Is the Pope pro-Obamacare?

Liberal Catholics are salivating over Pope Benedict’s message to the 25th international conference of the Pontifical Council for Health Care ministry, using his words to imply Vatican (and church teaching) endorsement of the recent health care legislation passed by the Democrats and President Obama.

When orthodox Catholics take Vatican statements to be applicable to US affairs, liberals cry foul, but when their favored policies may be the background to a Vatican statement, suddenly what the Vatican says becomes important to them.

The problem is, the pope isn’t endorsing Obamacare in this message. But the good news is his message provides me with the opportunity to, once again, express my strong commitment to his (and church teaching’s) vision for heath care justice, something that has been almost completely lost amid all the noise of opposing Obamacare’s false solutions for achieving this bulwark of the common good.

The first thing to realize is that just because the Church is in favor of ensuring that people receive health care does not mean the Church automatically endorses any proposal that walks through the door claiming to do this. In this case, I believe the legislation passed by the Democrats will result in a net detriment to what our dollars earn in terms of health.

Let’s excerpt some key passages and discuss them:

It is necessary to work with greater commitment at all levels so that the right to health is rendered effective, favoring access to primary health care.

Primary health care is already available at emergency rooms across the country. Medicaid provides health care coverage to those unable to afford it themselves. Many people of their free will (especially young men) choose not to purchase health care insurance because they don’t believe it to be in their best interest. Now, under Obamacare, everyone is required to register for health insurance or risk a hefty fine. The President’s promise that people will be able to keep their coverage if they like it is already going up in smoke, and the fact that the administration has given out 111+ institutional waivers shows that businesses are finding it difficult to continue offering health care coverage without risking serious financial strain. Are we to believe that Obamacare has really made things better in this regard?

Important also in the field of health, integral part of each one’s existence and of the common good, is to establish a true distributive justice that guarantees to all, on the basis of objective needs, adequate care.

Obamacare does not expand care. It expands coverage. Obamacare did not make any new doctors, nurses or hospital equipment. In expanding coverage, many people mistakenly believed that more American citizens now have care. In America we are experiencing a doctor shortage, a nurse shortage and a shortage of actual medical care. In Massachusetts and other government-sponsored universal health care systems (notably the UK), the fact that everyone has “healthcare” does not help everyone receive care. In fact, rationing and delay-of-care is becoming more and more the norm. Here in the US, Medicare and Medicaid (the government’s major healthcare entitlement programs) are worse offenders than private insurance when it comes to being unable to actually provide care to their subscribers. An expansion of government-care over private-care means more bureaucracy, means more money going to things besides actual care. Again, Obamacare has not made this situation better, it promises to make it worse.

The Pope spends a great deal of time condemning pathways to health care justice that fail in providing for human dignity and protection (especially of the unborn). The new funding streams for abortion present in the health care legislation (see video), the fact that Planned Parenthood is currently lobbying for contraception to become free to Obamacare subscribers (as a “cost-saving” mechanism), and that the elderly are the greatest financial drain on any communitarian health system and therefore stand the greatest risk of seeing their benefits curtailed or eliminated are all substantial proofs for how Obamacare fails to achieve the basic standards for health care coverage and care that the Pope puts forward.

There has been a lot of talk about preventive care (a concept that does not appear in the pope’s message). In all the studies of universal preventative care mandates that I have seen, preventative care is a net loser for public health. That’s because it costs more to have everyone undergo preventive care than it does to treat people who actually evidence signs of being sick. The idea that having everyone going to regular exams (even if they do not feel sick) and thereby consuming scant medical resources will substitute for the cost of caring for those who are sick does not pass arithmetical muster. I would rather have my doctor caring for those who are sick rather than constantly ensuring that I do not get sick. In a perfect world I would love to pay a doctor to watch over me full time, but I don’t have the money, and there are other people who do need his help, now.

