In 1936 my maternal grandmother Peggy Hallum died of cancer – she was only thirty-six and my mother only fourteen. When I was a child my mother often used to talk about her mother’s illness and death; and one thing which I remember vividly was her telling me how much her family had had to spend on medical treatment for her mother. While it would be inaccurate to claim that they were reduced to penury (although I am sure many families were) they had to sell their house and move to a smaller property in a different part of Southampton, and the family made various other sacrifices. They didn’t begrudge it, of course (although it didn’t save my grandmother’s life, but my mother made it very clear that for her family and her generation the creation of the National Health Service in 1948 (and my mother voted for the first time in the 1945 election) was so necessary because of what so many had suffered in the years when medical treatment was not free at the point of use. That is why for my mother and countless men and women of her generation Aneurin Bevan (pictured here), the Minister of Health in the government which brought the NHS into being, would always be a hero. It is perhaps difficult for many of us to imagine what life was like before the NHS.
Much is being done and has been written to mark the 70th anniversary this month. What I want to do is to outline some of the reasons from the Catholic Church’s moral teachings which explains why we should be enthusiastic supporters of a system which provides healthcare free at the point of use. This doesn’t mean that the NHS doesn’t need to be improved (and it certainly needs a lot more money); but the principles underlying it are important in terms of what we believe as Catholics, since our faith should guide all our convictions. I don’t know what the Church thought officially in 1948; some, I imagine, would have been worried about Catholic hospitals’ independence. Historically the Church had sometimes said odd things about healthcare: while many saints gave their lives to care for those who were sick, I read recently that apparently Pope Leo XII in the 1820s had opposed vaccination because he thought it interfered with God’s will…
The first reason why a service like the NHS should be supported is because of what we believe about the dignity of the human person created in the image of God. It is on this basis that in 1963 St John XXIII, in his letter about peace in the world (Pacem in Terris), made it clear that medical care is a basic human right. The Church also makes it clear that in order to provide basic decent healthcare for everyone, we should forgo less urgent treatment or research which can take resources away from basic provision for others.
Secondly, our attitude should be formed by the principle in Catholic teaching known as the preferential option for the poor. Logically this alone demands that people shouldn’t have to pay when they have treatment from a doctor or are admitted to hospital; to have to do so will always deter people with little or no money.
Our third guiding principle is the Common Good. If the whole community sees it as important to provide decent healthcare for all, this expresses the virtue of solidarity. This virtue sees care for our neighbour as not simply the exercise of charity or kindness, but as giving other people what is their due in natural justice. Over and against approaches to healthcare provision which place a lot of faith in ‘free-market’ forces (and these approaches have been behind some reforms of the NHS in recent years), Catholic understanding of the virtue of solidarity is clear that ensuring decent healthcare for all is part of what the State is for; if the State isn’t doing this, or isn’t going to be doing it, then solidarity demands that it is still the responsibility of all of us.
Many of you work or have worked in the NHS. This month is surely a time when you should be aware of the gratitude of the Catholic community in this country – and in this parish – for your dedication, your sense of vocation. We are aware in particular of many Catholics from overseas who come to this country and serve in the NHS. What is more we should be encouraging young Catholics to work in the NHS. Above all this month we should thank God for the vision of those who founded the NHS seventy years ago and reflect on what our Catholic understanding of morality has to offer the rest of society as we celebrate this anniversary.