National Catholic Reporter
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Issue Date:  August 15, 2003

From the Editor's Desk

American ethos vs. the common good

Fr. Brian Massingale was making the point in a recent workshop for other purposes, but it is apt in the discussion of health care, specifically what the church argues is the right to health care. Massingale, professor of moral theology at St. Francis Seminary in Milwaukee, was delivering a talk, “Pacem in Terris at 40” during the recent Pax Christi USA National Assembly at St. John’s University in Jamaica, N.Y. (More about that conference in the next issue.)

That remarkable document issued in 1963 by Pope John XXIII advanced the vision of a “universal common good” as the primary concern of government. In what amounted to an endorsement of the United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights, the document, which seldom used the term war and never the term “just war,” Massingale pointed out, made an intrinsic connection between human rights and the achievement of peace.

So what’s that got to do with health care? There is an inherent tension, Massingale said, between John XXIII’s vision of universal human rights and the “American ethos,” which is based on a “social contract vision” that “assumes we are not persons in community but individuals, self-made men.” Government does not see itself as servant to the common good but as “a necessary evil” to make sure the “contractual obligations” we have with one another are upheld.

Obviously, that vision of America has been shaped in different ways in different times. There were times when government, one might argue, ventured close to that idea of existing to serve the common good. But the most extreme expression of government as grudging overseer of the bare minimum, save for protecting the privileges of the privileged, has certainly been in ascendancy in recent years.

That is why 41 million adult Americans and an additional 8.5 million children can be without health care (see Health Beat, Page 8) and government leaders feel no threat to their jobs or perks. If the working assumption is that we have no intrinsic connection to each other, that our primary right is to be left alone, then who needs to care or bother with those who don’t make it? In the American ethos, taken to the extreme as it is these days, government is not charged, as John XXIII would argue, with minimizing the inequalities in society. Quite the opposite, government is in place to cement and protect those inequalities, pouring religious language over the project, a project eagerly endorsed and blessed by some of the most moneyed of our Catholic thinkers and their think tanks.

~ ~ ~

As we went to press, a story of a stunning apology by black South African priests for often treating black nuns as if they were children came across the desk.

The full story, by Catholic News Service, can be found on our Web site,

On March 16, 2001, NCR broke a story noting that several reports written by senior members of women’s religious orders and by an American priest disclosed a serious problem of sexual abuse by priests, including rape, especially in Africa.

The Vatican soon confirmed the reports but made no further comment.

According to the recent report, the priests apologized after extended dialogue with the nuns. “We have treated our African sisters with some degree of contempt,” said Fr. Dabula Mpako.

In their statement, the priests painted a culture in which the nuns lived in almost total subservience to priests and in which nuns “are discriminated against in terms of sex, race and class.” According to the report, nuns impregnated by priests would have to leave religious life, while the priests were allowed to continue their ministry.

-- Tom Roberts

National Catholic Reporter, August 15, 2003

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