Supporters of the administration's health care reform law demonstrate in front of the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington June 28. (CNS photo/Joshua Roberts, Reuters)
Thursday’s decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold the Affordable Care Act caused a lot of stir among Americans. Even Catholics were split on the issue. One priest tweeted, “What’s nxt? Will the government tell us we have to buy a car now, house, etc.? Let’s frame this the gov’t is forcing people to buy a product.” Another priest tweeted, “#gratefultweet This morning I am especially grateful that the poor and vulnerable may be better cared for in this wealthy nation.”

In brief, the law that was upheld as constitutional by the Supreme Court requires all American citizens to have health insurance otherwise they must pay a penalty in the form of a fee. The law, and the mandate, will prevent insurance companies from discriminating or turning down coverage based on pre-existing conditions. These and other laws will go into effect in 2014. The idea is to make health insurance more affordable, more accessible to all, and to repair some of the brokenness that exists in the current health care system.

On the day of the Supreme Court decision I received an e-mail from a Catholic organization strongly opposing the ruling and asking for an “emergency” donation. It even began, “Dear Patriot.” What struck me was that the e-mail (a Catholic organization, remember) had absolutely no reference to Jesus or gospel values in the expression of their position. In our heated political debates we truly need to reflect on our faith before knee-jerk public reactions.

The American bishops responded saying that the law need not be repealed, as it is a step toward “the moral imperative to ensure decent health care for all,” but that there are some flaws that need to be addressed. The Affordable Care Act allows federal funds to be used for elective abortions, something that the federal government has long avoided. The bishops have stated that it also fails to provide adequate conscience protection, a problem which has been exemplified in the HHS mandate, and does not fairly give proper health coverage access to immigrants and the most vulnerable.

The bishops’ response comes from a spirit of gospel values striving for the protection and dignity of every person. Cardinal Seán O’Malley of Boston said, “The Catholic Bishops have for decades supported the principle of guaranteed access to health care as a basic human right. Our position has been and remains based in the dignity of the person and the right to health care which requires protection in civil law and public policy.”

I have no desire to debate the issue here, but rather take the subject to reflection. I wondered how Jesus would respond to so-called “Obamacare.” I certainly can’t speak for his position but what we can do is look at scripture and Jesus’ spirit in attempting to see how he and gospel values look at health and well-being.

Mercy and compassion

In the Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6) Jesus says, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” Mercy is key to our relations with our fellow human beings. We should seek mercy, justice, and love — as the famous verse from Micah says — in all we do. When we encounter a homeless person can we see the face of God and allow our hearts to be compassionate? How is our approach to health care merciful and compassionate? Mercy and compassion means we acknowledge that not being able to afford decent health care may not always be a result of one’s own choices. Is health care about genuine care for the poor and ill who may not be able to afford health insurance? Or is it about profit?

Setting captives free

In Nazareth, Jesus proclaims a passage from the prophet Isaiah to a temple full of people:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.” (Luke 4:18-19)

Then Jesus said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Jesus himself believed what the scriptures taught and made it his mission to do what the prophet had written. I’ve known many in my own circle of friends and family who are held captive due to illness or medical bills. It’s a crush and burden that Jesus would want to release them from, using us as instruments to that end. We should ask ourselves how we are partnering with God in this healing mission.

Giving strangers dignity

The gospels have countless stories of Jesus healing ordinary strangers. The United States has more than 311 million people and we are strangers to most of them. So why should we care about providing them proper health care? Because Jesus cared about people he never personally knew. He gave them dignity. He touched them and removed their stigmas. Hundreds of strangers came up to him seeking his care. Friends and family of the sick brought people to him, even through the roof of a house. And he never turned people away because they were already sick. Jesus said, “Those who are healthy do not need a physician, but the sick do” (Luke 5:31). One example of Christ-like medical ministry is Mercy Ships, which goes to remote parts of the world that lack medical care. They perform often simple surgeries that remove oppressive social stigmas, give dignity, and reincorporate ordinary people back into their society. In short: Jesus gave healing by giving dignity.

Amidst the debate on health care, why are we forgetting to consider the ways health legislation brings dignity to every person? Are we too quick to dismiss care for people we don’t know because it doesn’t “affect” our own lives? Jesus might disagree, saying that there are other reasons to love your neighbor, fruits we may not see until our next life.

Health care legislation is not a walk in the park. But the reality of it is that sometimes government must take responsibility to provide for its citizens. Jesus would have understood the importance of civil authorities who aligned with the gospel values of caring for neighbor and bringing justice through mercy and love. Government coheres a large group of people so that they can contribute to the common good of the group. The Church today prays regularly for civil authorities to enact laws and make decisions under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Governments are made up of human beings — people like you and me — and they are in a place of affecting positive change. This should first and foremost be rooted in a spirit of human concern for the underprivileged and the dignity of all persons. Health care is a right, not a privilege. This means that no one should be without it.

Jesus may or may not have supported the exact ruling that was made on Thursday, but he would want us to do anything we can to bring his healing power to as many as possible. We have to acknowledge that there is no perfect plan either. The polarized divisiveness that has come as a result of the health care ruling does nothing in reaching a plan that fulfills God’s desire for all to be cared for fully. It’s time that we all pause and reflect on the spirit of love and mercy our faith proclaims. Only then can a just health care system be formed.

[Published on: July 2, 2012]