WASHINGTON (CNS) -- When people's health is seen primarily in relation to their ability to work, an economic downturn results in less attention to the health needs of the population, said Bishop Michael J. Bransfield of Wheeling-Charleston, W.Va., in a recent talk.
"As long as health care remains part of the social capital overhead of economic activity, the health needs of people are measured by their value to work," the bishop said at the 2008 Conference on Catholic Social Teaching and Access to Health Care in the United States.
"When that economic activity falters and the demand for workers declines, so will the health care, and other forms of social capital, invested in them," he added.
But Bishop Bransfield suggested several ways that Catholics, as part of "a church that heals," can lead the way in reforming attitudes toward health and societal practices that reflect a "moral understanding of the sacred and social nature of human beings."
The bishop's talk opened the March 26-27 conference at Villanova University near Philadelphia. Other speakers at the conference included John Bouman, president of the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law; Sister Carol Keehan, a Daughter of Charity who is president and CEO of the Catholic Health Association; and theologian and ethicist Lisa Sowle Cahill of Boston College.
Most of Bishop Bransfield's talk, titled "A Church That Heals: Sign of Hope for Appalachia and Beyond," focused on the church's role in contributing to both a better health care system and better health for individuals.
He said West Virginians already are suffering from the effects of "the postindustrial and cybernetic revolutions."
"As the people of West Virginia become less needed as workers, (they) become more vulnerable to poor health, including lack of access to health care," he added.
The state leads the nation in the number of its citizens with high blood pressure, arthritis and total tooth loss by age 65 and ranks among the worst in terms of high cholesterol, obesity, diabetes and life expectancy.
Similarly, the environment and thus the entire population suffers "when the market decides human needs," he said.
"Strip mining and mountaintop removal became the coal industry's competitive edge," he said. "They demanded more of the earth, a smaller work force and environmental degradation that eroded the very ground upon which people lived."
"The creeping crisis of health comes from treating our land, our water, our air and each other as economic tools, primarily if not exclusively," Bishop Bransfield said. "The mountains, the urban areas and the bedroom communities of West Virginia hold ecological, economic and social lessons of interdependence and the adverse consequences of avoiding them."
But the bishop said he learned much from the statewide series of conversations and focus-group sessions that preceded the writing of his 2006 pastoral letter, "A Church That Heals."
"We learned the problems that ordinary people see, the visions that they nurture and the vessel of hope that the church provides for those visions," he said. "They explained to us that empowerment at the local level, collaboration with other advocates and service providers and intergenerational connections are means of strengthening health, in the broadest sense, in our communities."
Among the specific actions he recommended were:
-- That clergy, religious and other church ministers serve as examples of healthy living with their own behaviors.
-- That Catholic colleges and universities "train health professionals to serve in areas with too few resources; health professionals as agents of change as well as health care; and local people for professional and paraprofessional roles."
-- That local church organizations partner with others in their communities to identify key health issues and devise and implement a community response.
-- That Catholics look "beyond the easy path of balancing budgets and cutting costs at the expense of the poor and the most vulnerable."
"We all have less justice when we ignore the injustices that beset others and less health when others and our environment fall ill," Bishop Bransfield said. "We are more vulnerable when others are not provided for; and less democratic when all interests involved in policies and programs are not represented in their formation, design and implementation."