As newly empowered Republicans prepare a congressional agenda topped by a promise to repeal health care reform, Pope Benedict XVI has strongly reiterated Catholic teaching that universal health care is an "inalienable right" that must be guaranteed by every nation and society.
"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," Benedict said in a message
on Thursday to the 25th annual conference of the Vatican office that promotes health care ministry.
"Health justice should be among the priorities of governments and international institutions," he added.
The pope said that establishing this goal requires "a true distributive justice that guarantees to all, on the basis of objective needs, adequate care," and, "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."
Benedict's secretary of state and second-in-command, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, read the papal statement to the annual conference of the Pontifical Council for Health Care Ministry and then delivered remarks that were even clearer than the pontiff's.
"Justice requires guaranteed universal access to health care," Bertone said, adding that the provision of minimal levels of medical attention to all is "commonly accepted as a fundamental human right."
According to a Catholic News Service report
, Bertone also said that private health insurance companies should conform to human rights legislation and see to it that "privatization not become a threat to the accessibility, availability and quality of health care goods and services." And he said pharmaceutical companies -- a powerful lobby in the U.S. health care debate -- should not be driven by "profit as the only objective" in the creation and distribution of medicines.
Phrases like "distributive justice" and "guaranteed universal access to health care" are anathema to Republicans (and might send Glenn Beck into apoplexy), but they are especially problematic for many conservative Catholic Republicans such as incoming House Speaker John Boehner. These Republicans are often cast as more loyal to the pope than Catholic Democrats, even though they oppose universal health care and other church priorities, such as immigration reform.
Many Republicans did cite claims (widely disputed) that health care reform would fund abortion as one reason for their opposition. In his message Thursday, the pope specifically objected to any health care policies that would include abortion coverage, in-vitro fertilization (which can entail the destruction of embryos) or "legalized euthanasia." But Republicans, and most Catholics among them, opposed health care reform because of its expansion of government regulation, a position that put them at odds with the Catholic bishops of the United States, with Catholic teaching, and with the pope.
Still, papal statements that go against political positions have rarely altered Republican policies (or those of Democrats), and it's unlikely that Boehner or other GOP congressman are going to be Tweeting the pope's latest words to their caucus. (Though incoming freshman Republican Rep. Andy Harris, a conservative Catholic from Maryland's Eastern Shore who campaigned on repealing health care reform, may want to heed the pope's words after his widely publicized complaints
that his new, gold-plated government health care wouldn't kick in for a month.)
But there is an emerging argument among conservative pro-lifers that more closely represents the pope's view.
Writing this month in First Things, the conservative journal of religion and culture, Valparaiso University law professor Richard Stith argued that Obamacare is far more "pro-life" than the market-oriented health care system and that it should only be amended to ensure that there is no abortion funding.
"My disagreement [with other pro-lifers and Republicans] stems not just from the fact that the health care law includes various pro-life provisions, such as new help for pregnant women, which may make them less likely to choose abortion," Stith wrote
. "I think that even if these good aspects of the legislation are outweighed by its bad aspects, that is, if the net effect of the legislation at the moment is to advance abortion, it should not be repealed."
Senior editor R.R. Reno made a similar argument in the magazine last summer in an article titled "Reforming the Health-Care Reform." When Reno endorsed Stith's article on the magazine's website last week, he got hammered by many commenters, as did Stith. But Reno stood by his argument for "federalizing health insurance policy."
"A pro-life position is not a 'limited government' position, nor is it a 'free market' position," Reno wrote
. "On the contrary, the pro-abortion crowd are the ones in favor of limited government, as in limiting the government's ability to have any say in what pregnant women do or don't decide to do."
Whether that view, or the pope's, will gain any traction with the GOP as the repeal debate revs up seems doubtful. But the argument could provide useful cover should Republicans, as expected, be unable to repeal health care or be unwilling to do so since so many of its provisions are popular with the American public.