Tribalism is Unhealthy

Important differences between people who get their teaching from American Tribal Pieties and those who get it from the teaching of the Catholic Church are much in evidence in the health care debate.

Those moved primarily by tribal loyalties (and let me state from the outset that this by no means describes everybody) tend to react in terms of acoustic pavlovian responses to certain stimuli, rather than in terms of “What does the Church teach?”

So, for instance, many lefty Catholics have developed a peculiar habit of assuming that “Catholic Social Teaching” and “Whatever Congressional Democrats and Obama want to do about Health Care” are basically identical and co-terminous. If you have any misgivings about that proposition, it most certainly cannot be because you are worried that the people who gave you the “Cash for Clunkers” fiasco are not self-evidently competent to reform an infinitely more complex system governing life and death matters in a matter of weeks. Neither could it possibly be that when voices like Peter Singer call for health care rationing and states like Oregon cut costs by telling cancer victims “We won’t treat you, but here’s great way you can off yourself and we’ll cover that instead” some of us are worried that “health reform” crafted by the very people most enthusiastically supportive of abortion and euthanasia will solve cost problems by murdering the weak.

No, the only real reason anybody could have any qualms about Democrat Health Care Reform is that they are in the tank for insurance companies and the GOP or are simply and solely motivated by insanity. For some Lefty tribalists, any criticism or misgivings about Obamacare is due purely to the moral perfidy Catholics who despise the clear teaching of the Church and are blind to the greatness of our President.

Meanwhile, on the Right, much the same dynamic plays out with the tribalists who live there. People who say "Health Care Is a Right" can’t be saying this because the Catholic Church says:

2211 The political community has a duty to honor the family, to assist it, and to ensure especially:
- the freedom to establish a family, have children, and bring them up in keeping with the family's own moral and religious convictions;

- the protection of the stability of the marriage bond and the institution of the family;

- the freedom to profess one's faith, to hand it on, and raise one's children in it, with the necessary means and institutions;

- the right to private property, to free enterprise, to obtain work and housing, and the right to emigrate;

- in keeping with the country's institutions, the right to medical care, assistance for the aged, and family benefits;

- the protection of security and health, especially with respect to dangers like drugs, pornography, alcoholism, etc.;

- the freedom to form associations with other families and so to have representation before civil authority.

No. They must be saying it because they really mean “Free health care for all! Obama is our God! Socialism Now! Agree or go to Hell!”

Now given the ingenuity with which Catholic sophists in the service of tribalism have treated the Church's obvious teaching about abortion and torture in the past, I have little doubt that those dedicated to propositions that range from “Herd Culling as a Cost-Cutting Measure” to “Health Care is Not a Right” and will be able to make short work of the rather plainly worded teachings concerning the rights to life and health care.

First of all, of course, it's not a dogmatic teaching. The Church has never, for instance, defined exactly, precisely, and dogmatically when a person comes into existence any more than she has dogmatically defined what “health care” or “right” means. So that, of course, means all Catholics are free to ignore the Church and think whatever they like, just as they are free to think whatever they like about abortion and torture and ignore the bleedin’ obvious with pettifogging quibbles about “whether killing a zygote is technically, precisely, legally, you know, murder” or “whether subjecting somebody to simulated drowning is technically, precisely, legally, you know, torture”.

Those on the Left eager to justify Caesar’s forced funding of abortion will note that Caesar also forces funding of lots of other things people disagree with. So why not this? Those eager to categorically deny health care as a right at all will point out that qualifier in the Catechism about the right to health care being "in keeping with the country's institutions". From there it’s a short hope to the standard pleas for the status quo we presently have, which is that the requirements of insurance companies and state bean counters trump the good of the family and the person. The evidence of this is everywhere: bankrupted patients, people dying because they could not afford care, etc. What it comes down to is this, however: In their struggle to keep the good of the person and the family subordinate to the powers of state and corporation, tribalists of Left and Right are typically in happy concord. How good and pleasant it is when brethren dwell together in unity.

Still and all, those of us who have come under the sinister influence of Church teaching and the thought of people like Chesterton cannot help but think of passages like this (from What's Wrong with the World) when the matter of health care arises:

Now the whole parable and purpose of these last pages, and indeed of all these pages, is this: to assert that we must instantly begin all over again, and begin at the other end. I begin with a little girl's hair. That I know is a good thing at any rate. Whatever else is evil, the pride of a good mother in the beauty of her daughter is good. It is one of those adamantine tendernesses which are the touchstones of every age and race. If other things are against it, other things must go down. If landlords and laws and sciences are against it, landlords and laws and sciences must go down. With the red hair of one she-urchin in the gutter I will set fire to all modern civilization. Because a girl should have long hair, she should have clean hair; because she should have clean hair, she should not have an unclean home: because she should not have an unclean home, she should have a free and leisured mother; because she should have a free mother, she should not have an usurious landlord; because there should not be an usurious landlord, there should be a redistribution of property; because there should be a redistribution of property, there shall be a revolution. That little urchin with the gold-red hair, whom I have just watched toddling past my house, she shall not be lopped and lamed and altered; her hair shall not be cut short like a convict's; no, all the kingdoms of the earth shall be hacked about and mutilated to suit her. She is the human and sacred image; all around her the social fabric shall sway and split and fall; the pillars of society shall be shaken, and the roofs of ages come rushing down, and not one hair of her head shall be harmed.

