As MJ posted yesterday, Pope Benedict was in the news this week in regards to health care this week. A couple things struck me as interesting about this article, and the debate that immediately sprang up around it here.
1. It’s Not All About US Politics
It’s not often that those in the Commonweal and National Catholic Reporter set get to rub their political opponents noses in something and play the, “You’re not a very good Catholic, are you?” game, so it’s hardly surprising if there’s been a bit of crowing in some circles. However, as is often the case, I think it’s a mistake to see this as primarily relating to recent US political struggles, much though Catholic Democrats would like to imagine that the pope is admonishing the USCCB for not supporting ObamaCare. Indeed, the pope’s sentiments should be rather castening to those of us in the developed world:
The theme of this year’s meeting was “Caritas in Veritate – toward an equitable and human health care.”
The pope lamented the great inequalities in health care around the globe. While people in many parts of the world aren’t able to receive essential medications or even the most basic care, in industrialized countries there is a risk of “pharmacological, medical and surgical consumerism” that leads to “a cult of the body,” the pope said.
“The care of man, his transcendent dignity and his inalienable rights” are issues that should concern Christians, the pope said.
Because an individual’s health is a “precious asset” to society as well as to himself, governments and other agencies should seek to protect it by “dedicating the equipment, resources and energy so that the greatest number of people can have access.”
“Justice in health care should be a priority of governments and international institutions,” he said….
Now maybe I’m off, but it strikes me that this ought to give a bit of perspective to those who think that the Greatest Issue Of Our Times is whether everyone in the richest country in the world has an insurance policy which absolutely guarantees that no matter what ails him, he will never have to pay more than he can comfortably afford out of pocket for state-of-the-art care. Perhaps rather more central to the pope’s thoughts than these issues of American politics is the plight of people in the developing world who can’t get basic medicines and treatments which would cost only a few dollars per life saved.
2. Rights Talk Is Tricky
I don’t know if this is primarily an American vs. European difference, or one between secular political terms and Catholic theological ones, but the use by the Church of the term “right” in relation to a “right to adequate health care” or a “right to food” or a “right to shelter” presents confusion to most American ears. Americans are, after all, most familiar with the idea of “rights” a laid out in our Bill of Rights: the right to free speech, the right to a trial by one’s peers, the right to bear arms.
The first and third of these are pretty clearly cases where a person, unencumbered by some outside force, is able to say what he wishes and arm himself if he wishes, and the “right” consists of the government not coming in and taking that ability away from him by force. The right to a trial by one’s peers may seem at first glance to be a right to be given something by the government, but I think in this case it is more rightly seen as a right not to receive a punishment or judgement against oneself unless the rightness of it is determined by a jury of one’s peers. In this sense, the jury trial is a protection against things being unjustly taken from one.
Against this background, it seems odd to say that one has a right to health care or a right to food, because one does not already have these things. To the best of my understanding, it seems to me that what is meant here is that:
a) Things like food, shelter and basic medical care are human necessities and
b) We as a human community have a duty to make sure that all those among us have some basic amount of these things.
How exactly this is worked out seems to me to be a question open to a number of different approaches. Right in this sense are not necessarily free, nor are they necessarily provided via a statist regime. The idea of food and shelter being human rights (in this sense) is certainly not new, but few people anywhere suggest it is the best thing for society if food is centraly provided to all, or that shelter be free to everyone. The term “basic” or “adequate” also is noteably present in these sort of statements by the Church — and it seems to me quite arguable that “basic” does not necessarily mean “million dollar treatments available for a twenty dollar copay and nothing else ever”.
Whether, given these differences, it is productive to talk about health care being a human right in the context of America is, I think, an open question. Different nations and cultures do, after all, have different histories of political discourse. But in that the Pope is using the term, it is guaranteed to make headlines. And as such, it is doubtless our duty as Catholics to come to some sort of an understanding of what it does and does not mean in a Catholic context.