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Pope John said it: Justice before charity


Although having health insurance has become a privilege that many cannot afford, I was not enthusiastic when Vice President Al Gore promised, if elected president, to launch a new program guaranteeing “every child access to health care.”

On the one hand, I find it hard to believe that the vice president truly intends to implement such a program; on the other, I disagree with Gore’s rationale.

In contrast to Clinton’s 1992 call for universal health care, Gore’s proposal appeals to his constituents’ paternal feelings, while failing to address society’s structural inequities. There are two central problems with Gore’s approach.

First, he is unwilling to make any commitments that will upset the powers that be. Reinitiating a universal health plan or even demanding a substantial increase in minimum wage that would enable people to afford health insurance are two ways one could honestly face the fact that 43 million citizens do not have health insurance. Yet Gore eschews advancing such proposals because they would not be well received among the business community -- a community he is dependent upon for campaign financing.

The second problem has to do with Gore’s conception of health care. Instead of treating health care as a basic right -- as it is considered by a variety of international conventions to which the United States is a signatory -- Gore conceives it to be something government may, and perhaps should, choose to provide the poor. In other words, charity, not justice, motivates Gore’s proposal.

While offering health services to uninsured children, Gore’s administration would abdicate its responsibility toward millions of adults. Once one conceives health care to be a right, it becomes clear that failing to secure health care to all citizens, not only to children, is an act of violation and abuse.

Perhaps most disturbing about Gore’s approach is that it is so prevalent. It has become common practice for corporations that exploit workers, paying them paltry wages, to donate money to philanthropic projects. Indeed, they use charity in order to promulgate a benevolent image. The amount they confer on these projects is, of course, meager when compared with their overall profits.

Political philosopher Hannah Arendt states that Pope John XXIII was clear about this issue. She relates the story of how one day, while walking with his aides through the Vatican, the pope asked one of the workers whom he happened to pass in the corridor how things were going.

“Badly,” replied the worker. He told the pope how much he earned and how many mouths he needed to feed. The pope immediately instructed his aides to raise the salaries in the Vatican. Later, when told that the new expenses could be met only by cutting down on charities, he remained unperturbed: “Then we will have to cut them … for justice comes before charity.”

The pope’s words were prophetic, considering the fact that charity is widely used by corporations and politicians to conceal iniquities. It is time to appropriate his insight and to replace the appeal to charity with an appeal to justice.

Neve Gordon teaches at Ben Gurion University in Israel and can be reached at ngordon@bgumail.ac.il

National Catholic Reporter, December 3, 1999