It is in care for the sick more than any other way that love is made concrete and a witness of hope in the Resurrection is offered. Message of His Holiness John Paul II for the Eleventh World Day of the Sick, 20031 Caring for Health in Ireland was the title chosen for this position paper from the Council for Justice and Peace of the Irish Episcopal Conference, and this title clearly reflects what should be our primary objective: to empower people to care for their health. In a climate of economic crisis, health care – an area in which the need for reform was widely recognised prior to the crisis – has come under increasing pressure. As household and personal incomes fall, it can become more difficult to prioritise health and maintain a healthy lifestyle. At the same time, the stress experienced by people as a result of the present economic climate can have a negative impact on their health – both physical and mental – and/or cause them to seek relief through behaviour which threatens their health, such as smoking, drinking alcohol and taking drugs.
With health-related issues giving such cause for concern, it is encouraging that health care reform features prominently in the current Programme for Government. The central argument of the present paper, however, is that this reform, necessary though it may be, will only be successful to the extent that it succeeds in defining clearly the outcomes it seeks to achieve in terms of public health. In its approach to this issue, the Council for Justice and Peace takes inspiration from the Social Teaching of the Catholic Church. This gives it a person-centred approach, based on the dignity of the human person. We cannot forget that the reason health care is so important is because it affects every single person in our society. It is therefore central to the common good and, consequently, any proposals for reform need to be carefully assessed to ensure that everyone in our society will be encouraged and supported in caring for his or her health.
This paper has been developed in consultation with Catholic religious congregations involved in health care provision in Ireland. The Catholic Church in this country has a long history of following the example of Jesus in caring for the poor and the sick: ‘As long as you do this to the least of my brothers and sisters, you do it to me’ (Mt 25:40).
Sadly, it must be acknowledged that some individuals who were involved in this work in the past went against that example and perpetrated abuse against vulnerable individuals in their care. The vast majority, however, were and are generous individuals who selflessly devote themselves to caring for the sick and for those who suffer in body, mind or spirit. Catholic providers continue to make a significant contribution to health care provision in Ireland today and their encouragement, participation and contribution to this position paper from the Council for Justice and Peace is an indication of their readiness and desire to be part of the dialogue on reform.
I would like to thank the members of the Council for Justice and Peace and its predecessor, the Irish Commission for Justice and Social Affairs, for their work on this issue. Particular thanks are due to Professor Tony Fahey, University College Dublin, who led the research for this paper; to the experts and commentators on health care reform who contributed; and the leaders of the participating religious congregations (listed in the appendix). It is our hope that this paper will help to keep the values of human dignity and the common good at the heart of this debate, now and in the future.
Bishop Raymond Field, Chair, Council for Justice and Peace of the Irish Episcopal Conference