Chesterton, like the Church, begins with the good of the person because that’s where God begins. State and corporation are all well and good and profit is good and has its place. But at the end of the day, any defense of any corporate or state entity that puts profit above the good of a human being in need of a new kidney or life-saving antibiotic is an elaborate way of saying "Man was made for the corporate/state entity, not the corporate/state entity for man". In the end, it boils down to the claim that things are more important than persons.

Now the Left has embraced such thought since Roe v. Wade, which is all about the exaltation of the things called “personal autonomy” and “profit” over the persons called “babies”. The Right took awhile to catch up, but has made good progress toward the same abyss in its stirring defenses of torture which subordinate the good of persons to the power of the state on the theory that if we combine the investigation phase of police work with the punishment and execution phase of the judicial system, Caesar will make us all safer by torturing people to find out if they are guilty of something.

Now the tribal members of the Right are is taking another step (along with the Left) toward subordinating persons to lesser goods by embracing the ridiculous nostrum that “health care is not a right”. This blatant falsehood, in direct contradiction to the teaching of Holy Church again and again and again and again will, if pro-lifers parrot it as broadly as so many of them parrot the defense of torture really put the boots on any claim to talk about the immorality of abortion.

For what “Health care is not a right” means is not “I am suspicious of what ardent pro-abortion and euthanasia zealots will do if they get their claws into the health care system” (a suspicion I heartily share), but “I reject the teaching of Holy Church on the dignity of the human person and the primacy of the human person over lesser goods in favor of knee-jerk Talk Radio junk that owes far more to maintaining a system in which money is exalted over the good of the person than to anything remotely connected with Catholic teaching or common sense.”

One can base a credible opposition to so-called "health care reform" on worries that it's going to wind up killing a lot of innocent people as a cost-cutting measure. That I can respect. The Church expresses the same concern. But basing opposition to health care reform on the parroted claim that "health care is not a right"—a claim as demonstrably false as the lie that “health care” consists of abortion and euthanasia—makes clear that other agendas besides the desire to enact Catholic social teaching are the guiding principles at work in our thinking.

For the Left, tribal loyalties tend to consist of trying to downplay and deny the primacy of the human person when he or she conflicts with pelvic issues and our desires for the things called sex and power. This has long meant (for Lefties in positions of power) an absolute and unwavering dedication to the Most Holy Sacrament of Abortion and the crushing of all dissent on the matter (with the conspicuous craven cooperation of Catholics eager to win the Sir Richard Rich ambassadorship to Wales and other perks).

Meanwhile, on the Right, tribal loyalties tend to dictate that partisanship and un-Catholic thinking is only in evidence when somebody dissents from the bishops’ teaching on the right to life for the unborn, not when somebody rejects the bishops’ teaching that there is such a thing as a right to life for people who can’t afford it. What this means in practice is that those who urge a right to life but deny a right to health care are saying:

“The right to life impinges on some teenage mother when she wants to abort rather than bear the burden of responsibility for her baby. Let us all blame her for being so selfish. She is bad. However, if the baby is born needing a heart transplant or develops kidney trouble and it could somehow cost me something too, the bishops have no idea what they are talking about when they say the child has a right to health care--and my saying so is not participation in the culture of death but a courageous stand against socialism. Solidarity and regard for the common good is for unwed mothers, not for me.”

In contrast to all this party tribalism of Left or Right, I think that the key to Catholic social teaching is "What helps the person and the family?" not "Who wins? Gigantic corporation or All-Consuming State?" If it's good for the person and the family, it's good. If it harms the person and the family, it's bad. Both gigantic corporations and all-consuming states are bad for the family, so I don't take much stock in either party since they labor to serve both in their own ways.

I reject right wing agitprop which denies that a right to health care exists. I also reject any attempt the Left may make to pit the right to health care diametrically against lesser goods like profit, or to pit the weak, sick, and old against the Lebensunwertes Leben. It's not either/or but an ordered both/and: the hierarchy of goods. I will vehemently oppose any attempt to subordinate the good of persons to systems which urge the death of the costly for the sake of cost-cutting, whether by neglect (the preferred method of the “Health care is not a right” crowd on the Talk Radio Right) or euthanasia and abortion (the preferred Lefty method).

Both parties are, in their own ways, about power. Only the Church's teaching is actually ordered toward the primacy of the person and the family. Rather than with the tribal pieties, shibboleths, pavlovian responses, and slogans of our tribal political culture, we should try to begin our thinking with that.

Copyright 2009 - Mark P. Shea