A Salesian Approach to the Health Care Debate

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Editor’s Note: The following blog entry is from Michael Castrilli, OSFS, an Oblate of St. Francis de Sales studying theology at Washington Theological Union and serving as a campus minister at Georgetown Visitation Preparatory school in Washington, DC. Michael offers us a balanced approach to the debate based on Salesian spirituality and the teaching of the magisterium. As we all are aware, there is a lot of energy around disagreements in the health care debate. I offer the following poem from the late Archbishop of Recife, Brazil, Dom Helder Camara, as a good reflection on how we can approach all debates with charity. The poem is called “If You Disagree with Me.”


If you disagree with me,
you have something to give me,
if you are sincere
and seek the truth
as best you may,
honestly, with modest care,
your thought is growth
to mine, correction,
you deepen my vision.


The health care debate in the United States has been consuming many areas of daily life. Whether we are watching contentious health care town-hall meetings on television news, reading about the variety of perspectives on the matter, or discussing the issues with friends and family around the dinner table, everyone seems to be talking about health care reform. The question that arises for me is what Catholic social teaching and our Salesian tradition offers us in terms of insights into this debate. I would like to highlight two points for discussion. The first point involves our Salesian approach to the debate and the second point highlights the resources available to understand the Catholic Church’s position on this challenging and complex issue.


Unfortunately, there is no quick-fix solution to the health care problem in the United States. If there were an easy solution, the six-decade debate over what to do in terms of access and escalating costs would have been solved many years ago. President Harry Truman, in his address to Congress in 1945 was the first to propose universal health care access. Many years have passed between his declaration and where we stand today on this position. As Catholics and followers of Salesian spirituality, what role are we to take in this debate? I would argue our responsibility is to promote dialogue in love, with love, and through love. Salesian spirituality challenges us to listen well to others, seek to understand a variety of points of view, and reflect on Sacred Scripture and magisterial teaching to help inform our conscience and our viewpoints. However, the central trait that we bring to this discussion is our approach, and that approach is love. To bring the gift of love to this debate is what we as people of faith are called to do. Jesus says, “As the Father loves me, so I also love you. Remain in my love…This is my commandment: love one another as I love you” (John 15:9-12). As the health care debate rages in our country, it is difficult not to notice that some individuals seem to be paralyzed by their own point of view, evident in the yelling and screaming at each other in public forums. Whether a person supports or disagrees with health care reform is not my point. However, I would argue that now, more than ever, the public square needs honest dialogue with love as our source, and Jesus Christ as our inspiration.


Throughout the life of St. Francis de Sales, we see him consistently dialoguing in love. As Francis faced contentious, challenging, and dangerous situations, whether as a missionary in the Chablais region or his work as Bishop of Geneva, Francis never tired of listening, dialoguing, and winning hearts through his gentle presence and his loving approach. With love as our approach, this stance can only serve to facilitate and promote respectful dialogue. The outcome of respectful dialogue is a broader understanding of another’s view, and then, whether we agree or disagree, we can meet each other as sister or brother and not as an enemy.


With love as our stance, the second point is to have awareness for what we truly believe as people of faith and to understand how our Catholic Church engages this issue. The Catholic Church has long supported universal access to health care that respects human life and dignity. One of the many reasons I love the Church is that it has never shied away from speaking out on a host of social, economic, political, and human issues faced by the faithful of all generations. To instruct the faithful, over time, the Church has developed a rich canon of magisterial documents in which the Church provides guidance, articulation, and instruction to the Catholic faithful. As health care issues evolved over time, it was Pope John XXIII who spoke explicitly about medical care as an issue of justice.[i] In Pacem in Terris (1963) the Pope articulates the position that proper medical care is a human right. He states, “We must speak of man’s rights. Man has the right to live. He has the right to bodily integrity and to the means necessary for the proper development of life, particularly food, clothing, shelter, medical care, rest, and, finally, the necessary social services.”[ii] Therefore, medical care as a human right is not new for the Church, though understanding the complex issues surrounding this debate can be challenging. To meet this challenge, in an effort to assist the faithful, the US Bishops’ have responded with a variety of resources.


In the summer of 2009, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) launched a health care website (www.usccb.org/healthcare) to help clarify issues. The bishops have developed a clear framework from which any health care reform must consider and provide guidelines to instruct the faithful on this important matter being discussed in the nation. The four principles are explicit:


1. a truly universal health policy with respect for human life and dignity
2. access for all with a special concern for the poor and inclusion of legal immigrants
3. pursuing the common good and preserving pluralism including freedom of conscience
and a variety of options
4. restraining costs and applying them equitably across the spectrum of payers


Reading these principles, as well as the variety of resources available[iii] from the USCCB, individuals can come to greater awareness and understanding for this complex debate. As the United States continues to debate health care reform, if we approach the dialogue with love, allowing our faith to instruct us and permit the Spirit to lead us, we simply cannot go wrong. Let us also not forget that what makes us unique as Christian people is how we approach one another, sister and brother, all with love. For when we allow love to rule our dialogue, nothing can get in the way of seeking the common good, respecting the humanity of those around us, and acting as a community of believers dedicated to the message of Jesus Christ, the first and ultimate advocate for all members of the earthly city.


[i] Philip S. Keane, Catholicism & Health Care Justice (New York: Paulist Press, 2002), 6.
[ii] John XXIII, Pacem in Terris (Rome: Vatican, 1963), 11.
[iii] See the 1993 document, A Framework for Comprehensive Health Care Reform: Protecting Human Life, Promoting Human Dignity, and Pursuing the Common Good or the 1981 document entitled Health and Health Care, available at www.usccb.org.


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