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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  • Michael

    Curious… since national taxes are currently being used to fund, arguably, at least two wars, for which thousands have died from both sides, should not the anti-abortionists who claim they won’t pay for health care if abortions are included refuse to pay their taxes? Is not the life of our soldiers as important?

  • Niall McShane

    I was also struck by Senator Kennedy’s funeral mass today and by the fact that they used the same Gospel passage that forms the basis for this blog. At mass tonight, I realized that the readings for this Sunday are all on the theme of social justice. I was particularly struck by the line from the second reading that says “Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deluding yourselves” and I resolved to create a petition to our local congressman asking, not that he support a specific plan for universal health care but that he publically support the goal of universal healthcare. I have created the petition, basing it on the excerpt from Matt 25 used above and I intend to ask permission from our pastor to solicit signatures for this petition at masses in the next few weeks. I will also try to approach other parishes in the area. This is a tangible way that we can try to change to tone of the debate on the healthcare issue. Lets try to get a consensus that universal healthcare, particularly in a country as welthy as the US, is an essential indicator of the commitment that we must have, as christians, for the least of our brothers and sisters.

  • Nancy McDonald

    I am watching the funeral mass of Sen. Teddy Kennedy as I read this. What a beautiful statement of love and compassion and a clear telling of the reason for universal health care. I shared it on FB immediately. Thank you so much.

  • Niall McShane

    I was delighted to find such a clear, coherent article on the heated and complex issue of the health care debate. I am intrigued by the comments of those who oppose the views expressed in this article. Based on their logic, then Catholics should also strongly advocate against every bill that contains any provision for the funding of prisons in which the death penalty is carried out, every bill that includes funding for military operations that kill and main countless thousands of innocent civilians in addition to their intended targets. Also, as Amie points out, where does it say in Jesus’s teaching that our compassion and our concern for the protection of life ends at birth? There are huge social problems in this country and around the world with infant mortality, poverty, lack of education, lack of access to clean water as well as lack of access to even the most basic levels of medical care. Why are these concerns subverted to the one concern of abortion. I am not saying that abortion is right but it certainly isn’t the only issue.

  • Meryl Jenks

    Art, were you covering your eyes while reading this?

  • ART

    Peace be with you,

    PLEASE: The ends do not justify ANY means! Yes, we should all have proper health care but not if we pay for it by allowing and by paying for and endorsing the taking of human life. Abortion is the non-negotiable part of the program. The unborn need to be part of true “universal” health care. Blessed Mother Theresa said it best when she said it’s a tragedy that a child must die so we can live in luxury. Regarding Matthew 25.- whenever you did it to the least of these, you did it to me. Anyone you want to dress it up, any time we actively prevent one life from reaching it’s potential, stop it’s growth, ABORT IT, we do that to Christ. I suggest ON THE REGULATION OF BIRTH by another great Pope, Paul IV. In that encyclical he outlines and, sadly, predicted the horror of the past 40 years after birth control and by extension, abortion was accepted by our culture. As for me and mine, we will continue to serve the Lord Jesus Christ and follow his commandment to love one another as he loved us. Promoting life and the fullness, even in a broken, fallen world is the highest expression of that Divine Love. I pray you can see that.

  • Phil Fox Rose

    Fr. Lance, Amie’s comments are certainly in line with my thinking, but if you’ll forgive my picking apart your response, I think it is illustrative of what concerns me about some Catholics’ response to universal coverage. My remarks are not a personal attack; they focus only on what you are saying here. I respect your right to your opinions. But I think this is helpful.

    a) You paint those you disagree with as not caring about life, using the caricature of someone “cooly and calculatingly” sneaking abortion into the health care proposal. By thus dismissing the advocates of universal coverage as abortion-loving amoral tricksters, you then don’t have to listen to and be challenged by their arguments for charity.

    b) You misrepresent the current situation, saying the bill “allows” abortion. Any law “allows” everything it doesn’t explicitly prohibit. As I understand it, what is really going on here is an argument to add something to the bill to make it impossible to add abortion services in the future. The current bill does not include abortion services. Period. It “allows” for the possibility because it doesn’t explicitly forbid the possibility. I don’t know what went into the current language, but my best guess is that this was a hard-won compromise between those who wanted abortion services in the bill and those who couldn’t abide that. So the bill does not include them, but not explicitly forbidding their ever being included was a way of reaching an agreement. Using the language you do, which is straight off anti-universal-coverage talking point sheets, suggests the people who drafted the bill actively included something pro-abortion, in order to make it sound more nefarious. There is a perfectly valid technical political debate that is worth having here, but let’s be honest about it.

