US Catholic Faith in Real Life

US Bishops GOP hacks on health care? Part 2

By Bryan Cones | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

Jeff Pinyan, generously playing bishops' advocate, raises the question in my previous post about whether there is a distinction in Catholic social teaching between "medical care" and "health care" when it is considered to be a natural human right. Good question, especially given the advice to any student of theology or church teaching: "Seldom affirm, never deny, always distinguish." 

Still, I think if the bishops in question were trying to make that distinction, they would have said so. But I think overall the answer would be no: Catholic social teaching, especially since Paul VI, has favored what gets called "integral human development"--physical, moral, spiritual, esthetic--which is far more comprehensive than "medical care," although that is certainly a component of it.

I think what the captioned bishops have done, which reveals their bias, is speak about issues Catholic social teaching simply does not touch, the specific mechanisms--market forces, gov plan, co-op etc.--about which the church doesn't claim competence. In other words, these bishops are basically speaking as private citizens on these matters, not as official teachers.

The mechanisms of paying for health care are hardly a matter of faith or morals (save for paying for procedures the church teaches are immoral), which is the extent of the competence of the bishops as magisterial teachers. The church's moral teaching says only that, as images of God, human beings have certain rights and there is a binding moral obligation to meet them. The Vatican or the pope may have opinions about what they think is the best way to get there, of course.

That is one issue that dogs some of bishops and Catholics. The magisterium of the church is assured of divine guidance on matters of faith and morals--that is, in the interpretation of the revealed deposit of faith--not on any old thing they think up. (That is one reason why Catholic social teaching is more disputable than, say, the teaching about the Trinity. It's a lot more contingent.)

To put it bluntly, the bishop of Fargo has no more competence to bind the consciences of Catholics in this area than I do; we both have none. He knows this as well as I do (I hope, anyway), which is why I think it is legitimate to question his actions here. In other words, even though it's accurate, you won't hear Bishop Finn of Kansas City say, "This is only my personal opinion ... " These guys seem to be content to let people presume they speak with "church authority," which they do not on this matter.

The church's social/moral teaching is clear: Human beings have a right to health care. But while churchmen may have personal, political opinions about how to meet that goal, they remain just that--opinions.

Bryan Cones