Looking at the global perspective, as the pope must, it appears to me that he is more concerned over the lack of basic care in poorer countries of the world – countries that would best be served in the long term medically by becoming more affluent as a society. America, as the government which provides the most overseas aid, is less able to send money outside the country if more of it is being misspent domestically. In industrialized countries (such as the US), the pope appears more immediately concerned with the perversion of medicine that sees health care as a luxury item as part of a deformed “cult of the body.” If we want to talk about health care injustice, we should be talking about the decadent culture where women pay $20,000 for plastic surgery, as well as the mother of four who is encountering problems in paying for her maternity needs. Health care injustice is not solely rectified by government subsidies of people’s basic health care costs, it is rectified by promoting a culture that views the body properly.

You are welcome to read the pope’s message yourself to see if you think I am representing it fairly, and if I am faithfully reflecting on his directives and applying them to the health care legislation enacted by the Democrats.

Let me conclude with a fundamental point I have stated before. In this entire health care debate, it has come down basically to the difference between people who believe private insurance should be allowed to provide care freely, and those who believe the government ought to establish a system of taxes, mandates and regulatory bureaucracies to oversee how this care is provided and paid for. The argument that “these people are dying” (the number of people who die each year because of a lack of health care is miniscule – I’ve looked at the studies) and that this is the reason we have to endanger our entire medical system and expose it to more waste and inefficiency for those who are receiving care currently is far more callous, uncharitable, and reckless than doing nothing. Presenting the wrong solution doesn’t solve a problem.

I don’t believe government achieves the goal of providing the best health care to the most number of people better than private insurers. I believe the government is far more prone to abuse, waste and ideology than the private sector, and particularly the Catholic health care network. If Obamacare is not repealed, I believe we can all look forward to an impoverished offering of health care to more American citizens, and can expect American citizens and the country to become poorer as we pay more for less.

Liberals should at least acknowledge that the difference between them and conservatives, and orthodox Catholics, is how we achieve health care justice for all, not if this is a worthy goal to pursue in the first place. On that we agree. I submit that the burden of proof still lies with those who believe Obamacare will actually establish health care justice for all. I see little evidence that it will, and plenty of evidence that it won’t. That’s my prudential conclusion, and I am saddened by my suspicion that in passing Obamacare, America has drifted even further away from the vision of health care justice that the pope presents.

UPDATE – while I am thinking about this, let me offer a hypothetical example that may illuminate the prudential reason why, at the heart, I think government solutions to health care fall short. This is purely for illustrative purposes.

Let’s say the pope decreed that it is a human right to own a car. Right now, every car costs $2,000. So what if the government passed a law giving a free car to every American? Catholics would have to support such a law, right? Well, what if the law also raised taxes on every American citizen by $3,000. In other words, it’s true – everyone gets a free car, but it’s also true that the society basically “paid” for the $2,000 car by having to pay the government $3,000 in taxes.

In other words, having a human right to something does not mean that government is the most efficient and just provider of that right, be it cars, or be it our health care.



  • Christopher Adams

    Your long post is compelling, but it’s too bad that it’s not true.

    You don’t need to ask whether the Pope supports universal access to free health care, because the American bishops’ conference does. The only thing it and the Pope doesn’t support — and rightly so– is taxpayer funded abortion.

    That aside, there are three assumptions you make that are absolutely unfounded and irresponsible to claim by due diligence otherwise. I urge you as a Catholic to remove this post immediately. I am afraid that your taking these positions in public will compromise our mutual pro-life work in other areas.

    Here are your assumptions, and please correct me if I am wrong.

    1. Under Obamacare there will be rationing, therefore the health care system will become less accessible.

    (However, before Obamacare, there was rationing. This rationing takes place when people can’t afford to pay for treatment, and therefore ration themselves to go without it. The new system will simply shift the rationing to public authorities. According to Catholic social teaching, there is no reason why rationing would be unjustified, as long as it is necessary.)

    2. Public health insurance costs more than private health insurance.

    (Every indication is that the opposite is true. Medicare has a 3% overhead; private insurance has a 20-30% overhead for profit, bonuses, and options for stockholders.)