    c) Out of nowhere you suggest “the possible rationing of healthcare to seniors and disabled people.” This is a talking point from the health insurance indsutry’s anti-universal coverage memos. And it is absurd on its face — it is nearly Orwellian doublespeak. The advocates for universal coverage want above all else to improve access to health care for the underrepresented. That the bill would reduce available care for the disabled is laughable. Saying it about seniors is fear-mongering, as a deliberate tactic to swing those voters against any change at all from what they already have, which serves the insurance companies alone. Apparently, no coverage for those who have none is OK, though?

    d) The last half of your comment has nothing to do with the current proposals or my article, but is basically an explanation of why you don’t trust anyone on this issue. And this really gets to my point. You give a snapshot history of deceits surrounding Roe. With all due respect, if you are still fighting against 40 years ago, then you are not present for this debate in this time, and that is why your arguments are off-base. And you will never be able to see and be challenged by the good points the other side might be making if you’re not listening to them, but instead replaying an old battle.

    I appreciate your taking the time to comment on my article. I hope you take my response in the same spirit.

  • LAS

    Thank you for so eloquently stating what I have been pondering throughout this debate!

  • Phil Fox Rose

    Psychodoc, I will not spare you “the “why can‚Äôt we all get along?” dialogues. I consider it a foundational principle of Christian morality. Perhaps you’ve heard that you should love your enemies, turn the other cheek, and that our expressions of brotherly love is how the world will know we are Christians? I just attended a wonderful talk from my Archbishop Dolan, in which he stressed Pope Benedict’s desire to repair the rift in the Catholic world between the pro-life and social justice sides by reframing it all back where it belongs under Love in Truth and Truth in Love. We are on the same side. We might get more worked up about one thing or another, but we are all trying imperfectly to discern God’s will for us and to show our love for our neighbor by improving our community, to respond to the needs for charity and love all around us.

  • amiehartnett

    @Fr. Lance – I cannot address your statement on behalf of the author, but my comments @ psychdoc still ring true: If babies are saved and born – we need to care for them! My continued frustration with the healthcare issue is that I get the feeling only UNBORN babies are cared about by those who protest; not the millions of children (and their parents)with no healthcare, who can die from minor illnesses that go unchecked due to no prevention.

    As a faithful Catholic Christian parent AND a Pro-life person, I find nothing life-affirming about such a rigid position.

  • Fr. Lance Campo

    I am disappointed that you feel that abortion the direct taking of a human unborn boy or girl is not something to get heated up about. Those who do not see any moral problem with abortion wish to cooly and calculatingly add it into government programs and now even into private programs which will make everyone who pays taxes and pays for insurance will be participants in this intrinsic evil. If people had not shouted and resisted this plan would have already been approved. They claim that pro-lifers are “bearing false witness” about the possible results; but reputable news agencies have now agreed and reported that abortion is allowed in the current bills. This is not to mention the problems with the possible rationing of healthcare to seniors and disabled people. Those who engineered the campaign to legalize abortion have admitted that they lied using false data about the deaths of women to turn public opinion and sympathy their way. Then the lawyers and judges used sneaky tactics of redefining “health reasons” in one judgment to completely strip any restrictions on abortionfor all nine months of pregnancy in Roe v. Wade. People still think that abortion is illegal in the third trimester.

  • amiehartnett

    @Psychdoc: don*t you think that extending health care coverage to the uninsured might help prevent abortions, because those in a quandary due to no coverage would now have access to prenatal, maternal, and pediatric care? Its not enough to let the babies be born; we have to care for them once they are here.

  • Ellen

    I so agree with you Phil and thank you. I have printed your column and feel armed myself to speak up more, defend the truth and remember that for all to have the opportunity to have health care is just the right thing to do.

  • Max Lindenman

    Psychdoc: usually I’m the first to argue that theology, like pornography, is best left to professionals. However, I agree with Phil that some universal health care coverage is more in line with basic Catholic social teachings than none at all. Picking and choosing, as you put, may not be ideal, but it’s better than turning it all down flat.

