Conservative Colloquium

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Church, Not State: The Christian Approach to Health Care

Posted by Tony Listi on December 1, 2009

St. Luke, the physician

Christians cannot and should not try to separate their religious beliefs from their political beliefs. Faith must inform our morals, and morality must inform our politics. So what does the Christian faith have to say about health care? Quite a bit actually.

Christianity is fully embodied in Catholicism, and Catholicism uniquely reveres, embraces, and is founded upon the authoritative traditions of the early Church. So the answer to “What does the Christian faith have to say about health care” is another question: how did the early Church traditionally approach health care? (Scripturally, some important information on early Christian charitable work in general can be found in the Book of Acts and some of St. Paul’s letters but very little specific to health care aside from miraculous healings and the institution of the Sacrament of the Sick through the letter of St. James, 5:14-15.)

The history of institutionalized health care is so intimately intertwined with the history of Christianity, especially Catholic Christianity, that it is no exaggeration to say that the latter gave rise to the former.

But for the purposes of the current American health care debate, two main questions stand out: Did the early Church relinquish all responsibility for care of the sick to the state (the Roman Empire)? Did it demand the state tax the rich heavily to pay for health care for everyone?

On both counts, no, it didn’t. And it is so frustrating that the leadership of Christian churches, but especially that of the Catholic Church, as well as many lay Christians have ignored the history of the Church with regard to this issue.

Even before the persecution of Christianity stopped, the early Church assumed full responsibility for the sick (including their pagan persecutors) and financed their hospitals through private charity.

According to a Christianity Today article, reviewing the book Medicine and Health Care in Early Christianity:

As early as A.D. 251, according to letters from the time, the church in Rome cared for 1,500 widows and those who were distressed. A hundred years later, Antioch supported 3,000 widows, virgins, sick, poor, and travelers. This care was organized by the church and delivered through deacons and volunteer societies…. When the plague of Cyprian struck in 250 and lasted for years, this volunteer corps became the only organization in Roman cities that cared for the dying and buried the dead. Ironically, as the church dramatically increased its care, the Roman government began persecuting the church more heavily.

Outside their close family and perhaps friends, most pagans cared nothing for their fellow human beings, whom they did not consider to be brothers made in the image and likeness of God, as Christians did. We should expect nothing less with health care under the neo-pagan political left in America today. Ideas have consequences; indeed they have already occurred in de-Christianized Europe. Just as the pagans before them, leftists are willing and even eager to kill the weakest among us, i.e. the unborn (or even born) child, the elderly, and the mentally or physically disabled.

According to sociologist Alvin J. Schmidt in How Christianity Changed the World:

Charity hospitals for the poor and indigent public did not exist until Christianity introduced them…. [T]he first ecumenical council of the Christian church at Nicaea in 325 directed bishops to establish a hospice in every city that had a cathedral…. The first hospital was built by St. Basil in Caesarea in Cappadocia about A.D. 369…. After St. Basil’s hospital was built in the East and another in Edessa in 375, Fabiola, a wealthy widow and an associate of St. Jerome, built the first hospital in the West, a nosocomium, in the city of Rome in about 390. According to Jerome, Fabiola donated all of her wealth (which was considerable) to construct this hospital, to which she brought the sick from off the streets in Rome….

The building of hospitals continued. St. Chrysostom (d. 407), the patriarch of the Eastern church, had hospitals built in Constantinople in the late fourth and early fifth centuries, and St. Augustine (354-430), bishop of Hippo in northern Africa, was instrumental in adding hospitals in the West. By the sixth century, hospitals also had become a common part of monasteries. Hence, by the middle of the sixth century in most of Christendom, in the East and the West, ‘hospitals were securely established.’ Also in the sixth century, hospitals received an additional boost when the Council of Orleans (France) passed canons assuring their protection, and in the last quarter of the same century, Pope Gregory the Great did much to advance the importance of hospitals….

By 750 the growth of Christian hospitals, either as separate units or attached to monasteries, had spread from Continental Europe to England…. And by the mid-1500s there were 37,000 Benedictine monasteries that cared for the sick….

