the Bishops Fortnight for Freedom, Subsidiarity and the Constitution

Catholic X-ray calls attention to Archbishop Charles Chaput’s recent brief comments regarding the Obama Administrations various assaults on the Constitution. The latest being the use of the IRS as an instrument to harass conservatives and religious organizations. The full statement can be seen at and is Archbishop’s May 24th post. Of course the Archbishop is a little less broad in his language and not particularly critical of Obama by name.  Still the facts are clear. As anyone not in a coma should be aware, the IRS targeted those attempting to form conservative 501c3 political groups, and at times religious groups, with excessive amounts of scrutiny, asking for donor lists, delaying or by inaction denying, approval to such groups, auditing citizens trying to form such groups and so forth. Liberal groups did not get the same once over.  The obvious reason was to use the IRS to intimidate conservatives, tea party activists and those religious entities from forming 501c3 groups or other kinds of tax exempt groups  and therefore suppress real or even potential political opposition. This is the kind of thing they do in say… Havana or Caracas… Its not the kind of thing that should go on in a free republic like the United States. This whole ugly business is not much of a surprise. That’s simply the way they do business in the political back rooms of Chicago, and Chicago was Obama’s political training ground. We do not wish to focus primarily on the odiousness of the Chicago machine operating out of the West Wing.  There are plenty of commentators doing a reasonably good job of that. God bless them. In any case Obama’s abortion advocacy alone would seem to make any reasonably sentient Catholic certain that he is morally bankrupt. As we will sometimes note, Vatican II calls abortion an “unspeakable crime”. Since even liberal Catholics seem to think Vatican II is “authoritative” it appears pretty clear that from a Catholic perspective Obama is a morally a disaster. President Obama advocates legal protection, and federal funding for abortion, that is to say “unspeakable crime” and lavishes praise on the perpetrators of such crime, like Planned Parenthood. If such unrestrained advocacy of abortion, or what is  according to Vatican II, “unspeakable crime” doesn’t make you morally bankrupt, it seems hard to say what would. The fact that Obama disregards the 1st, 2nd and now the 4th amendments to the Constitution is relatively small potatoes I suppose, when you consider his sympathy for the industrial scale killing of unborn children.  But I digress… the real point of this post is Archbishops Chaput’s statement.

I agree with virtually all of it. There is no question that the Obama administration’s mandate compelling private entities to pay for contraceptives and abortifacients violates the conscience and religious liberty of someone who thinks contraceptives are sinful. In a more basic way it violates the freedom of an employer to offer whatever benefits he chooses for whatever reason.  Afterall if you do not like the benefits, salary or working conditions one does not have to choose the job. The Bishops are correct in opposing this vile and unconstitutional mandate. ( What provision in the Constitution gives the federal government the power to do such a thing anyway?) Catholics should support the Bishops vigorously in their opposition.

There is a practical weakness in the Bishops position however, and it is their penchant for unrestrained governmental solutions to most problems. This penchant is in conflict with the both the moral principal of subsidiarity and the constitutional principles of a limited federal government.

Archbishop Chaput in the beginning of his otherwise excellent statement makes the following point:

“…… America’s Catholic bishops started pressing for adequate health-care coverage for all of our nation’s people decades before the current administration took office. In the Christian tradition, basic medical care is a matter of social justice and human dignity. Even now, even with the financial and structural flaws that critics believe undermine the 2010 Affordable Care Act, the bishops continue to share the goal of real health-care reform and affordable medical care for all Americans.”

