For I Was Ill and You Cared For Me

‘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.

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

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.

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)

This article appeared originally on August 23, 2009 in Busted Halo.

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