If anything, it is the free market at its best. Today, you cannot look outside your state for a different health care company; That’s a monopoly and that’s unAmerican. Today, Roger, you could get a call and lose that health care coverage you say is so perfect.

    Just because you are refuse to listen to facts, doesn’t change the fact that they are facts. You say “Look at countries that have tried this socialist utopia” and that is a talking point pointing to nowhere. This reform gives us all CHOICE and will bring ALL of our costs down and make it ILLEGAL for insurance companies to drop you for no reason.

    Folks, this isn’t about left or right, this is about no longer being picked up by our ankles and shaken for every penny by health care companies.

    I hate to say it Roger but, you either are a GOP leader, a health insurance conglomerate CEO or a Right-winger with nothing but Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin and John Boehner in your ear. Wake up, they work for the health care industry not for you.

  • Bob

    Thou shalt not steal. EVEN if it is to pay for someone’s healthcare. If you want to pay for someone’s coverage, go right ahead. Just don’t steal my money at the point of a gun (ie the IRS) to do it.

  • Pat

    here are some things that you must know, they are in the bill. It is sad to hear people only use the usual talking points and not really know the truth.
    In the bill schools will have health clinics where your child can receive care and referrals for other services without your knowledge due to Privacy laws. If abortion is legal in your state they will have access to this as well as to birth control and ‘counseling’ for many issues. They can ve treated for STD’s and you will not be notified.
    Is this what you want under National healthcare?
    What in the catechism says we must support Universal healthcare? There are many ways to reform the healthcare system without putting everyone under the same system. The will be reviews of who will get how much care. You think the end of life issues will only apply to the elderly, don’t count on it, it will affect the disabled and the many pre-term babies that require months and years of expensive care. a report from the government yesterday detailed the numbers and the concern over the cost of this care, why would they be concerned now? The politicians know they can draft a bill that has ONLY a new plan that helps with healthcare for the uninsured and those who truly can not afford plans and they can include an opt in from their private plan for those who encounter a catastrophic illness like cancer to ensure they can avoid having to use medicaid or the alternative is to expand the Medicaid program for the unemployed and raise the income limits for low income workers to enroll.
    We do not need all of the spending in the bill unnecessary government agencies and programs – we need to help people now not make them wait until 2013. That would be truthfully dealing with the real issue and leave personal choice and ultimately our constitution intact.

  • David

    This is a nice idea. Take the crumbs from your master’s table when he won;t give you a slice of bread.

    Unfortunately, the amendment to exclude abortion from the bill, which would have won the backing of the Bishops, was defeated. Now, if abortion is besides the point, why not allow the amendment to get the important part of your health care bill. The babies who are deemed by their parents birthable, and those already in maturity surely benefit none from the abortion debate, but if abortion is not important, as is being suggested here, why defeat the amendment and solidify the opposition?

  • Stacy

    I don’t think people can get too heated about abortion. I am against the death penalty, but I definitely see a distinction between killing someone convicted of a terrible crime and the murder of an innocent child. I became pregnant with my first child my senior year of high school and it changed my life forever, but it makes me sick to think that according to my government her body and her life was just some “choice”. She is a special unique human being and was so from her conception. Roe v. Wade is an insult to both my conscience and my intelligence and to women and children everywhere. The ends do not justify the means. I am not for finding cures to diseases if it means the manufacturing and slaughter of human embryos and I am not for universal health care if even a penny of my husband’s hard earned money goes towards someone else’s artificial contraception or murder of a child (abortion) when I have such strong beliefs against these practices. For the government to take money from my family and put it towards helping the “common good” with complete disregard of personal beliefs is NOT liberty. I don’t mind donating time or money to help the sick or people in need. Charity should be a choice, that’s why the charitable are usually called “volunteers”, but forced charity? What ever happened to free will?

  • Laura Lockett

    If I suffer, if I die, to save one inncocent life from abortion then I have carried my cross. Catholics stand firm and do not be swayed by the government!

  • patrick

    To read an account of the “crowding out” of private compassion during Hurricane Katrina, see this article.

  • Andrea G.

    Great article! Thanks for your wonderful work!

  • Josemaria

    Personally(from a Filipino Catholic perspective)I feel that health care should NOT include abortion and euthanasia,then it can be extended to everybody.Also Health Care Should be Community-Based,not medical corporate- based

  • Roger

    All I see is misguided compassion. To say that we can use government to be compassionate towards are fellow citizens is absurd and naive.
    Never mind who’s going to pay for it, social security, Medicare Medicate, and everything else is going bankrupt and if any one knows anything, socialism does not work.
    To destroy what we have, over 80% of Americans are happy with their health insurance now, and have an inept government take over my health care will be suicide.
    It will destroy our republic and everyone will be dependant on Uncle Sam for everything.
    I say take care of the one’s that don’t have health care and leave the rest of us alone.
    Don’t let anyone tell you that you are not compassionate about your fellow human being due to you’re against this socialist health care scam. I’m a Catholic that knows history and I know that this scam will fail. Look to the countries that have tried this socialist utopia and time and time again, it’s failed.

  • Max Lindenman

    No, Patrick, countries and corporations can’t be compassionate. But both can follow policies that are informed by compassion. This is especially true in the case of republic, whose policies represent, within certain boundaries, the will of its citizens.

  • patrick

    I read this heartfelt article and the thoughtful comments with some trepidation, seeming to be so off-the-page compared with most of the respondents. It seems to me that all of your sentiments start with an assumption that may not stand up to examination. A company cannot have compassion; a government cannot have compassion. Only people can have compassion. There are individuals within both corporations and governments who are compassionate, but to assign that quality to an entity is fraught with danger. Many of us want “universal health care”, but who among you have offered to pay the medical bills of someone who couldn’t afford to pay them? THAT’s compassion. Donating money to a Catholic hospital is compassionate; volunteering is even better. Assigning our compassion over to the government is misguided. Governments are best at governing: they are very good at telling people what to do. Please read any of the current health care bills wending their way through Congress (the Executive branch does not have its own bill). There are pages and pages of what you can and can’t do, what the penalties and fees are for incorrect behavior, eye-splitting specifications about which current or new panel will make decisions about who gets what. What you won’t see is compassion — that’s not what the government is about. So … when you find out (and you will) that you are taxed to fully fund abortions, along with whatever policies well-connected interest groups can add on, but the general level of care is universally poorer than it was before, don’t bring up compassion — you’re talking to the wrong people.

  • John

    Where is the money coming from? In the midst of the worst recession in memory and in the wake of our recent financial collapse, is this the time for such an ambitious and expensive undertaking? And where is the mandate for such a broad overhaul of our health care system? At best the country is divided on the issue, at worst health care reform would be soundly defeated if put to a popular vote. Where in our Constitution does it say that the proper role of the Federal government is to manage health care?

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