Indeed! Perhaps the Bishops might consider that this stance is part of the reason for the current problem. The Bishops have inadvertently advocated the creation of a leviathan federal government that is now out of control and has turned on the Church. This was predictable. It is why the founders were skeptical of an excessively powerful government and demonstrates the genius of the American political system was to leave most things in the hands of the states, and even in the hands of non governmental entities. When Ben Franklin and Dr. Thomas Bond founded the nations first hospital to care for the poor  (Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia) they did not run to the government to help them.  In contrast compare what the Bishops appear to advocate. To the extent it refers to public policy, the initial principle articulated by Archbishop Chaput is so elastic as to be dangerous. While perhaps one might assert that “basic “medical care is a matter of social justice, it is unclear what “basic” care means, nor is it clear what “affordable” medical care means. The question I  would pose to the Bishops is this: Would “basic” medical care mean vaccines, check ups and antibiotics for minor infections or does it mean being able to spend two weeks in the ICU after you develop an opportunistic pneumonia following chemotherapy for your locally advanced lung cancer,  on a complicated mechanical ventilator which breathes for you, and perhaps receiving dialysis for your acutely injured kidneys, all to gain perhaps a 20% chance of surviving an extra two years?  Does it mean something in between? Who should decide what it means? Obama? The Secretary of HHS? The folks at Planned Parenthood? ( See.. unfortunately that’s who is in charge at the moment. ) Did you ever ask yourself this?  Did it ever dawn on anyone at the USCCB that the answer to the question of “Who is in charge?” would define what “basic medical care” was ? Beyond this, what particular practical policy would guarantee that such care is affordable? What evidence is there that having the government pay for such care, or by taxing the citizenry to pay for it , would somehow make the care “affordable”?  I could easily add about another 100 or so practical questions that would need to be answered in order to make intelligible the statement that “basic health care is a matter of social justice and human dignity”. Of course It is undoubtedly true that to have people die in the streets in squalor, of malnutrition, infections and other easily treatable problems is something no Christian should tolerate. These problems should be addressed by all Christians, but they are the problems found in third world nations . This is not really the issue in the United States.

The debate in the United States surrounding “health care reform” is about how to correct certain flaws in our health care financing system, that would as best we can preserve the current wide dispersion of high technology care, accessible and affordable for most people, while simultaneously keeping control of costs such that they do not rise quite as rapidly, and thus stifle economic growth.  There is also a need to improve the situation of the fraction of the population that does not currently have adequate health insurance. This is maybe about 12% of the population if the 40 million “uninsured” is taken at face value. This is a complicated health policy question that involves answering innumerable specific questions that requires technical expertise in economics, medicine, health services research, public health and so forth. Part of the solution may not even involve public policy but rather local and private initiatives. For example an increase in free clinics supported by private funds. There is no Catholic teaching or scriptural support for any specific detailed policy proposal.  Ultimately any specific policies that emerge as potential solutions will themselves involve trade-offs and might very well have side effects that are problematic and unanticipated. ( For example no one anticipated at the time Medicare was enacted that it would implode, because of the simultaneous increase in life expectancy and decrease in family size as people opt for fewer children. The resultant increase in the ratio of beneficiaries to those who pay into medicare is bankrupting the program.)  Its not clear in this situation what the Bishops support of “real health-care reform and affordable medical care for all Americans” means on a practical level. I think you could argue it means free market reforms and getting the federal government the hell out of the health care business. The “Nuns on the Bus” think it means 2400 pages of legislation and 20,000 pages of regulation already in Obama care.. go figure….. I do not see any evidence the Bishops as a group, have a clear sense of what specifically they mean. The support then for “the goal of real health-care reform and affordable medical care for all Americans” becomes a sort of platitude. Is there any policy proposal out there that does not claim this as a goal?

This tendency of the Bishops to advocate some broad “social justice’ principal that in practical terms can not  be translated into a specific policy proposal, has a problematic effect however. Such statements are  typically cited as support by the “social justice” i.e. leftist, wing of the Church to advocate liberal statist policy solutions, and to work for the election of liberal statists. In our country that means Democrats.  Liberal statists however are not typically inclined to “like” religion. The political left  is for the most part highly secular and thinks of religion pretty much as annoying superstition. There is a mountain of evidence to support this, but one little nugget of info is provided by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public life. Of the 21 states that ranked above the national average in religious practice, 19 are reliably red states in Presidential elections, conversely of the 29 states below average, 20 were reliably blue states.

Given this political climate it is no surprise if you turn over political power to those who like large massive federal programs, that is “blue state” people… you will get as part of the package a view of religion common to “blue state” people… One that sees religion as a nuisance that should be kept out of the public sphere.  When those folks actually get in power, their view of religious freedom will not be particularly generous.  When Obama ran for office the kind of polices he would advocate and their impact on traditional religious practice was predictable. It is a very grave misfortune that the Bishops did not recognize this in Sept and October of 2008. We might not have the current problems if they did. ( Although sometimes I wonder if the Bishops political liberalism overwhelms their judgement.)

What makes this even more disappointing is that “Social justice” Catholicism routinely neglects a moral principle that does clearly mandate an approach to public policy, and the approach is one that happily happens to coincide with the principles of limited constitutional government envisioned by the constitution. This is known as subsidiarity… Well known and little used. More in our next post… In the mean time this might be a good time to say the prayer for religious liberty seen below:




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