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The Jesuit Post, the Health Care Controversy, and Communication

There is a new (or at least new to me) endeavor by younger Jesuits called The Jesuit Post. This fantastic new website has a wide range of reflections relating to lent, popular culture, even teaching middle schoolers to practice the Ignatian examen. I highly recommend exploring its many articles; however, I’d like to highlight one in particular by , a Jesuit with a degree in public health and currently studying theology at Boston College’s School of Theology and Ministry.

In his post, “Mandated Reporting and the Healthcare Controversy,” he begins by explaining that he inhabits two worlds:

A few years ago I was in Paris in a meeting room that might as well have been an art gallery – certainly no place for a boy from rural Missouri.  I was there because I’d been asked to serve as the English-speaking secretary for a global meeting of the National Bioethics Councils – a nice perk of my work with the World Health Organization’s Ethics team.  The president of a bioethics council in a developing nation and I were speaking before the meeting when he brought up my life as a Jesuit.  He said, “Many more people in my country would be dead if not for the Catholic Church and its commitment to quality care for everyone… and I mean everyone, regardless of who they are or where they’ve come from.  The Church cares for those no one else will.  I just want to say thank you.”

Three months before that conversation in Paris I had presented my thesis in an utterly unremarkable conference room only made distinctive by the incredible cadre of faculty and students of Johns Hopkins School of Public Health who sat before me.  Some in the room knew that I had been working on a new way of setting population-level health goals that focused more on achieving equity.  Everyone in the room knew I was a Jesuit.  As far as I know they were, without exception, supportive of my vocation.  But they did not give me a free pass that afternoon.  One of the first questions I received, from one of the kindest faculty members in the school, was this: “Do you think the fact that you are a visible representative for a Church that many believe treats women unequally in any way impacts your ability to speak on the importance of equity in health?”

Both of these stories describe part of who I am.  The fact of the matter is that I imperfectly straddle two worlds that rarely speak the same language, but are often engaged in the same work.  Both care deeply about the poor.  Both see health as an intrinsic and instrumental good.  Both emphasize personal and public responsibility.  Yet for their all these similarities it is not rare for a situation to arise in which these worlds seem to be talking past one another.  No, that analogy doesn’t quite do justice to the tension I feel – it sometimes feels to me that the Church and the world of public health are standing face-to-face screaming at one another.  And at moments like this, when tensions are really high, they act like scorned lovers who pretend that they really don’t need each other anyway.  And I can do little but watch.

So why do it, you ask?  Aside from my love of drama, I consider it a 21st Century version of Jesuit missionary work.

What follows is one of the best and reasoned treatment of the current situation I have seen addresses some of my own great frustrations that in the rhetoric by Catholics both sides. After a brief summary, he dives in:

There’s a lot going on here.  This is a religious liberty issue.  It is an issue of cooperation with evil.  It is a women’s health issue.  It is an issue of the common good’s connection to contraception.  It is an issue of forming individual consciences. It’s an issue of the participation of religious institutions in public life.

Each time I discuss the issue with someone I feel like Harold Ramis telling my buddy Bill Murray not to cross the streams.  Nevertheless here comes my best Dan Aykroyd impersonation: total protonic reversal, here I come.

***

The other day I saw one of the bumper stickers that has emerged from this debate.  This one, obviously meant to promote the religious side of the conflict, read:  “pregnancy is not a disease.”  And it is absolutely right.  Pregnancy is not a disease.  It’s a great gift; and like all gifts, pregnancy has been given by God and is to be cherished as such.  It seems to me that that is a needed message in today’s world.

But upon consideration I began to realize that the subtext of this statement is far less attractive.  The fact that someone says “I believe that pregnancy is not a disease” means that they are also saying “other people believe that pregnancy is a disease.”  Maybe I am completely naïve, but I don’t know any of my colleagues in maternal health who would say that pregnancy is a disease in the same way cancer is a disease.  What my public health colleagues would claim is that becoming pregnant carries a change in health status; and it is a change in health status that carries significant health risks.  Saying that pregnancy carries health risks is not disparaging; it is descriptive.  Outside of the pithiness of a bumper sticker, that pregnancy is both a great gift to be cherished and that it carries health risks can stand alongside each other perfectly well.

