Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Most Reverend Epic Fail

Catholic Archbishop Naumann (KCK) and Bishop Finn (KC/SJ) spammed their respective dioceses this week with a Joint Pastoral Statement alleging to represent "Principles of Catholic Social Teaching and Health Care Reform." The statement is not an accurate description of Catholic social teaching, most notably in its rejection of health care as a right. The statement is even more unreliable as a survey of the current state of our health care system and proposed legislative reforms of the same. The entire statement, quite embarassingly, reads like the effort of the slowest seminarian in the bunch randomly grafting words and concepts encountered during his studies onto a republican email forward primarily informed by the work of Glenn Beck.

There are many angles from which to approach this Statement. I could point out the more glaring moments of internal inconsistency -- did Your Excellency's conscience make even the meekest mew when you qualified "health care benefits" for legal immigrants? As if undocumented immigrants are not among the "weakest members" of society referenced in the preceding sentence quoting Ghandi? Or I could highlight how willfully clueless the authors appear to be about the reality of current proposals -- claiming it is "vital to preseve [] the right to make well-informed decisions about [] care" only paragraphs after nonsensically condemning "end of life counseling" that is nothing more than giving people the opportunity to make well-informed decisions about care. Or, I could really expand on the point that such a shameless misappropriation of their pastoral authority for partisan political purposes is a severe degradation of the espicopacy.

However, as evidence that my liberal heart has not left the government completely in charge of charity, I choose a different path. Upon deeper consideration of this Joint Pastoral Statement, I think the greatest disappointment is the missed opportunity to inform the public debate with a fair presentation of the principle of subsidiarity. From the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops 1986 Pastoral Letter "Economic Justice for All":

The primary norm for determining the scope and limits of governmental intervention is the "principle of subsidiarity" cited above. This principle states that, in order to protect basic justice, government should undertake only those initiatives which exceed the capacities of individuals or private groups acting independently. Government should not replace or destroy smaller communities and individual initiative. Rather it should help them contribute more effectively to social well-being and supplement their activity when the demands of justice exceed their capacities. These does not mean, however, that the government that governs least, governs best. Rather it defines good government intervention as that which truly "helps" other social groups contribute to the common good by directing, urging, restraining, and regulating economic activity as "the occasion requires and necessity demands" [internal cite omitted]. This calls for cooperation and consensus building among the diverse agents in our economic life, including government. The precise form of government involvement in this process cannot be determined from abstract. It will depend on an assessment of specific needs and the most effective ways to address them. [emphasis added]
I think this is a wise way to approach the limitations of government. I also think it does not require any greater faith than the belief in fundamental human dignity. And such a belief does not require faith in God. It is actually the basis of secular humanism. This is what some people like to call a "teachable moment." An opportunity to share the intellectual/ethical labors of the Catholic Church with a broader audience.

Oh, the Joint Pastoral Statement mentions subsidiarity. But it makes it sound like some laissez faire "states rights!" idea, rather than what it actually is -- a well thought out compromise to the competing ideologies of laissez faire and communism. To call it a compromise of ideologies is almost unfair. It's more a compromise of impulses. A path to honoring the promise of individual choice and compensating for the ineffectiveness of individual will to accomplish larger goals. The essence of subsidiarity is humility -- government alone cannot achieve the greatest goals of man. Correspondingly, informal networks of men are sometimes incapable of achieving their desired goals - hence, the need for government.

The Joint Pastoral Statement quotes JPII and Benedict in a manner that suggests that the welfare state is contrary to Catholic social teaching. I have a different read. I think those quotes have to do with warning people against the idea that they can completely outsource charity to the government - the whole "I gave at the office" attitude. When they warn against "materialist" attitudes, they are trying to preserve the enjoyment of the sublime irony that nothing is quite as satisfying as a completely selfless act. Practically speaking, a large welfare state is politically unsustainable unless the citizens feel individual satisfaction from the caring for the less fortunate. But philosophically speaking, I understand the papal warning.

I think we have more than enough evidence that individuals and private groups acting independently are incapable of ensuring the provision of adequate health care. But regardless of that factual analysis, I'm saddened that, given the opportunity to do a serious analysis of the health care situation in light of the principal of subsidiarity, the Archbishop and Bishop chose to use subsidiarity instead as a magic charm to be respected on their authority rather than examined and understood for the benefit of all.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent criticism. The politicization that some Catholic leaders engage in is very troubling, and it is made worse when they intentionally misrepresent doctrine for political ends.

    One fax semt out from a Bishop to be read to all Parishes is equivalent to $100,000's of advertising to accomplish the same result.