By Frank Wessling
If you have your health, you’ve got what’s really important. That sentiment, or something like it, begins to dawn on most of us as we feel the frailties and physical breakdown of aging. Younger people affected by physical handicap, accidents or chronic disease get an early lesson in wholeness: it is so obviously what they do not have.
Physical and mental wholeness, a full and properly functioning human body, the integrity of our material self — isn’t that what we all desire?
At a very young age we also learn how vulnerable we are to accident and disease. Health may seem like a birthright but it can be taken away in an instant. Its loss is also a hint of the ultimate material loss in death. And that brings up a spiritual challenge of health and its care: how far will we go to protect or restore health when it is lost or threatened?
The little boy bloodies his knee in a bicycle accident cries, and screams for the full attention of his mother and expects instant relief. If he gets the attention, along with soothing care and a credible promise of healing, his world of health is restored. He might also receive a self-care tip: focus more on balancing that bicycle.
This scenario has all the elements of what Americans say they want in a health care system for this country. We seem to have those elements, but at heavy cost and not shared equally. The current attention being given to this topic may lead to some beneficial change in how we do health care as a society, but we shouldn’t get our hopes too high. A more equitable, successful and less expensive health care system would threaten the tradition of individualism and free enterprise that has brought us this far.
As religious people, and Catholics in particular, we should be able to see the problem here. Catholic leadership has long called for a health care system that meets the needs of all, “especially the poor and vulnerable.” Systems which do that better than the American way already exist in most European countries, Canada and elsewhere in the developed world. We know that — even conservative groups like the Business Roundtable acknowledge it. But we are reluctant, extremely reluctant, to imitate those systems. They look too much like “socialism.”
It’s true that other countries are better at socializing health care benefits and cost while we continue to rely more on individual enterprise. How important is it that we maintain this difference? The evidence is piling up that we can’t continue as we have been and get the health care system we say we want: one that meets “the health care needs of all,” as our bishops ask. Our “system,” such as it is, leaves more than 40 million people on the margins, without insurance and only haphazardly getting the care they need, while our record in health outcomes is mediocre in comparison with those “socialist” systems and our costs are much higher.
Back to the spiritual challenge in this subject. For most of us, it is other people who aren’t being well served by the health care regime in this country. It’s easy, and satisfying, to think we’re OK while “they” aren’t because we are more virtuous, we’ve worked harder, we didn’t do stupid things that hurt us. Therefore, there’s something not quite right about sharing equally. It feels like a reward “they” don’t deserve.
It’s not irrational to feel that way. It might be a high stumbling block for a Christian, though. Jesus’ sacrifice is offered for all of us, the undeserving. If we now claim to be the body of Christ in history, it should be evident that our lives are so transformed that we can make the same — extravagant? — offering.