Finding Grace in Sickness and Health

Grace, God's life in ours, is a gift from God. Finding it is a sure sign of God's presence in our lives. It changes us, converts us, so that God can use us to change others and society as a whole. Sometimes something in itself evil, like sickness, can become an occasion for God to act in our life so that he can bring good out of evil. I had that experience this past year, when my own illnesses were the occasion for so many to turn to the Lord in prayer and when I experienced anew our relation to one another in the Lord through a vast network of prayer. Prayer opens our lives to God so that he can heal us, spiritually and physically.

God expects us, however, to cooperate with his action in our lives by setting aside time for prayer each day and by using ordinary means to protect our spiritual and physical well-being. Protecting physical health is a social and therefore a political issue as well as a spiritual exigency. Because so many people in our state do not have the protection of ordinary means to preserve good health and to cure disease, proposals have been put forward in recent years to address the issue of inadequate health insurance.

How major is the challenge? In 2005, there were 44.8 million medically uninsured people in the United States. Nationally, nearly 18,000 deaths annually are attributable to the fact that people do not seek medical care in time because they are uninsured. In our state, we fare a little better than other states. 24.7 percent of Illinois children lack health insurance, while the national average is 25.6 percent. 24.1 percent of Illinois children do not have a doctor, while nearly 35 percent of all children in the U.S. do not have one. A successful program for children (Kids' Care) has somewhat eased the situation in Illinois in recent years, but the major challenge of providing adequate healthcare coverage for all remains.

The Church looks at this situation as a moral problem. Having access to basic healthcare is a right that flows from each human person's inherent dignity. Rights imply duties. Whose duty is it to provide access to healthcare? Catholic social teaching tells us that we all, collectively, need to see to it that there is access to fundamental healthcare. In the United States, many employers have provided health insurance, and employees have paid deductibles and co-pays. Because of increasing costs, the percentage of employers providing health insurance has decreased, even as the employees' contribution to their employer sponsored health plan has increased. The government also has provided access to healthcare through social programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, SCHIP and veterans' benefits. These programs, however, do not address the needs of the growing number of people not covered by their benefits. In a society marked by clear division between the rich and the poor, our faith recalls the story of the Last Judgment (Mt. 25: 31- 46) and instructs us to put the needs of the poor and vulnerable first.

Every program that aims to cover the uninsured and help the underinsured carries a price tag. How will it be paid for? The Church cannot and should not offer technical solutions to this question, although the problem is before us every day in the emergency rooms of Catholic and other hospitals. These are filled with those who have no other place to turn for basic healthcare. They are not turned away, but the emergency room is not the place to address healthcare issues that should not have developed into emergencies. Catholic institutions are the largest, non-profit private provider of healthcare in Illinois and the United States. The Church follows this debate carefully because she is interested in the sick and the poor and also in the health of her own institutions.

The question of how to provide healthcare to all in Illinois has been and will continue to be debated in the General Assembly. The principle is clear, the goal is laudable, but finding the means is a political and budgetary problem of great magnitude. There are many details for Governor Blagojevich and our elected representatives to decide, but they should be applauded for their willingness to address this problem that has been before us for so long.

There is a question, finally, of health beyond institutional healthcare. A recent UNICEF report places the United States twentieth in the world in the quality of children's health, below almost every European country but Britain. This difference runs through every economic class, the rich as well as the poor. Twenty five hundred years ago, the philosopher Plato wrote in the third chapter of the Republic that an ideal society doesn't need many doctors, because the people are basically healthy. (He also argued that the ideal society doesn't need many lawyers, because the people are basically just.) How we live day after day affects both our spiritual and physical health. The medical statistics tell us more than just how many sick people live here; they also indicate how well we are as a people, as a society.

I hope that God's grace may keep us healthy in body and spirit. I pray as well that the Holy Spirit may guide our elected officials in the current debate about how to provide basic healthcare for all. God bless you.

Francis Cardinal George, OMI


Cardinal Francis George is the Archbishop of Chicago.

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