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Isn’t democracy a hoot? From time to time our family catches “Ask the Prime Minister” on television. We love to see the Members of Parliament booing and cheering and quipping as only the British can. It does get a bit testy at times. But the active political engagement of citizens elected to represent their constituents is a beautiful -- if loud -- thing.
Lately, watching the town meetings all across the United States has been just as interesting, and maybe even louder. Sure, manners and respectful discourse are important too. But if honest and vigorous debate is suppressed for the sake of some facade of national unity or twisted standard of civility, we risk the whole basis of what has made the United States the envy of all who love liberty. This is how a nation of free people work to define the common good and decide what serves the best interests of its citizens. Yes, it’s boisterous and sometimes way too personal. But debate and disagreement, haggling and compromise, rhetoric and reason all play a part in the kind of constitutional republic this nation invented.
Still, there ought not to be any room for the incessant fear-mongering that has been employed by all sides. I find it amusing to hear the Obama administration berating those who are concerned about “death panels,” when in the next breath they tell us that what we really ought to be afraid of is what will happen if we don’t change everything about the system we have within a few weeks. You can’t say “Be not afraid,” and then tell people that there’s an enormous crisis that is sure to fall out of the sky at any moment. On the other hand, it is important to cite the proposed legislation properly, keep the discussion open, and allow for full disclosure to be made. But let’s face it: Our country is so divided right now, that opposing sides have no basic trust for each other. We’re suspicious, and think we have reason to be.
As our son prepares to begin a five year master’s degree program in the physician assistant field, the current debate on health care or health insurance reform has become a more personal concern to us than it otherwise would have been. You may believe the government is the answer or the enemy. You may think the numbers of people without insurance is more than 47 million, or more like 10 million. You may look forward to Medicare with relief or with dread. But it is important to remember that our Catholic Christian faith has room for a broad range of perspectives and civil policies. Being a faithful Catholic does not demand that we hold views that are politically conservative or politically liberal. As comforting as it is to believe that we are right, we need to allow room for disagreement and debate, even within the Church.
On the other hand, there are “perspectives” and “policies” that clearly lie beyond the foul lines of Catholic teaching on matters of faith, morals, and social justice. In other words, there are political and civil “solutions” that are simply not consistent with Gospel values. As Catholics, we should to be careful about what we are ready to embrace, and bring our faith to bear on the opinions we form and the programs we advocate. What we support and eventually implement in terms of health care or insurance reform will reflect what we believe about the dignity of the human person, the value and meaning of human life, and the sovereignty of God.
First, the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, his life, death and resurrection shows us the value that God places on each individual human life. Each one of us is precious to him, unique and of inestimable value. God does not envision the world he created without any one of us. We do nothing to deserve his love or regard. Our value is not rooted in our capabilities or wealth. Human life is sacred. That is, human life is holy, simply because it is human. To be human is to bear the image of the God who made all things. Sickness, suffering, poverty -- even sin -- none of these devalue any of us. In fact, there is nothing that can make any of us worth less than we are. Where we are -- inside the womb or outside of it, in a prison or hospice bed or corrugated tin hovel -- does not affect our value. No location, status or diagnosis has the power to change the fact that we are human. We are all the stewards of creation, the caretakers of the garden, and our brother’s keeper. We are taught to love one another the way God has loved us, to do unto others what we would have them do unto us. We are also taught that God is ultimately in charge. God rules, and will rule forever. He gives us life in the first place, and he calls us from this world into the next.
As our nation continues to discuss and debate what we ought to do with our health care system, there are a few things I’ll be asking myself. First, how can our government claim that quality of life is a basic right, when it refuses to protect the more basic right to life itself? How can we encourage young people to choose professions in health care? Who should make decisions about which people have access to medical treatment? Can this or any other democracy be free if those who are elected to represent the people consistently choose to override their values? Can we limit the power of government, and yet serve the common good? How much of our lives should be entrusted to any civil authority? How can the poor be best served without creating a system which essentially locks them into poverty? How can our health care system honor the value of every individual at every stage of life? What must we do to avoid the exploitation of the human person for profit or for power?
God will not judge us by party or even by the “civility” of our political discourse. God will judge Americans by how we treat one another, and most especially how we care for the weakest among us. The elderly and the unborn, the mentally ill and intellectually challenged, the physically disabled, and the poor already get the raw end of the deal. I’m just not sure than any massive overhaul that isn’t explicitly based on Christian values will do any better.
Jaymie Stuart Wolfe is a wife and mother of eight children, and a disciple of the spirituality of St. Francis de Sales. She is an author, speaker, musician and serves as Faith Formation Coordinator at St. Maria Goretti Parish in Lynnfield.