Health Care, Rights, and the USCCB

Kevin Vance

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.


  • April 6, 2010

    Adam D'Luzansky

    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.

    I appreciate you highlighting the distinction between official Catholic social teaching and technical proposals promulgated by Catholics, be they clergy or laity. Feser’s point about the fact that Catholic Church’s teaching does not specify a technical method, or preferred actor, at least in the case of a “right to medical care” is also helpful.

    I wonder about the helpfulness of a social teaching that avoids dealing with technical solutions. To be clear, I am not suggesting that there should be an official Catholic teaching on technical solutions that binds the conscience. Rather, I mean that in my mind it seems like the USCCB or a similar entity should always be working to apply the Catholic social teaching to modern technical questions in order to offer guidance to Catholics, and the rest of us.

    Your post wasn’t contradicting this point, but you said you feel some trepidation about the confusion created by the USCCB, in both the minds of Catholics and the public at large.

    Why is it do you think that a Vatican-recognized institution like the USCCB is so often unreliable when it comes to this working out of technical issues? You don’t have to find fault with everything the USCCB does and says to feel their impact could be a net negative on those laypeople who aren’t working carefully through policy issues on their own.

    How has unhelpful technical liberalism (be it theological or political) infiltrated the USCCB and how can it be ousted?

  • April 8, 2010

    Kevin Vance

    I understand your point about the potential futility of non-technical social teachings. It seems to me that the technical solutions should still be proposed, but that they should generally come from the faithful who specialize in such things. Since technical solutions tend not to lie within the competency of the episcopate, but moral theology certainly does, it would be best for the USCCB to try to stay within the realm of moral theology unless there is a clear alignment between Catholic teaching and specific policy proposals. Or, if there is an alignment between specific policy proposals and evil. Alternatively, the USCCB could try to apply the Church’s teaching to all sorts of technical proposals, but in this case it should always be very clear about what Catholics are free to agree or disagree about, so as not to confuse the well-meaning or provide the ill-intentioned political cover.

    As far as specific problems go, I’ve no idea how deep or broad they are in the USCCB.
    Here’s an interesting post that criticizes the tendency to support conscience protections for the Church without similar protections for the faithful:

    Of course, part of the problem is that the Church has to deal with political realities. Protections for the Church are much more feasible politically than protections for the faithful.

    No matter how bad the problem is, one step in the right direction be to ensure that the lay staff in the various offices are faithful Catholics. I’d be interested in hearing a professional church-watcher’s take.

  • April 8, 2010

    Adam D'Luzansky

    Wow, that statement by the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith is very straightforward.

    You should ask around at the CIC if they know of a book, essay or article that chronicles the history of the USCCB. It’d be interesting to see how it has fluctuated over time, assuming that it wasn’t always so “spineless” as R.R. Reno laments.