Grassroots Commentary

What Is Really at Stake With the Healthcare Mandate

Stephen Richard Turley · Feb. 16, 2012

There appears to be nothing short of a groundswell of opposition to the HHS mandate for coverage of contraception, sterilization, and abortion inducing drugs. Catholic Bishops, religious leaders, and politicians from across the political spectrum have joined together in a resounding defense of religious liberties. During his speech at the recent CPAC gathering, Mike Huckabee thanked the President for bringing the Republican party together as a result of his “attack on religious liberty.” “Thanks to President Obama,” Huckabee pointedly remarked, “we are all Catholics now.”

However, there is far more at stake here than religious liberty, and I believe that by couching the HHS mandate in such terms risks engaging in a reductionism that may win a battle but loose the war. Specifically, the government regulation of healthcare represents nothing less than an inversion of the very social order that birthed healthcare in the first place, and as a result, redefines the very notion of humanity to which such healthcare has been inextricably wedded.

The social order that constituted classically the West centered on the Christian church. Beginning with Constantine in the early fourth-century, there was an unprecedented relativizing of the power of the Roman state to a social order governed by self-giving, self-emptying love centered on the crucified Christ. In the midst of this 1,500 year relationship between church and state, the church engaged in a number of inventions that redefined what it meant to be human. One of these inventions was our conception of the hospital. By the fourth-century, figures such as Ephraim the Syrian and Basil the Great established hospitals for those ravaged by plagues or leprosy. St. Benedict made caring for the sick a priority for his developing monastic order, and by the twelfth-century the Benedictines had established over 2,000 hospitals in Western Christendom. Furthermore, all of the hospitals were a centre for food, clothing, and shelter for the poor, widows, and orphans.

The church’s promotion of love as one of the cardinal virtues not only provided hospitals, but transformed the family as well. For example, the church promoted love as the central characteristic of marriage, which had been traditionally understood more in financial and social terms, and required that husbands be as faithful to their marriages as their wives. Moreover, unlike the Greco-Roman world, the church considered children to be fully human, because Christ came into the world as a baby, and thus sanctified childhood from the moment of conception. This is still commemorated every March 25th in the Feast of the Annunciation of Gabriel to Mary. Hence, the church, for 2,000 years, has promoted unwaveringly the sanctity of human life.

With the rise of the secular state in the seventeenth-century, however, it became increasingly plausible for the state to take over institutions such as the hospital and family. This was due in no small part to the re-appropriation of the church as an organ of the state in the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, together with the rise of the Enlightenment in 1650 and its increasingly hostile orientation toward faith as a form of knowledge. The church was thus pushed incrementally to the periphery of social importance and consigned solely to the sphere of one’s private life. In its place arose a state, a secular state, cut off from the sacred and with no institutional boundaries whatsoever. As a result, the sacred social order unraveled, and the state placed itself in the position to dictate to its citizens what is in fact sacred without any feedback systems whatsoever.

And along with this new social order, the state increasingly transformed the calculus inherent in the church’s conception of healthcare from that constituted by charity and virtue to entitlement and taxation. And this new social order, amputated from the sacred, redefines the very concept of humanity itself. While the cultivation of love and virtue was at the heart of the Christian social order, litigation and regulation constitute the life blood of the modern welfare state. And as a mechanistic humanism replaces sanctity and virtue, institutions dependent on such sanctity and virtue, such as the family, begin to loose their relevance. It is in such a world that abortion and contraception appear highly plausible and desirable. The statistics bear this out. Before the rise of the secular state, birth rates in the West were on average 30-40 per 1,000 people; they have since declined to 15-20 per 1,000 people.

All of this is to say, simply, that the executive mandate on contraception was fairly predictable, and thus warrants ex post facto the church’s total and unified opposition not only to the mandate but indeed to all state healthcare systems. Bottom line: this is a question over whether we are to be a people governed by virtue and charity or entitlement and taxation. These two social orders represent nothing less than two different conceptions of what it means to be human.

If there is to be a remedy for all this, the church must once again assert its role as the primary agency by which health and welfare remain sacred, and confidently affirm that the church, not the state, has the frames of reference that can provide a truly charitable and humane society. Nothing less than the future of our humanity is at stake.

Stephen Richard Turley is a Professor at Eastern University and Teacher at Tall Oaks Classical School in New Castle, DE.