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Health Care and the Common Good | Most Reverend Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., Archbishop of Denver | August 27, 2009
Last week a British Catholic journal, in an editorial titled "U.S. bishops must
back Obama," claimed that America's bishops "have so far concentrated on a
specifically Catholic issue—making sure state-funded health care does not
include abortion—rather than the more general principle of the common
It went on to say that if U.S. Catholic leaders would get over their parochial
preoccupations, "they could play a central role in salvaging Mr. Obama's
The editorial has value for several reasons. First, it proves once again
that people don't need to actually live in the United States to
have unhelpful and badly informed opinions about our domestic issues. Second,
some of the same pious voices that once criticized U.S. Catholics for
supporting a previous president now sound very much like acolytes of a new
president. Third, abortion is not, and has never been, a "specifically
Catholic issue," and the editors know it. And fourth, the growing misuse
of Catholic "common ground" and "common good" language in the current
health-care debate can only stem from one of two sources: ignorance or
No system that allows or helps fund—no matter how subtly or
indirectly—the killing of unborn children, or discrimination against the
elderly and persons with special needs, can bill itself as "common
ground." Doing so is a lie.
On the same day the British journal released its editorial, I got an e-mail
from a young couple on the East Coast whose second child was born with Down
syndrome. The mother's words deserve a wider audience:
Magdalena "consumes" a lot of health care. Every six months or so she's
tested for thyroid disease, celiac disease, anemia, etc. In addition, she's
been hospitalized a few times for smallish but surely expensive things like a
clogged tear duct, feeding studies and pneumonia (twice). She sees an ENT
regularly for congestion, she requires a doctor's prescription for numerous
services—occupational therapy, physical therapy, feeding, speech,
etc.—and she needs more frequent ear and eye exams.
I could go on. Often, she has some mysterious symptoms that require
several tests or doctor visits to narrow down the list of possible issues. On
paper, maybe these procedures and visits seem excessive. She is, after all,
only 3 years old. We worry that more bureaucrats in the decision chain will
increase the likelihood that someone, somewhere, will say, "Is all of this
really necessary? After all, what is the marginal benefit to society for
treating this person?"
What do we think of the (Congressional and White House health-care)
plans? A government option sounds dangerous to us. The worst-case
scenario revolves around someone in Washington making decisions about
Magdalena's health care; or, worse yet, a group of people—perhaps made up
of the same types of people who urged us to abort her in the first place. In
general, we feel that policy decisions should be made as close as possible to
the people who will be affected by them. We are not wealthy people, but our
current set up suits us just fine. We trust our pediatrician, who knows us very
well, who hears from us personally every few months, who knows Magdalena and
clearly sees her value, to give us good advice and recommend services in the
We are unsure and uneasy about how this might change. We worry that
we, and Magdalena's siblings, will somehow be cut out of the process down the line
when her health issues are sure to pile up. I can't forget that this is the
same president (Obama) who made a distasteful joke about the Special Olympics.
He apologized through a spokesman ... (but) I truly believe that the people
around him don't know—or don't care to know—the value and
blessedness of a child with special needs. And I don't trust them to mold
policy that accounts for my daughter in all of her humanity or puts "value" on
Of course, President Obama isn't the first leader to make clumsy gaffes.
Anyone can make similar mistakes over the course of a career. And the
special needs community is as divided about proposed health-care reforms as
Some might claim that the young mother quoted here has misread the intent and
content of Washington's plans. That can be argued. But what's most
striking about the young mother's e-mail—and I believe warranted—is
the parental distrust behind her words. She's already well acquainted, from direct experience, with how
hard it is to deal with government-related programs and to secure public
resources and services for her child. In fact, I've heard from enough
intelligent, worried parents of children with special needs here in Colorado to
know that many feel the current health-care proposals pressed by Washington are
troubling and untrustworthy.
Health-care reform is vital. That's why America's bishops have supported
it so vigorously for decades. They still do. But fast-tracking a
flawed, complex effort this fall, in the face of so many growing and serious
concerns, is bad policy. It's not only imprudent; it's also
dangerous. As Sioux City's Bishop R. Walker Nickless wrote last
week, "no health-care reform is better than the wrong sort of health-care
If Congress and the White House want to genuinely serve the health-care needs
of the American public, they need to slow down, listen to people's concerns
more honestly—and learn what the "common good" really means.
This column originally appeared in the August 26, 2009, edition of the Denver
Catholic Register, and is reprinted here by kind permission of the Archdiocese of Denver.
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On Being Catholic American | Joseph A. Varacalli
The State Which Would Provide Everything | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Secularity: On Benedict XVI and the Role of Religion in Society | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Speaking Up For Life | An Interview with Deirdre McQuade, the
USCCB's Director of Planning and Information
On Being Neither Liberal nor Conservative | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
The Role of the Laity: An Examination of Vatican II and
Christifideles Laici | Carl E. Olson
Most Reverend Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., was appointed Archbishop of Denver by Pope John Paul II
on February 18, 1997. As member of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Tribe, Archbishop Chaput is the second Native American to be ordained bishop in the United States, and the first
Native American archbishop. He is the author of Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living our
Catholic Beliefs in Political Life.
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