In light of the recent health-care debate, Edward Feser has posted a useful primer on the concept of “rights” in Catholic moral theology:
It is in any event important to remind ourselves of what the Church actually teaches, and what she teaches is not at all what such liberal Catholics think it is. To be sure, in line with statements made by popes John XXIII and John Paul II, the Catechism of the Catholic Church does indeed speak of a “right to medical care” as among those the “political community” has a duty to uphold (2211). But does this entail that universal health care must be funded by and/or administered by the federal government, or indeed by any government? No, it doesn’t. Consider first that the same documents that affirm a “right” to medical care also affirm “rights” to “food, clothing, [and] shelter” (John XXIII, Pacem in Terris viii) and “to private property, to free enterprise, [and] to obtain work and housing” (the Catechism again). But no one claims that the Church teaches that governments have a duty to provide everyone with a government job, or free food, clothing, shelter, or other kinds of property at taxpayer expense, or a guarantee of entrepreneurial opportunities.
You really should read the whole thing. The post includes many good sources for information on the principle of subsidiarity.
Whether intentional or not, the USCCB seemed to convey the message that, had the health-care bill not allowed federal funding for abortions, it would have actively supported the bill’s passage, as if the health-care debate were simply between those who wanted the uninsured to have access to health care and those who did not. It can be problematic when the USCCB weighs in on highly technical political matters that don’t seem to depend entirely on differences in moral principle. Immigration comes to mind. I suppose that it would make sense for the nation’s bishops to reject an authentically anti-immigrant bill, and certainly it makes sense for them to lobby for the humane treatment of foreigners in this country with an eye toward protecting the integrity of the family. But, if it turns out that the national debate centers around the timing of “amnesty,” namely, whether it is granted before or after border security is beefed up and legal immigration limits increased, I don’t understand why the USCCB would need to get involved.
For better or for worse, we’ll probably never be able to know for certain what the USCCB would do if there were an option for socialized medicine that didn’t use taxpayer money to pay for abortions. Because of present political circumstances, it looks like we’ll either be stuck with a system that will slowly become nationalized healthcare and pay for abortions, or a situation in which the current bill is repealed and conservative reforms are introduced to the health-insurance system – with no taxpayer funding of abortions.
In the meantime, Feser is right to point out that these mixed signals from the USCCB may contribute to the confusion of the faithful and well-meaning Catholic politicians and voters. On the one hand, anyone who followed the health-care debate would note that the USCCB was unwilling to support any bill that lent any financial assistance to the scourge of abortion. On the other hand, it was somewhat confusing when concerns about the bill’s treatment of illegal immigrants were mentioned in the same breath as concerns about abortion.
Perhaps this problem is not the fault of the USCCB per se, but the result of sloppy media coverage. It’s possible to imagine a casual observer of Catholic political outreach over the last several years concluding that the Church was pro-life, pro-amnesty, anti-Iraq war, pro-government health care, pro-climate change “justice,” anti-death penalty, pro-arms control, anti-same sex “marriage,” etc. I’m no expert on Catholic social teaching, and am certainly in no position to judge definitively as to whether some of the above positions align substantially with the Church’s social teachings as opposed to the prudential judgment of the USCCB. But it does seem that such a broad scope of political involvement could cause some pro-choice politicians to think that one can still be a good Catholic so long as he supports many other so-called “Catholic” positions.
In Caritas in veritate, Pope Benedict clarified that the Church doesn’t offer technical solutions to the world’s most vexing problems:
The Church does not have technical solutions to offer and does not claim “to interfere in any way in the politics of States.” She does, however, have a mission of truth to accomplish, in every time and circumstance, for a society that is attuned to man, to his dignity, to his vocation. Without truth, it is easy to fall into an empiricist and sceptical view of life, incapable of rising to the level of praxis because of a lack of interest in grasping the values — sometimes even the meanings — with which to judge and direct it. Fidelity to man requires fidelity to the truth, which alone is the guarantee of freedom (cf. Jn 8:32) and of the possibility of integral human development. For this reason the Church searches for truth, proclaims it tirelessly and recognizes it wherever it is manifested. This mission of truth is something that the Church can never renounce. Her social doctrine is a particular dimension of this proclamation: it is a service to the truth which sets us free. Open to the truth, from whichever branch of knowledge it comes, the Church’s social doctrine receives it, assembles into a unity the fragments in which it is often found, and mediates it within the constantly changing life-patterns of the society of peoples and nations.
It will be very interesting to see how the Church interacts with the unraveling of the social democratic project in Europe over the course of the next generation or two. While Pope Benedict wrote about the negative impact that lower birthrates will have on the welfare state in his latest encyclical, he didn’t discuss the possibility that the structures of economic life—not just social policy—in western Europe and the United States have actually depressed the birthrate and brought about their own eventual collapse. This idea is explored in some detail in Robert Stein’s essay in the winter issue of National Affairs. My prediction is that future popes will continue the work of Pope Benedict in applying the “hermeneutic of continuity” to the Church’s social teaching. I suspect they will continue to clarify the distinction between the social teaching itself and the various technical proposals offered at various times by various bishops, helping us all to understand the latter in light of the former while continuing to preach against grave evils in our public life whenever and wherever they present themselves.