The Catholic Right, "Subsidiarity" and Health Care.
Frank Cocozzelli printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Mon Sep 14, 2009 at 02:00:48 PM EST
In my last piece I described how certain players of the Catholic Right are attacking the idea of a public option for health care insurance. In doing so, they are employing a theological concept known as subsidiarity -- the concept that "issues be treated at the lowest level possible, that is, at the level closest to the individual."
The Catholic Right's stilted application of this doctrine is designed to mislead Catholics into believing that universal health care with a public option is inconsistent with the faith.

But that twisting leads to some unintended consequences as per Catholic social teaching.

Deal Hudson was one of the first to set the subsidiarity argument in motion this past August, first by dissembling about abortion coverage in pending legislation:


The need for universal health care, guaranteed by the federal government, is so deeply felt among the bishops and other Catholic leaders that even the prospect of abortion funding has yet to evoke much of a public protest against the bills presently in the House and Senate...
The presence of such funding alone should be sufficient to quell Catholic support for the legislation - but so far, it hasn't.

Then, Hudson attacked the very concept of a right to health care:

To assert health care is a human right is the beginning, rather than the end, of the debate about whether universal health care insurance should be provided by the federal government. To say citizens have a right to a good - in this case, medical care - always necessitates our obligation to remove unreasonable obstacles to obtaining it, but it does not necessitate that the good in question be provided by the government.

To assert the right to health care as the end of the argument leaps over both prudential reasoning and the Catholic principle of subsidiarity, which stipulates that a social problem should first be dealt with at a local level before being addressed at higher, governmental levels.

(It is no accident that Hudson chose the libertarian Acton Institute's definition in his hyperlink; Acton is a hotbed of laissez-faire Catholic thought, advised by the likes of Michael Novak.)

Then, as if almost on cue, from Kansas City, Kansas Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann and Kansas City - St. Joseph Bishop Robert W. Finn issued a A Joint Pastoral Statement invoking the doctrine of subsidiarity:

This notion that health care ought to be determined at the lowest level rather than at the higher strata of society, has been promoted by the Church as "subsidiarity." Subsidiarity is that principle by which we respect the inherent dignity and freedom of the individual by never doing for others what they can do for themselves and thus enabling individuals to have the most possible discretion in the affairs of their lives. (See: Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, ## 185ff.; Catechism of the Catholic Church, # 1883) The writings of recent Popes have warned that the neglect of subsidiarity can lead to an excessive centralization of human services, which in turn leads to excessive costs, and loss of personal responsibility and quality of care.

Pure and simple, this is hogwash.  All the way back in 1919, the American bishops issued their program for social reconstruction that recognized the critical role government is required to play to bring about true reform for the less powerful. Therein, they called for the federal government to provide retirement insurance (an idea that would evolve into what we now call Social Security), public housing for the working class and some early ideas about municipal health clinics:

The establishment and maintenance of municipal health inspection in all schools, public and private, is now pretty generally recognized as of great importance and benefit. Municipal clinics where the poorer classes could obtain the advantage of medical treatment by specialists at a reasonable cost would likewise seem to have become a necessity.  A vast amount of unnecessary sickness and suffering exists among the poor and the lower middle classes because they cannot afford the advantages of any other treatment except that provided by the general practitioner. Every effort should be made to supply wage-earners and their families with specialized medical care through development of group medicine. Free medical care should be given only to those who cannot afford to pay.

