The phrase "Catholic Social Teaching" seems to have an unmatched ability to unsheathe rhetorical claws. For instance, just the rhumor that Benedict XVI's next encyclical will deal with social and economic issues immediately called up this response from one of the main progressive Catholic blog platforms: "it will be interesting to see how Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, Michael Novak and Jimmy Akin try to spin this one! I'll never forget how badly they misinterpreted and butchered John Paul II's Laborem Exercens and Centisimus Annus, and Benedict's Deus Caritas Est." It's usually a sign of rather deeply entrenched bad feeling when someone is up for condemning others' as-yet-unmade comments on an as-yet-unpublished document.
I think that part of the reason that Social Teaching becomes such a hot button topic for American Catholics in particular is the peculiar dynamic into which they are forced (unless they are sufficiently willing to think outside the partisan box) by the current alignment of the two major parties in the US. On the one hand, the 'progressive' Democratic Party has become synonymous with support for abortion on demand, gay issues and euthanasia. On the other hand, for those who believe that the virtue of charity demands government sponsored action in the form of socialized healthcare and welfare (a dubious assertion in my opinion, but held by a number of people) the Democratic Party is again your only option. Thus, politically progressive Catholics sometimes find themselves in the position of justifying their party choice by insisting that socialized healthcare and other expanded welfare state programs will bring the country closer to the vision of a just society laid out in Catholic teaching than the outlawing of abortion and euthanasia and the preservation of the traditional legal definition of marriage would.
Any in-depth treatment of all this would, of course, require much more space and time than a blog entry permits (even on this notoriously wordy blog), but thinking about the topic it stuck me that a compare/contrast exercise on the "right to life" and the "right to healthcare" might provide an interesting view on the contrasting viewpoints.
First, let's look a bit at each term, and what it describes in regards to Christian morality.
The 'right to life' movement is pretty much centered around making abortion illegal. Clearly, making something illegal does not make it impossible. Homicide is illegal, and yet there are tens of thousands of homicides each year. Making abortion illegal would not bring us to a state in which no abortions took place. But by removing the legality and respectability from the abortion process, it would appear like less of an option to many people. Surely, it would be a long time (if ever) before it seemed as far beyond the realm of respectability as the murder of another adult -- but it would not longer have the "but of course we could always..." status that it now does as a fully legal and protected option.
Thus, we might summarize the aim of the 'right to life' as that of using legal sanction to help make it easier (in the sense of removing temptation) for people to make the right choice in regards to obeying the prohibition: though shalt not murder. There's also an element of a desire to have moral law (again: thou shalt not murder) and civil law agree.
People who talk about the 'right to healthcare' are usually advocating some sort of government sponsored universal healthcare. However, in this case, perhaps it's better to work in the other direction from in the previous instinct. What virtue (or avoidance of sin) does the 'right to healthcare' relate to? Among the corporal works of mercy is "visit the sick", but I think it's clear that to the extent that the easy remediable maladies listed in the corporal works of mercy (feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, etc.) are all to be actually treated rather than just observed, we are called upon to treat the sick to the best of our abilities.
Throughout much of human histories, these abilities were very limited indeed, but in this day and age advances in medical technology have made all sorts of treatments possible. Now clearly, just as it is the duty of those with food to feed those who have none, it is the duty of those able to provide medicine and medical care to those in need to do so to the extent possible. Our Christian duty of charity pertains to all necessities in life and to small comforts as well. We are, after all, told to love our neighbors as ourselves.
And yet, the reason we are told to feed the hungry, give alms to the poor, etc. is not with the end object of a world in which no one is hungry and everyone has enough money in mind. Not only did Christ say, "The poor you shall always have with you," but he also made few personal, tangible efforts to alleviate poverty during his life. When Christ told people to sell all that they had, give it to the poor, and follow him, he did so in order that they might "store up treasure in heaven" as opposed to having their hearts focused on the treasures of this life. He didn't say that his purpose was to "end world poverty". (In the same sense, legal prohibitions of murder are, from a religious perspective, there to serve as in aid in avoiding the sin or murder -- not to assure a society in which no one is killed.)
Now, of course, the difficulty with modern healthcare in regards to the Christian duty of charity is that so many aspects of it cannot be given by any one person. There's no one person who can say, "I think I'll give this poor person chemotherapy." So although a single person's charitable instinct may be the driving force behind getting healthcare for a particular person in a particular circumstance, it's not something that individual Christians can simply give. So while I think there's an element of immanentizing paradise at play in people's calls to provide universal healthcare (just as in calls to 'end poverty') there's also a realism, in that much of modern medicine is not in the capacity of any one person to give.
This, it seems to me, is why there's a good deal of difference between the moral imperatives behind the 'right to life' and the 'right to healthcare'. The desire to make abortion (and other forms of murder) illegal stems from a desire to have civil law reflect moral law, and thus guide people in making moral decisions. However, the desire to enact socialized medicine is a specific means of attempting to achieve the end of providing healthcare to all those in need of it. Whether it is indeed the best way, or even a good way, is a matter on which reasonable people might certainly differ. Because the moral good is not specifically an end state in which everyone receives a specific level of medical care, but rather that all of us, as Christians, to our utmost to make sure that our neighbors are cared for in all their needs.
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