Bishop's Column

Meaningful, attainable and just health care

By Bishop James Conley 

The Catechism of the Catholic Church is very clear: “Concern for the health of its citizens requires that society help in the attainment of... health care.” (CCC 2288)

Securing affordable access to health care is a requirement of just societies and a function of the common good. Catholics have an obligation to work for the common good and to work to ensure that all people have affordable access to health care. Every family and, indeed, every person, should have the freedom to treat their medical needs and to live in the freedom of good health.

The Church provides principles and guidance regarding the provision of health care. But it is primarily the work of the lay faithful to put those principles into practice: to do the hard work of discerning how to ensure affordable access to health care, for the sake of the common good, in the particular circumstances of each society.  

In the United States, health care has become a highly politicized, partisan, and polemical issue. The challenge for Catholics is to move beyond posturing, empty rhetoric, and partisanship, in order to achieve the good of affordable access to health care.  

In recent months, the discussion around health care in the United States has become particularly divisive, and particularly ineffective. In this context, the Church calls Catholics to consider the principles of just health care policy, and to encourage civic leaders to make courageous choices for the common good.

The principles of just health care policy are clear:

First, health care reform should respect the dignity of every person, from conception to natural death.

This means that the elderly and persons with disabilities must be treated with special care and sensitivity. It also means that abortion and abortion funding should be excluded from any reform plan, no matter how adroitly the abortion funding is masked. Abortion has nothing to do with advancing human “health,” because it is an act of violence, not only against unborn children, but also against women.

Second, everyone should have access to basic health care, including immigrants.

The Church hopes to see healthcare access broadened as widely as possible. But at a minimum, it should include those immigrants who live and work in the United States legally, as well as including those with incurable conditions and disabilities.

Third, real healthcare reform needs to include explicit, ironclad conscience protections for medical professionals and institutions so that they cannot be forced to violate their moral convictions.

Fourth, health care policy should reflect the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity.

Subsidiarity means that society should respect and support the sovereignty of the family, and respect the value and dignity of local communities. Solidarity is the virtue of friendship—of a desire to support and respect every single human person, especially the poor.

Fifth—and this is so obvious it sometimes goes unstated —any health care reform must be economically realistic and financially sustainable.

We cannot help anyone, including ourselves, if we are insolvent. If we commit ourselves to health services, then we need to have the will and the ability to really pay for them. That is a moral issue, not simply a practical one.

Americans have worked toward healthcare reforms for decades. We have had very limited, and very tenuous, success.  

This week, the Catholic Medical Association, a national association of health care providers, offered support to a proposal, the Graham-Cassidy bill, presently pending in the Senate. The CMA has expressed that the bill would respect human dignity, respect subsidiarity and solidarity, be financially sustainable, and respect the conscience rights of medical providers. Their reflections deserve thoughtful consideration.

Other Catholics, including the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, have raised concerns about the bill—expressing concerns that proposed caps on Medicaid spending could harm the poor, and require revision and amendment.

Ultimately, these perspectives may complement one another—recognizing the goodness in possibilities before us, while recognizing where improvements can still be made.   

There is no clear answer to the challenging of providing just and affordable healthcare. The responsibility of Catholic citizens is to consider proposals like this seriously, to consider their strengths and weaknesses, and to work together, from the wisdom of the Church, to advocate for meaningful, attainable, and just reforms to our health care system.

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