  • Psychdoc

    O my Father! In the same encyclical, BXVI tells us the human dignity begins in the womb and ends with natural death. So spare me the “why can’t we all get along?” dialogues. The bishops only have it partly right. All mandated funds should also be removed for contraception, sterilization procedures, and human embryonic stem cell research. If any part of the Health Care plan pays for these abominations, then the whole HC plan in intrinsically evil. The Magisterium has been clear. Recent Popes have been clear. Read Evangelium Vitae and Humanae Vitae for further Catholic teaching on this. Sorry, folks, you can’t pick and choose. What about “when did we see you in the womb, and not try to save you from death?” There will be justice for those 50 million babies killed. And, I, for one, will not pay one single dollar of taxes for anyone’s abortion. God bless you all.

  • LMaki

    Love these comments – agree with them all and with Phil’s insight into the issue. As a church employees, I’ve had to take a look at the Catholic Church’s own practices concerning providing private health insurance for its employees, and find that the Church still hasn’t got it right. Speaking from my own experience in my Archdiocese, there are dozens of church employees who do a full time job on part time hours and pay, and get no benefits because in the Church’s financial crisis of the past decade that was an easy way to cut costs. The health insurance coverage that full time (32+ hours/wk) employees do qualify for have large individual deductibles, high premiums for adding spouses and family members, and do not cover all medications, even some that are not birth control but are used to treat some diseases of the thyroid (marked “hormone supplements”). Such cases in our parish have come to my attention: a co-worker has not gone to the doctor for an enlarged gland and neck/jaw pain because she cannot afford to pay towards the $750 deductible and knows the medical test costs may exceed that. Another co-worker, who barely makes above minimum wage, needs thyroid medication for the rest of her life – not covered by our insurance. If these individuals had a chance to get national/universal health care they wouldn’t need to worry about a deductible or prescription costs, and could focus on serving the Church, which is their calling in life and a blessing to all of us. Their sacrifice in pay should not include a sacrifice in health care.

  • Alison Jacobs

    Please don’t think I’m being rude but writing from a British perspective, I’d have to agree with the point of this article. People over here cannot understand how a country that calls itself Christian can support a healthcare system that treats people on the basis of how much money they have rather than how ill they are. The NHS isn’t perfect but most of what I’ve heard the American media say about it is inaccurate if not downright lies. In the last few days I have been treated very quickly and efficiently for a serious eye problem. In America,judging by the problems of my American friends, I doubt I could even get insurance.

    And what is wrong with having a healthcare system run by politicians who you can vote out of office if they get it wrong? Who is answerable at the moment?

    I don’t know exactly what sort of system America needs but if it’s to be moral, not to mention Christian, it should put the needs of the patients first and the less they can fend for themselves the more help they should be given. The Churches should be fighting for that. Like I said, please don’t think I’m being rude, I’m only concerned for people’s wellbeing. That and America’s good name, which is seriously damaged by this issue.

  • Mirlande Jeanlouis

    I loved the article! You expressed perfectly how I feel as a moderate who wants the health care industry to actually “take care” of our citizens. I am willing to pay for insurance or provide tax money toward a public option–whatever the case may be, but to take away my choice for either because of abortion fears ruins “reform” for everybody.

  • amiehartnett

    Right on, Phil.

    Your mention of being called a *troll* is yet one additional example of why I am not affiliated with either party – way too much knee-jerk, reactionary nonsense that is, as you put it, all heat and no light.

    I am on the fence with all of the ideas that are out there – but I take each into consideration before forming an opinion. For example, I don’t like my tax $$ being thrown around haphazardly, yet, I also see the possibility that inexpensive insurance options have to spur the economy in terms of offering a sort of safety net for entrepreneurs and small business.

    I am disgusted at how creepy so-called *religious* people in my own community have become when they discuss this issue: resorting to name-calling, repeating kooky myths, and hiding behind slogans instead of offering solutions or constructive ideas. One side screams for boycotts and denigrates anyone who thoughtfully questions; the other conjures unpleasant imagery that hearkens back to Iron Curtain days. Its ludicrous and decidedly un-Christian behavior.

  • Catherine

    Nice work, Phil. I am really disheartened by the reaction of some in online Catholic communities to health care reform. Their views seem wholly un-Christian.

    For myself personally, I would love to have access to health care – out of my entire life, I’d only had health insurance for 8 years. There’s no legitimate reason for this.

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