Acton Institute Powerblog

Catholic Social Teaching and Health Care

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Susan Stabile, a law professor at St. John’s University and a contributor to Mirror of Justice, analyzes the current state of health coverage in the United States in light of Catholic social teaching in this article. I have quibbles here and there along the way, but on the whole the approach and the conclusions are sound. She is probably right that Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) have limited value, though my reasoning would be a little different. I would say that, in principle, they represent a helpful idea—increase the operation of the market within health care—but they are such a small foray into a vast and complicated world beset with market distortions on every side, that they end up exhibiting the deficiencies that Stabile identifies.

The verdict is obviously still out on the Massachusetts plan but I am willing, with Stabile, to give it the benefit of the doubt as a generally well-conceived step to try to solve a difficult problem.

One issue that Stabile and so many others writing on this subject fail to take into account is distinguishing between necessary and elective health care. This is a critical issue that simply must be a part of our ongoing debate about health coverage. She rightly insists that Catholic social teaching views health care as a right. But does that right imply a monthly medical check-up? An annual one? Plastic surgery to make wounds less noticeable? Botox treatments to take the lines out of one’s aging countenance?

Probably we could come to consensus that the last item in that list is not a right. But what about the others? It’s not an easy distinction and there will be a lot of different views about where to draw the line. As soon as we take health care out of the realm of the market (where every person gets just what he is willing to pay for personally), it seems to me that we have to answer not only the question, How is the community going to ensure that everyone receives health care?, but also the question, Which forms of health care will the community pay for? To think that everyone can have every bit of medical treatment he or she wishes is pie-in-the-sky utopianism. Health care is a scarce commodity like anything else, and its distribution at some level must somehow be tied to market pricing.

I think we need to stop thinking about health care as a special case and think about it more as just another basic good necessary for human wellbeing. Take nourishment as an example. No one (or nearly no one) advocates that any person be left to starve to death. And no (or nearly no one) argues that everyone must have access to five-star restaurants. Instead, people take up positions along a spectrum. Some argue that private charity can provide the needed safety net; some insist that government programs are necessary; some say that a mixture of the two is best. But with health care, it seems that many people believe that everyone must be able to afford the equivalent of the five-star restaurant; otherwise there is unconscionable inequity. It’s an impossible goal.

Kevin Schmiesing Kevin Schmiesing, Ph.D., is a research fellow for the research department at the Acton Institute. He is a frequent writer on Catholic social thought and economics, is the author of American Catholic Intellectuals, 1895-1955 (Edwin Mellen Press, 2002) and is most recently the author of Within the Market Strife: American Catholic Economic Thought from Rerum Novarum to Vatican II (Lexington Books, 2004). Dr. Schmiesing holds a Ph.D. in American history from the University of Pennsylvania, and a B.A. in history from Franciscan University ofSteubenville. Author of Within the Market Strife and American Catholic Intellectuals, 1895—1955 (2002), he serves as Book Review Editor for the Journal of Markets & Morality. He is also executive director of


  • Jim

    The reference to nourishment is apropos, but it doesn’t go far enough. A common rationale for state provision of health care is that it is a basic human need. So is food. Forty years ago, it was becoming commonly feared that population would outgrow the food supply and millions would starve. History since then shows that, due to the market mechanism, human cooperation and ingenuity, the food supply has grown steadily and faster than population, so that now the problem is a surplus of food that depresses agricultural prices. In health care, on the other hand, government intervention which now constitutes more than half of medical expenditures, combined with third-party intervention (insurance) has been the primary cause of health care inflation on a long-term trend triple that of the overall economy. The problem is too much government, not too little. More government will gradually force more and more rationing (a la Canada) and less and less quality. That is what happens in every market where the government intervenes.