Benedict on Health Care

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The health-care debate is a perfect example of why Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical on the economy is called Caritas in Veritate — Charity and Truth.

Think of it this way: Psychologists who have attempted to care for people’s mental health without regard to the reality of sin end up leaving people at the mercy of the worst psychological disasters. A medical community that rejects the sacredness of human life ends up killing more people — embryos and the elderly — than they save.

And economists who reduce people to economic entities — ignoring human love and the truth about the human person — find that they just make problems worse.

Health care is a perfect example. Charity and truth are why we have health care in the first place. The modern health-care system started with Christ’s command to “heal the sick.” Dedicated religious invented hospitals. Catholic nuns and brothers staffed them and allowed them to proliferate. Health care was affordable to all who needed it because, at its heart, it was a service of charity that responded to the dignity of the human person.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Catholic organizations provided education and health care that were practically free. At the beginning of the 21st century, the atheistic movements that worked so hard to unshackle society from the chains of the Church are faced with a society searching for, and not finding, lifelines to replace the ones the Church once provided.

Of course, there are plenty of other factors in the health-care situation America faces.

In order to head off labor unions, employers in the early 20th century started to add benefits, among them medical plans. Today, it is an expectation that employers will provide health-care benefits. That, in turn, means that health-care costs have been hidden from consumers for years: The money for the insurance comes out of their paycheck (and their employer’s account) before they see it.

The litigation explosion in the past 50 years in America has also caused a new dynamic in health care: Providers have to pay huge malpractice insurance rates, a cost they pass on to the medical insurers, who pass it on to you and me and our employers — or to prospective employers if we lose our job.

Yet health care remains a right. “The political community has a duty to honor the family, to assist it, and to ensure especially,” says the Catechism (No. 2211), “in keeping with the country’s institutions, the right to medical care, assistance for the aged, and family benefits.”

That doesn’t mean that all health care must be government-provided. After all, the Catechism is careful to use that phrase “in keeping with the country’s institutions” and also stresses the right to private ownership, housing and emigration — none of which are expected to be provided at government expense.

What, then, does it mean? How can we ensure the right to medical care in the face of our gargantuan, overpriced mess of a health-care system?

Pope Benedict’s encyclical gives his fundamental answer. “Love — caritas — is an extraordinary force which leads people to opt for courageous and generous engagement in the field of justice and peace. … Development, social well-being, the search for a satisfactory solution to the grave socioeconomic problems besetting humanity, all need this truth.”

In particular, Catholic social thought has translated this love and truth into the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity.

The principle of solidarity means we ought to love our neighbor, feed the poor, clothe the naked, and care for the sick.

On the one hand, the market alone will not achieve solidarity. “In fact, if the market is governed solely by the principle of the equivalence in value of exchanged goods, it cannot produce the social cohesion that it requires in order to function well,” writes the Holy Father (No. 38). He emphasizes: “Without internal forms of solidarity and mutual trust, the market cannot completely fulfill its proper economic function.”

On the other hand, “Solidarity is first and foremost a sense of responsibility on the part of everyone with regard to everyone,” he writes, “and it cannot therefore be merely delegated to the State.”

The principle of subsidiarity, on the other hand, is the Catholic belief that the person closest to a need has the strongest ability — and clearest duty — to provide care.

These two principles are at the heart of the health-care question: We are meant to help each other, and the person closest to the problem is responsible for assistance.

Pope Benedict XVI is careful not to place this responsibility solely on the shoulders of the marketplace or the state.

He nicely distinguishes between an over-reaching state on the one hand, and a laissez-faire approach on the other, when he writes (No. 58), “The principle of subsidiarity must remain closely linked to the principle of solidarity and vice versa, since the former without the latter gives way to social privatism, while the latter without the former gives way to paternalist social assistance that is demeaning to those in need.”

These two principles are helpful when assessing the health-care legislation being proposed in Washington.

Questions to ask: Does the proposal help us expand health care? In other words, does it allow us to cut the true factors that drive health-care costs — or does it kowtow to those who are responsible for those costs, for instance trial lawyers and pharmaceutical companies?

Also: Does the proposal put decisions about assistance in the hands of those closest to the need? Or does it move those decisions to Washington?

Of course, all of those questions are moot if a health-care proposal fails to protect the right to life. Health care that pays for abortion or pressures older patients to forgo necessary treatment isn’t a health-care system at all, but a death machine.

No matter how it is structured or how many benefits it provides to people, Catholics must oppose any legislator who proposes or supports a death machine.

Love and truth demand that.