Father Robert Sirico, founder and president of the Acton Institute, was the latest in the Distinguished Speakers Series here at Franciscan University recently (full video, video excerpts, and full audio available here). His talk could hardly have been more timely.
Rules promulgated by the Department of Health and Human Services based on the authority granted them by Obamacare will require all new health insurance plans to cover contraception and sterilization. The religious exemption is so narrow that most religious institutions like schools, universities, hospitals, nursing homes, etc., run by Catholics or most any other religious institution will not qualify and will have to provide this abominable coverage, or stop providing coverage altogether.
Catholic leaders and institutions, including Houston archbishop Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, chairman of the bishops’ pro-life committee, various other bishops and archbishops, the Cardinal Newman Society, and just today Franciscan University, have officially and publicly stated their opposition to the new mandates.
Father Sirico’s talk, while not directly about Obamacare or any other specific policy, illuminated Catholic social teaching, exploring the roots, purpose, and principles, of Catholic social teaching, while addressing some of the common misconceptions.
One thing is clear: the manner in which Obamacare seeks to fix the very real problems with our healthcare and health insurance systems and practices do not square with Catholic social teaching. These most recent rules give an example of why.
About midway through he says,
The salient quote from the opening of this clip, for those of you who can’t do the Flash player:
A common error often assumes that concern for the economically weak and marginalized must somehow translate first into yet another government program. That assumption is wrong. And it flies in the face of another principle of Catholic social teaching, the principle of subsidiarity. With good reason, this is something that those on the Catholic left, or whatever remains of it these days, rarely mention or grapple with, because they know that it would raise many questions about the prudence of, for instance, many welfare programs that they support.
Or, perhaps, national health insurance mandates (let alone national single-payer healthcare).
He discusses a little earlier in the talk the problematic tendency by some to move “seamlessly” from absolute obligations, such as the obligation to assist the poor, to specific legislation and programs. Contra this tendency, he notes, Popes John XXIII (Mater et Magistra 238) and Benedict XVI (Caritas in Veritate 9) in encyclical letters, as well as the U.S. bishops in a pastoral letter (Economic Justice for All), explicitly state that on matters where there is a “contingent” or “prudential” means of pursuing social justice obligations, such a seamless move is illicit. People of good conscience can disagree about the specifics of the most appropriate means, but the principle of subsidiarity—that the most local and decentralized portion of society (starting with the family, not city council) that can deal with a problem ought to be the one to deal with it—cannot be set aside due to mere expediency or sloth.
The specifics of, say, any given year’s national budget, ought to reflect an accurate and economically well-informed way of proposing how to achieve the worthy goals of, for instance, tending to the vulnerable, creating a sense of prosperity in a society. It is not sufficient to merely state that one’s goals reflect a preferential option for the poor, especially when the legislation that is conjured up is in reality a demonstration of a preferential option for the state, for bureaucracy.
In other words, while it is an obligation for society to attend to the needs of the poor—just one among those obligations with contingent, prudential possible solutions—going first and reflexively to the coercive power of the federal or even state government for the solution is not consistent with Catholic social teaching. “Society” does not equal “government.”
This is not to say that those levels of government are never the appropriate entity to deal with an issue—common defense and regulation of interstate commerce are legitimate functions of a highly centralized level of government—but that instances like the new rules from HHS referenced above are only one example of the great danger of yielding too much power to too few people in the pursuit of ostensibly noble goals.
An important distinction which he explores, and one which some left-leaning Catholics try to ignore, is that between the portions of Catholic social teaching that oblige us to resist evil—e.g., the obligation to resist laws permitting abortion—and the portions that oblige us to pursue a good—e.g., the obligation to assist the poor and vulnerable. A Catholic can never support laws that permit evil, but Catholics can, in good conscience, disagree on the degree to which and the means by which the government assists the poor and vulnerable. So, for instance, it is unquestionably immoral to support laws that permit abortion or require health insurers to cover contraception and sterilization, but it is not immoral to oppose certain kinds of immigration reform, even when they are supported by good and holy archbishops (provided, of course, that the grounds for opposition are not themselves problematic. And on that matter, quite likely only the individual and God truly know the score).
The ultimate goal of Catholic social teaching, he points out, is the same as the goal of the Church overall: human redemption. We are to be formed by who we are in relation to God and to one another and to bring that realization into every facet of our lives, in this case into our political and social spheres. He references the Biblical image of the yeast in bread, that once it is kneaded into the dough it is indistinguishable and inseparable from the dough, but the effect of the yeast on the dough is to make it better: to make it rise. In the same way, once we are formed and informed by Catholic social teaching we are to work for the redemption of the world through prudent political and social decisions and activity.