    3. Public health care cares for elderly and vulnerable less well than private health care system as a whole– making the whole system public would make them more vulnerable.

    (A private insurance company increases revenue by denying as much payment for care as possible by retroactively revoking policies and inventing complex claim processes that prevent reimbursement to doctors and patients. If it doesn’t do these things, it can be sued by shareholders as a public company for not maximizing profits. Also competition means that a private company that does NOT do these things will eventually die out, because more unscrupulous companies will do it and exceed them.)

    For these reasons, I urge you to remove this post, at least in favor of uncertainty, so you do not give the pro-life cause ill press.

    Chris Adams
    Pro-Life Democrat

  • blipper

    “liberals cry foul, but when their favored policies may be the background to a Vatican statement, suddenly what the Vatican says becomes important to them.” And frequently vice versa as reading the comments of Mark Shea’s readers on his torture posts will teach us.

    It is correct that the Vatican statement does not endorse the recently passed national health plan; it merely lays out the principles by which the justice of a nation’s approach to health care should be measured. I would point out that the use of emergency rooms as a source for health care for the uninsured, seemingly endorsed by you as part of the way we are meeting the requirements of health care for the poor, has been a major contributor to the unsustainable costs of the health system. Providing care through emergency rooms is simply not effective in delivering good care efficiently.

  • Lynda Keebler

    How could the Pope be more clear, I agree with you that he is not advocating Obamacare. “… the world of health cannot be subtracted from the moral rules that should govern it so that it will not become inhuman” and “Justice is inseparable from Charity.” These are words that speak volumes to the injustice and inhumanity of Obamacare that is now in place. I do not pretend to read the Pope’s mind or interpret his words, but I do know we are given these words to examine and apply with our thoughts and reasoning to the health care issue. To fund abortion, to force a tangled bureaucracy of waste, corruption and inhumanity upon a whole nation, that is not Charity nor is it Justice… when the same health care could be achieved privately, morally and fairly to all.

    Quote: Important also in the field of health, integral part of each one’s existence and of the common good, is to establish a true distributive justice that guarantees to all, on the basis of objective needs, adequate care. Consequently, the world of health cannot be subtracted from the moral rules that should govern it so that it will not become inhuman. As I stressed in the encyclical “Caritas in Veritate,” the social doctrine of the Church has always evidenced the importance of distributive justice and of social justice in the different sectors of human relations (No. 35). Justice is promoted when one receives the life of the other and one assumes responsibility for him, responding to his expectations, because in him one grasps the face itself of the Son of God, who for us was made man. The divine image impressed in our brother is the foundation of the lofty dignity of every person and arouses in each one the need of respect, of care and of service. The bond between justice and charity, in the Christian perspective, is very close: “Charity exceeds justice, because to love is to give, to offer of my ‘own’ to the other; but it is never without justice, which induces to give the other what is ‘his,’ that which is due to him by reason of his being and his acting. […] He who loves others with charity is first of all just to them. Not only is justice not foreign to charity, not only is it not an alternative or parallel way to charity: Justice is ‘inseparable from charity,’ intrinsic to it. Justice is the first way of charity” (Ibid., 6). In this connection, with a synthetic and incisive expression, St. Augustine taught that “justice consists in helping the poor” (“De Trinitate,” XIV, 9: PL 42, 1045).

    • Pamela

      Pope Benedict in his new book also says comdoms are peremitted in some cases.
      I know this link wont pop, but google it.