The Crusaders also founded healthcare orders, providing health care to all, Christian and Muslim alike. The Order of Hospitallers recruited women for nursing the sick. The Hospitallers of St. Lazarus, founded in the East in the twelfth century, devoted themselves primarily to nursing. This order spread to Europe, where it founded many more hospitals and treated people with various diseases. The Knights of the Order of Hospitallers of Saint John of Jerusalem (Knights of Malta) not only operated and maintained hospitals, but also admitted the insane. They founded a Christian insane asylum in 1409 in Valencia, Spain.

According to historian Gary Ferngren in Medicine and Health Care in Early Christianity:

The experience gained by the congregation-centered care of the sick over several centuries gave early Christians the ability to create rapidly in the late fourth century a network of efficiently functioning institutions that offered charitable medical care, first in monastic infirmaries and later in the hospital.

The Protestant Revolution, the Endarkenment, the French Revolution, and its intellectual descendants have brought abrupt and sometimes violent disruptions, if not a complete end, to this vast charitable network in many places. Yes, “evil” religion and “papism” had to be smashed and replaced by the “humanitarian” Animal Farm of the Leviathan state. Ha, how “compassionate.” But I digress….

Now, am I suggesting that the U.S. return to the exact health care system of the early Church? Of course not! This straw man entirely misses the point that I’m trying to communicate here. I’m not suggesting a structure and system in itself but rather an approach and a set of principles that need to be incorporated into the American health care system. And the Christian churches, esp. the Catholic Church, need to recommit themselves to their obligation to care for the indigent sick and need to take an active role in articulating and promoting these Christian principles to everyone.

What are those principles?

  1. Generally and most importantly, care for the physical needs of human beings do NOT override Christian moral imperatives not to steal and commit violence, even from and against the rich. Spiritual needs override any physical needs.
  2. The health of the poor in one’s local community must be a pressing concern of all Christians.
  3. Care for the sick is an essential duty of local churches that should not be relinquished to the nation-state.
  4. In general, care for the sick is not to be financed by state-coerced wealth redistribution but by the patients themselves or charity.
  5. However, to whom much is given, much is expected. The rich are morally obligated to voluntarily direct their wealth to the health care of the poor, starting in their local communities.
  6. If the state is to assist in financing health care in any way (which I doubt is necessary), it should be done as locally as possible, according to the Catholic moral principle of subsidiarity.

Medicine today is vastly more accurate, comprehensive, sophisticated, technological, and effective. That also means that, aside from higher costs caused by government interference in the industry,  health care is naturally more expensive now because it is so much more valuable than it was centuries ago. But none of these facts change or undermine the Christian principles I’ve laid out above. Politics itself has shown that more than enough money can be raised through a well-organized solicitation of voluntary donations.

The fact that modern medicine can treat so many maladies naturally and psychologically creates more pressure to assure every sick person receives treatment. But again, that pressure should not tempt us to stifle charity through state-enforced plunder. That pressure belongs on us as individuals, esp.  the rich, who must care for modern-day Lazarus or face an eternal punishment.

It is an inverse relationship and a zero sum game between government control and Christian charity. The former stifles the latter. Even if socialized medicine did work better (it never does), it would do no good for us to gain all the bodily health in the world yet become mortally and spiritually sick in the process.

9 Responses to “Church, Not State: The Christian Approach to Health Care”

  1. politicaldoc said

    Great post!

  2. […] Big Government is not the solution to healthcare By politicaldoc… […]

  3. protest said

    you are off the deep end with this one, mon frere.

    now, i have no problem with you dissenting from popular opinion regarding healthcare. but what i do have a problem with is your representation as this view as somehow the authoratative catholic position. it quite clearly is not.

    the catholic church has made it clear that it advocates government ensuring complete health care coverage for every individual. it has criticized some of the proposals we’ve seen recently for not covering enough of the population. it has criticized the limitations on care offered to illegal immigrants. it certainly does not view taxation as the moral equivalent of theft. it does not support the idea that state sponsored health care stiffles charity either.
    these are things the church has made clear through various statements during this debate. has plenty of articles if you need references. that these things are the official position of the church is a fact. i feel, personally, that this fact presents a challenge to your views, and must be dealt with. you must deal with the question of why the church has taken the position that it does.

