Back when the congressional debates over the healthcare bill were first raging, I noted that hardly anyone seemed to be raising perhaps the strongest reason to oppose any form of nationalized or government-directed healthcare. And the reason, I suggested, is that government—no matter what its good intentions—will never be able to resist the opportunities for social engineering that its control of healthcare offers.
I came under some attack, at the time—most of it in the form of a claim that the healthcare bill was trying only to change the way we pay for healthcare, not the social structure of the people using it.
Which was true enough, even if it missed the point. That point, however, has been sharpened by the HHS mandate and Catholics’ discussion of it. Perhaps, under sufficient pressure and adverse polling, the Obama administration will retract the mandate. Or perhaps some future administration will come in and take care of it. But we should also worry about what the ability to impose such a mandate augers for us all.
The best way to think about this may be through asking the question of authority. I’ve raised this topic before, with regard to my opposition to the death penalty, and received some interesting pushback, here at Catholic Vote, from Carson Holloway. Maybe he’ll find the suggestion I want to make here about authority more attractive, even though I think it derives from the same root. In fact, although at this point I’m only nibbling at the edges of the thought, the question of authority may be the way to embrace both the demands of Catholic social teaching and the deep American suspicion of governmental power.
The question, as I see it, isn’t whether we ought to care for the needy, the injured, and the ill among us. Of course, it ought to—and Catholic social teaching is abundantly clear on that. The question, rather, is whether the United States, as a particular form of non-Catholic government, has the authority to undertake these responsibilities. And, if not, whether we dare trust that government with the unauthorized power.
To that second question, the one about trust, I think the HHS mandate has clearly shown the answer: Allowed the power, every ruling regime—liberal or conservative—will tend to use it to compel moral conformity and punish disfavored points of view. Moreover, even supposing the best possible will, the very pressures and techniques of ruling will always tempt national government to use a power as strong and important as healthcare to weaken or abolish the authority of rival and non-governmental institutions.
To the first question, the one about authority in general, the answer is . . . well, I’m not sure. Note that I’m not speaking here of constitutional interpretation, like that we will shortly hear from the Supreme Court. That’s a question about how much authority the Founders (and our current understanding of our founding documents) believe inheres in our particular forms of representation. My question is rather the broader one—broader, the way Catholic thought is always broader, not narrower, than American political thought. Dare Catholic thought admit that the United States has, as one of many legitimate forms of non-Catholic government, the authority to claim to rule healthcare?
As I say, I haven’t thought this all the way through—but in it may lie an answer to the sneers of Catholic supporters of the healthcare bill. Yes, I’m a Catholic who understands, supports, and acknowledges the truth of Catholic social teaching. But I’m also an American who has, as Americans do, some deep libertarian and conservative suspicions about governmental power. And the way to square that circle is to take seriously the limits on authority that Christians as citizens should grant to the non-Christian governments that represent and rule them.