This kind of mutual recognition only occurs when we examine ourselves as much as we examine the other, and it leads us to avoid presuming the worst in the other.  Contraception is not classified as a “preventive health measure” because people believe it is like cancer.  The Catholic position is that couples should not prevent pregnancy by technological means.  But those who hold this position shouldn’t assume that those who choose to prevent pregnancy are doing so because they think that pregnancy is a disease.

 

Rozier is spot on in his observation that the two camps are not having the same conversations – they are talking past each other and doing so in ways that are unhelpful. This is not about women’s health; it’s about religious liberty. This is not about religious liberty, it’s about women’s health. Rozier astutely points out – it is both.  There are two conversations going on and both are important and no one is served by caricaturing the other side.

When he turns to Religious Liberty, once again he calls for dialogue and communication:

Religious liberty is a central issue for both sides.  The United States of America has had a doctrine on religious liberty since 1791.  The Catholic Church has been one of the world’s strong advocates of religious liberty since Dignitatis Humanae in 1965.  Both have an imperfect history but both have a compelling interest in protecting religious liberty.  But the right to religious liberty, like almost all rights, is not absolute.  The government of the United States should not impose burdens on the practice of religion, and can do so only if the burden is vital to achieving an essential element of the common good that cannot be obtained otherwise.  And this leads us to what I consider the three real questions:

  1. Can we agree that the revised mandate compromises religious liberty?
  2. If so, is increased access to contraception so vital to the common good that it warrants a contravention to religious liberty?
  3. Finally, are there any other ways to achieve the same end without or with less of a burden on religious liberty?

As astute readers, no doubt you’ve anticipated my point, but let me be clear never the less.  It lies at the heart of the tension between the rights of individuals and the obligations of living in a society.  In other words, we ought not simply say: “you, government, are violating my religious liberty.”  Instead we must be able to say, “you are violating my religious liberty unnecessarily” – without sufficient cause.  And this simple word, this “unnecessarily,” is not a propositional argument for which there is one right answer, it is a persuasive case that must be made.

And persuasion gets adjudicated in the public square.  The common good, and threats to it, must be argued for.  So we should all stop yelling — either about religious liberty or about women’s health — and start trying to persuade one another.

***

It’s the necessity for making a persuasive case – to my classmates as I defend my ideas, or to the American public as I write – that has led me to a basic premise I try to live by.  It’s this: people who disagree with me are not as diabolical as I often want to believe.  It is easy to be sarcastic, dismissive, or vitriolic.  But in the end doing so fails to be effective because it doesn’t convince anybody who doesn’t already agree with you.  It is more difficult to approach the other with humility and charity – beginning a conversation with a sense that neither one of us has the entire truth and finding the good (no matter how small), and the good intentions, in what the other has to say.  We often confuse these two Christian virtues with capitulation.

I am not saying there isn’t a place for a prophetic stance.  I think there is.  The prophetic position – naming a truth with no apology and no compromise – is an integral part of salvation history.  But I know a lot of folks whose personal motto could be “Not always right, but never in doubt.”  That kind of life is self-appointed certainty – a far cry from the God-given vocation of prophecy.

I am also not saying there is not a single truth to be found.  I think that, for matters of faith and morals, there is.  I just find it very unlikely that anyone has a complete grasp of how to implement that truth in public policy.

I am an imperfect member of an imperfect Church in an imperfect world.  I could have gotten my graduate degree in public health from a Catholic university where I would not have faced skepticism about my vocation.  But if I had not gone to Johns Hopkins I would never have been standing in that beautiful gallery in Paris, where a stranger crystallized for me the life-saving work of the Church around the world. The Church needs the world and the world needs the Church.  We will end up disagreeing about particular moral issues but we will never know what it is possible to achieve unless we start trying to believe that people of good will are ultimately on the same team.

Personally, I found his conclusion a challenge worth taking up and look forward to more posts over at the Jesuit Post.

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