Critical Condition

A USA Today Delivery Disservice

USA Today has a piece today on the nation’s Catholic bishops threatening to outright oppose health-care legislation.

But from the top, the story just adds to confusion. It states:

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which supports universal access to health care as a “basic human right,” had been supportive of efforts to reform the health care system, but is concerned about taxpayer-funded abortions.

That under- and mis-states matters.

The website of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops does, in fact state, in a health-care Q&A that: “The bishops believe access to basic, quality health care is a universal human right not a privilege.” Their most recent press release, titled “U.S. Bishops: Current Health Care Bills Violate Essential Principles; Will Seek Changes Or Have To Oppose” reiterates: “Catholic moral tradition teaches that health care is a basic human right, essential to protecting human life and dignity. Much-needed reform of our health care system must be pursued in ways that serve the life and dignity of all, never in ways that undermine or violate these fundamental values. We will work tirelessly to remedy these central problems and help pass real reform that clearly protects the life, dignity and health of all.”


And while the precepts of the faith aren’t exactly governed by press release or the legislative activities of even a national episcopal body, no one familiar with the history of the most extensive health-care network in the United States, the Catholic Church, would question that Catholics do, in fact, believe that the sick should get care. The question is: Does that translate into a moral obligation to support government-provided universal access as a fundamental human right for the government to dole out?

In a letter on health-care reform, R. Walker Nickless, the Catholic bishop of Sioux City, Iowa, very helpfully and healthily addressed this. From his letter:

in that category of prudential judgment, the Catholic Church does not teach that government should directly provide health care.  Unlike a prudential concern like national defense, for which government monopolization is objectively good – it both limits violence overall and prevents the obvious abuses to which private armies are susceptible – health care should not be subject to federal monopolization.  Preserving patient choice (through a flourishing private sector) is the only way to prevent a health care monopoly from denying care arbitrarily, as we learned from HMOs in the recent past.  While a government monopoly would not be motivated by profit, it would be motivated by such bureaucratic standards as quotas and defined “best procedures,” which are equally beyond the influence of most citizens.  The proper role of the government is to regulate the private sector, in order to foster healthy competition and to curtail abuses.  Therefore any legislation that undermines the viability of the private sector is suspect.  Private, religious hospitals and nursing homes, in particular, should be protected, because these are the ones most vigorously offering actual health care to the poorest of the poor.

For a very helpful treatment of what the Catholic bishops have been saying, follow the editorials that have been running in The Anchor, the archdiocesan paper of the Fall River, Mass., diocese on health-care policy. Nickless’s letter — his four “goal posts” for reform — is discussed here.

To say that the U.S. Catholic bishops would support the bill so long as the president pinky swears about abortion, which I think is probably the common conventional assumption that this USA Today piece feeds, is simplifying things direly, doing the whole current health-care debate, not just Catholic social-teaching conversations, a disservice.