Letter of the law versus the spirit of the law

Originally Appeared in : 9803-2/1/18

Paperwork. Most of us dislike it. This time of year, many of us are forced to collect, compile and prepare paperwork for filing our taxes. I dread this and typically procrastinate. 


Working at a Catholic parish, I keep track of lots of paperwork, particularly baptismal certificates and sponsor/godparent forms. It’s the task I least like in my work. So, I understand when someone tells me they need more time to produce a document. I have been there. 


I find that many Hispanic parishioners at my parish are meticulous document keepers. Parents come to my office with binders beautifully organized with their family documents in plastic protectors. Birth certificates, baptismal certificates, first communion certificates, and more: well organized and protected. I can only surmise that these parents have particular respect for documents. They understand their value. 


When I first began working at this parish – 70 percent Hispanic – I was faced with more paperwork than I now have. The process for Faith Formation registration involved completing a lengthy form, one per family, with many blanks to fill in. No matter how many years a family had been in the program, they would need to complete a new form every year. 


When my four children were small, attending the same parish for years I was struck by how absurd it was that I should have to complete a form each fall when my information had not changed. So, I changed the process at the parish where I’m employed. 


I ensure every family intending to participate in faith formation is registered with the parish. When they sign up for a new season, I check with them to see that their information is correct. If updates need to be made I enter them in the computer, bypassing a form. And while we offer registration on multiple weekends throughout the summer and early fall, I also permit registered parishioners to call the office to enroll family members for faith formation. Some people can’t believe it’s so easy. However, many of these families work long hours, even on weekends. All have young children, often big families. Why would I add another obstacle to their lives if I can avoid it? 


This brings me to the obstacles too often placed by bureaucracies in the path of those who are already struggling. A recent New York Times article by Margot Sanger-Katz reveals that research has shown there is a corresponding reduction in applications for Medicaid that occur when more paperwork is added to the process. 


Medicaid recipients in Kentucky are being now challenged by a work requirement, the first of its kind. Advocates for the poor are concerned that this requirement will exclude those who are unable to work or cannot find and keep a job. But, according to Sanger-Katz, “a large body of social science suggests that the mere requirement of documenting work hours is likely to cause many eligible people to lose coverage, too.” 


Let’s consider the implications of these added requirements. A family who is struggling to survive, in order to get healthcare, is now forced to add documentation to an already stressful and hectic life. Sanger-Katz writes: “Anyone who has ever forgotten to pay a bill on time, or struggled to assemble all the necessary forms of identification before heading to the D. M. V. is likely to sympathize with how administrative hurdles can stymie someone. But these may be especially daunting for the poor, who tend to have less stable work schedules and less access to resources that can simplify compliance: reliable transportation, a bank account, internet access.” 


Research has shown that Medicaid sign-ups drop in number when programs are made more complicated. 


What is the point of making life harder for the poor? According Sanger-Katz, those who advocate for the new process in Kentucky believe “the changes will give beneficiaries more dignity and promote personal responsibility.” 


That thinking implies that those currently signing up for Medicaid lack dignity and personal responsibility. Our Church teaches that our human dignity is inherent. And who are we to judge whether or not one is being “personally responsible?” Are we willing to judge mentally ill people as lacking personal responsibility? How about the elderly? Children? This line of thinking is punitive and cruel.


Too many Americans see the poor as freeloaders, people who depend upon government assistance because they are too lazy to take care of themselves. 


Sadly, this mischaracterization permeates messaging about the poor. And because they are in positions of extreme vulnerability, they cannot usually stand up for themselves to counter the message. 


Thus, it falls upon Christians, those who follow Jesus, who we believe has a preference for the poor and vulnerable, to advocate on their behalf. We can change the message if we courageously speak out against the stereotypes and falsehoods. Most Medicaid recipients are seniors, people with disabilities and children. Their access to healthcare is very often a matter of life and death. Pregnant women and babies also depend upon Medicaid for their care. 


If we are, as we claim, a pro-life people, we must advocate for the protection of healthcare for all people and aid those living in poverty. It is the least we can do for those who Christ called the least among us. 


For more facts about Medicaid, go to


Mary Hood Hart is a freelance writer and educator living in Pittsboro, NC. She can be reached at

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