      • Lynda

        Why this is a reply to my comment I’m not quit sure, but to respond (and have you read Pope Benedict’s comments for yourself?) I will quote another person’s explanation than my own which seems reasonable and well said (still I am not sure it is wholly accurate):

        QUOTE: The pope is saying that if a male prostitute, AS AN EXAMPLE, ONE example, was to use a condom with the intention of not spreading or contracting disease, it is a sign of, perhaps, a movement of his conscience towards realizing that sexuality has a holy purpose. It does not make exceptions or excuses…he is commenting on the attitude of the person who puts on the condom…the condom was rather ignored in his example. Peace of Christ be with you. END QUOTE

  • Mary, the doctor

    Thomas, thank you for the clarity. We don’t disagree on the human right but on the best way to deliver. Food is a human right but government feeding centers with mandatory three times per day attendance are not a big topic. We know, it’s better left to individuals to take care of this for themselves and family, with the rest of us trying to prudentially help out those who cannot provide for themselves.
    I practice at a clinic with a large number of low-income, uninsured patients. Like, many of my privately insured, higher income friends, they seem to think it is somehow illegal to directly purchase a medical service or product. If no third party payer will cover something for them, they think they simply can’t have it. It’s fun to explain that patients can pay me cash, just like they pay the hairdresser, using some discretion, as free and intelligent human beings as to when to engage the services of either of us.
    Needless to say, the Walmart $4 med. list is always in the pocket of my white coat and has made delivery of high quality primary care much easier. The Nobel Committee really should take a look.
    One of the many sad, unintended consequences Obamacare could bring is further infantilization of the average American. This won’t reduce costs or improve health, but it is the cost of relinquishing freedom.
    Re: Primary care. By definition, it should be comprehensive and continuous. ER’s do may good things but they aren’t primary care.
    Re: Preventive care. I believe intelligent preventive care pays in lessening expenditures as well as misery. Near universal polio vaccination is probably less expensive than several cases of lifelong care for a paralytic.
    But much of what we call preventive care is done because it’s paid for, not because it’s helpful. The annual pap is not needed for most women in this country. But it’s commonly done and compensated by third party payers, including medicaid. Taking the same amount of time to talk real prevention, i.e., encouraging patients to live chastely, avoiding HPV and the cancer the pap screen tests for is reimbursed about zero dollars and is not really considered medicine.
    At my clinic, we get graded on a number of “quality markers”. Number of pap smears for females is a marker. Number of females/males honestly counseled on the consequences of sex outside of marriage is not.

  • Richard Kluk

    In regards to your comment: “Primary health care is already available at emergency rooms across the country.” While care is available at Emergency rooms, it is very expensive. Here are some numbers:

    “Average expenses for a visit to the Emergency Room were $1038 in 2007, according to the Medical Expenditure Panel Survey (MEPS).”


    Highly informative statistical summary, including average cost (charges) per hospital ER visit of $1881 (2006 prices),


    more info from this site:

    “Executive Summary

    * Finding a way to provide nonurgent health care access to patients who inappropriately overuse the ER has become a national health care priority as ER costs per-visit are generally three times higher than comparable care in an outpatient clinic.

    * Among the most common heavy users of ER services for nonurgent conditions are: Medicaid and Medicare recipients, the uninsured, the mentally ill, the drug and alcohol dependent, and those without families or adequate social support.”


    While I don’t agree with the healthcare law, saying that ER rooms are a cost effective solution for the poor is not borne out by the facts.

  • Kevin Tierney

    The question isn’t whether or not the previous situation was “perfect.” As the author rightly pointed out, the question is “how do we reform it”

    In response to Vincent, perhaps a bit of political history is in order.

    When people say it was a “government takeover” they are referring to the individual mandate. Not only are you required to buy insurance, but the government decides for you whether or not the insurance you want is sufficient. You are allowed to choose anything on the menu, provided the government tells you its okay. That is an attempt at a federal takeover, and indeed a down payment on single payer medicine. (As President Obama stated in as early as 2006 for what his health reforms would be, and prominent progressives such as Barney Frank stated)

    The fact that a GOP governor in Massachusets first tried the idea doesn’t tell much. The idea was pretty roundly condemned in conservative circles even at the time. Yet we now have the benefit of hindsight that the individual mandate, far from decreasing costs and increasing access to care, leads to less access to care, and far greater costs.



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