    i anticipate that you will blame individual persons inside the church for “hijacking” the faith, or the left in general for “infiltrating” the church. this, to me, makes it sound as though you are trying to claim greater moral authority on this matter than the church’s own bishops, via an attempt to discredit them. perhaps you will not respond this way. i suppose we’ll see. but if you somehow think that because you believe the history of the church justifies your position, its “more catholic” than what the church has stated, then i would say your arrogance knows no bounds.

    this is no small challenge to your position either – you have repeatedly admonished protestants for the crime of “making each his own pope” by choosing personal reason over church authority when deciding what to believe.
    do you not accept the authority of the church on this matter?
    do you believe your own judgement to be more correct that church authority?
    do you advocate disregarding the authority of the church when an individual believes the “official” judgement to be in error?

    do you believe you have no obligation to follow the church if its officials do not echo your own beliefs? you might consider writing down the points of disagreement and nailing them to the door of your church. see if you can come up with 95.

    • foospro86 said

      FYI, I’m not a bishop, so I can’t say anything with authority. But that doesn’t mean everything that comes out of a bishop’s mouth is authoritative. And that certainly doesn’t mean I can’t exercise my own reason in applying truly authoritative Catholic moral principles.

      I accept and obey the authority of the Church with regard to faith and morals. I accept the Catholic moral principles of subsidiarity and solidarity as binding. However, according to the Catholic faith itself, I am not bound to accept every single policy position that economically illiterate clergy dream up. I know EXACTLY why the bishops have taken the position they have: they have applied the same principles that I have but don’t have the practical/empirical knowledge to understand the actual consequences of their proposals.

      I suggest you check out the Acton Institute and study what the Catholic faith really says about such political matters as health care:

      “But imagine the health care legislation involved a massive expansion of government involvement that didn’t promote abortion or other non-negotiables. Would Catholics be obliged to support passage of such legislation?

      The answer is no. Catholic moral teaching has held that the realization of good ends (such as making health care more affordable and accessible) mostly falls into the realm of prudential judgment. The church has always recognized that faithful Catholics can disagree about such matters.

      But this basic point seems to have escaped the attention of some Catholics, who have criticized the increasing number of American Catholic bishops who have questioned, on prudential grounds, those reform proposals that significantly increase the state’s involvement in health care. One Catholic magazine described such critiques as out of step with Catholic teaching.

      It might, however, be that these groups have a deeper concern: their realization that the days when American Catholic bishops could be relied upon to accept or advocate the extension of the state’s participation in most areas of social and economic life are long gone.”

  4. brent said

    “However, according to the Catholic faith itself, I am not bound to accept every single policy position that economically illiterate clergy dream up. I know EXACTLY why the bishops have taken the position they have: they have applied the same principles that I have but don’t have the practical/empirical knowledge to understand the actual consequences of their proposals.”

    These are individuals ordained by the Catholic church, and put in positions of authority. However, you understand this subject than they do? I would be shocked if the Church would allow these individuals to spout out such opinions without any oversight by the Church. A lot of Bishops in your church have extensive knowledge of government and politics, as they try to play some role in it. So, yes, they clearly don’t know any thing about this matter.

    If you believe the authorities of the Catholic church are wrong, why exactly are you a practicing Catholic?

    • foospro86 said

      Yes, of course they are in positions of authority. They are to represent Christ on earth, but you know what? HIS KINGDOM IS NOT OF THIS WORLD. Their authority is circumscribed to faith and morals, not empirical economic/political reality. So yes, I’m certain I understand economics and politics better than a great number of leftist clergy who I’d still receive the sacraments from. They are misguided and deceived in empirical matters.

      I’m a practicing Catholic because my faith does not depend on the political meanderings of certain members of the Church leadership. I will not abandon the one true Church merely because it is politically misguided on specific policy points that are beyond its authority, expertise, and claim to infallibility. It is not the first time it has done this in its history.

  5. Raca said


    There are a lot of protestant names on those hospitals too though…, why the distinction?

    We’ve probably had the equivalent of billions of dollars of health care given to Haiti by good souls…, if we could generate that focus here; we’d stop our bankrupt government before they signed the inflated checks.

    • Tony Listi said

      I do not make a distinction between Catholic and Protestant hospitals. I merely and rightfully take a Catholic approach in my analysis of what a humane and moral health care system looks like.

  6. […] you unaware of how the earliest Christians cared for their Roman persecutors in the earliest proto-hospitals? Yet another example of Christian love of the […]

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