By Mara Fitzgibbon Adams, Ph.D
Sept. 27 is the anniversary of the death of St. Vincent de Paul (1580-1660), the patron saint of social workers and of charitable societies. Known for his work with orphans and the marginalized, de Paul was a tireless worker involved in education, relief for the poor, service to prisoners, the elderly and the mentally ill. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Vincent de Paul had linked spiritual well-being with physical well-being, and his work was noted for its holistic approach.
A little more than 200 years after de Paul’s death, the newly formed Davenport Diocese opened the St. Vincent Center (1895); this facility served as an orphanage, a residential treatment center for emotionally disabled youth and as an affiliate agency for Catholic Charities until its reorganization in 1973 as the St. Vincent’s Home Corporation. In naming its facility the “St. Vincent’s Center,” the Davenport Diocese was communicating something very specific and deliberate about its commitment to serving the most vulnerable members of society. This commitment is embodied in the diocese’s mission to “live out Jesus’ call … and to love God and neighbor.”
But who is my neighbor? A young man in Luke’s Gospel (10:30-37) asked this question, and Jesus responded by telling the story of the Good Samaritan to illustrate that respect must be extended to all of humanity. If we really believe Jesus’ answer, then we have some enormous soul-searching to do in response to the challenges of our world.
One such challenge facing us today is health care reform. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) reminds us that health care is a basic human right and not a privilege, one that should be available to all because of our common bond as those created in the image and likeness of God. The bishops state that health care should not depend upon where a person lives, works or how much they earn.
Public conversations about health care reform have taken center stage in recent years, but the USCCB responded to the challenge as early as 1993 by issuing “A Framework for Comprehensive Health Care Reform.” This document includes the criteria for reform and policy, and reminds national leaders that health care reform is not only a matter of “fundamental justice,” but literally a “matter of life and death.”
Such ideas are hotly debated, and it is likely that discussion will continue for some time about which reform measures are best. Not all the discourse is civil and, at times, this can create such a tense atmosphere that we might be tempted to ignore the whole issue and turn our attention to other matters.
Vincent de Paul linked spiritual and physical well-being as the only appropriate way to understand human life. Through the force of his personality, he made this connection not only popular but part of Catholic identity for more than 300 years. If all of humanity is “my neighbor,” then I cannot ignore any challenge simply because it is complicated, expensive, or controversial. One thing that is certain about the health care debate is our responsibility as Christians to be as informed as possible on all the issues. This is in keeping with our diocesan heritage and with the Gospel challenge.
(Mara Adams is an associate professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport. The entire text of the U.S. bishops’ statement on health care can be found at http://www.usccb.org/healthcare.)