Monsignor John A. Ryan, a top economic advisor to the American Bishops wrote in 1931, "The authoritative refutation and overthrow of the assumption that industrial evils were to be overcome entirely by beneficence on the one hand and resignation on the other, is probably the greatest of salutary effects of Rerum Novarum."(i)

Michael Sean Winters resonded to the Naumann-Finn pastoral letter in the Jesuit journal America, placing the doctrine of subsidiarity within its proper context:

Subsidiarity is a Thomistic notion that seeks to answer the question that all public policies must face, namely, what level of society should treat a given issue. Further, subsidiarity suggests that issues be treated at the lowest level possible, that is, at the level closest to the individual. So, families should do what they can, neighborhoods should pick up the slack, the free market should adjudicate the distribution of goods and services, local government should take the lead on most issues and the federal government should only get involved when its unique reach and power, specifically the taxing power, is required. This part of subsidiarity is ably repeated in the Kansas City text. But, the text does not grasp the moral obligation of the higher levels of government. As Pope Leo XIII wrote in his 1892 encyclical Rerum Novarum, "Whenever the general interest or any particular class suffers, or it is threatened with evils which can in no other way be met, the public authority must step in to meet them."

Winters  goes on to comment on Deal Hudson's praise of the Naumann-Finn pastoral letter:

No one has ever accused Hudson of being stupid. He knows that the plans emerging from Congress do not entail the government "running" health care. And he knows that the government-run health care we do have, and have had for decades, does not cover abortion.

As well as:

Hudson writes: "Let's hope over the next few months this line of thinking [that of Naumann and Finn] is taken up by more bishops and Catholic leaders -- this government-run monopoly of national health care needs to be rejected, totally and completely." There it is. Complete rejectionism on an issue that the Catholic bishops have been advocating for decades. Complete indifference to the suffering of those who lack health insurance because the market - self-evidently - has not found ways to cover them. Mr. Hudson is not "Inside Catholic" on this issue, he is far out of the mainstream and he should have the decency to acknowledge it.

This all begs the question, why such mendacity to defeat a public option as part of health care reform.

When it comes to a layman such as Deal Hudson, I believe it is a case of a movement conservative disguising a very secular economic agenda in religious garb. Sean Winters' description of Hudson "...busy worshipping at the pagan altar of the market..." pretty much says it all.

But what of the bishops? Obviously I cannot read their minds. Yet at the same time I suspect something of a quid-pro-quo may be going on. Bishops such as Finn and Naumann - and they are not the only ones --  are so obsessed with issues such as abortion and euthanasia that they have lost all sense of perspective. I fear that these Catholic Right prelates recognize that their strongest supporters reside within the GOP and to that end they will all-too-gladly sell out forty-six million uninsured Americans to provide political payback. And to do so, they will twist Church doctrine into pretzel knots.

Is that the case? I don't know. But that is what it looks like to this American Catholic.

(i) Ryan, John A., “Some Effects of Rerum Novarum”, America, April 25, 1931, Page 58.

Is health care a right? Pope John XXIII seems to have thought so.

This is paragraph eleven from the 1963 encyclical Pacem in Terris

But first We must speak of man's rights. Man has the right to live. He has the right to bodily integrity and to the means necessary for the proper development of life, particularly food, clothing, shelter, medical care, rest, and, finally, the necessary social services. In consequence, he has the right to be looked after in the event of illhealth; disability stemming from his work; widowhood; old age; enforced unemployment; or whenever through no fault of his own he is deprived of the means of livelihood.

I guess that make Hudson part of what George Weigal calls "the culture of dissent"?

by Frank Cocozzelli on Mon Sep 14, 2009 at 02:10:47 PM EST

We need to hear this, although the Catholic right wants to make it all about abortion.

by khughes1963 on Mon Sep 14, 2009 at 04:43:45 PM EST

Once again the religious right uses their interpretation of the faith to justify their inhumanity. "At the lowest level" means the individual in need not the person or organization charged with filling that need. The story of the good Samaritan makes it absolutely clear just who one's neighbor is. Apparently the theory of subsidiarity requires a lower level of society to help or turn away as seen fit by an upper level of society. Whatever you do, don't heal the lepers. Things that make you go hmmmm.

by flatustheelder on Tue Sep 15, 2009 at 04:12:48 PM EST

it's more "godly" for multinational corporations to make meoney than it is to heal the sick or help the poor.
I could be wrong, but didn't the catholic chirch invent the idea of the corporation?

by Da Rat Bastid on Sat Sep 19, 2009 at 09:47:05 PM EST

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