I was having a brief but spirited conversation with a friend the other day about the health care debates that the recent Supreme Court decision stirred up again.
The Right to Health?
Our conversation was about the nature of the supposed ‘right’ to health care that our U.S. bishops have been emphasizing for the last two decades. Catholic social teaching at the papal level has addressed the question of rights language vis-a-vis health care on many occasions, and the Catechism (2288-2291) offers some general language that situates health-care-rights language in a social-responsibility context: ‘Concern for the health of its citizens requires that society help in the attainment of living-conditions that allow them to grow and reach maturity: food and clothing, housing, health care, basic education, employment, and social assistance.’
But as with all questions of the application of clear ethical principles by means of prudential judgments in complex social contexts, there is much room for debate and disagreement. This is what makes the engagement of faith and real life so very interesting, giving life its hot spice! But it is also precisely the sweet-spot where Christian charity, in the midst of this necessary conversation, must shine brightest and clearest as a public witness to the world that the Church-Disagreeing is singular in its ability to seek the truth in charity. It’s really a marvelous opportunity for the laity to infest the world with Christ and render His Gospel plausible.
Acts 15 serves as our ecclesial model, and Tertullian offers us his wonderful testimony to the early Church’s rad witness: ‘Look,’ they say, ‘how they love one another’ (for they themselves hate one another); ‘and how they are ready to die for each other’ (for they themselves are readier to kill each other).'”
One point of contention my friend and I wrassled with was the problem presented by those who do not access health care responsibly, and wind up in emergency room crisis situations that end up foisting upon everyone an unjust share in the burden of health care expenses.
While a good solution to that particular problem is beyond me, there is an issue that I have always found extremely relevant to these debates, yet largely under-proclaimed in our individual rights-obsessed culture: the grave duty to care for one’s health. In that context, the Catechism invokes the virtue of temperance: ‘The virtue of temperance disposes us to avoid every kind of excess: the abuse of food, alcohol, tobacco, or medicine. Those incur grave guilt who, by drunkenness or a love of speed, endanger their own and others’ safety on the road, at sea, or in the air.’
The Church must proclaim loudly that neglect or abuse of one’s bodily health is not protected by a privacy-of-the-body right but rejected by a socially weighted duty, and that failing to preserve health in a reasonable manner can be gravely sinful. And part of that serious sin is the unjust burden(s) my own culpable neglect places on others when my health fails. That flows from the principle of solidarity, and American Confessionals should be ringing with sins against solidarity.
Christian asceticism, with its ancient counsel to build virtue by means of frugal, disciplined habits of eating and drinking (vs. gluttony), and hard physical labor (vs. sloth) adjures us to link a healthy lifestyle with the path to holiness. In fact, St Basil the Great linked gluttony with stealing from the starving, and early Christian authors linked ascetic physical fitness with effective preparation for the rigors of martyrdom.
No Goodness, No Greatness
Ultimately, trying to address social, economic or political issues that rest on moral foundations without addressing matters of social virtue and vice is an utterly futile venture. But that’s not a new or original idea.
Reminds me of Chesterton’s pithy quip: ‘If men will not be governed by the Ten Commandments, they shall be governed by the ten thousand commandments.’