Catholic Health Saints, Catholic Health Association

St. John of God – patron saint of hospitals and the sick – was separated from his family in Portugal at a very young age, became a shepherd in Spain, joined the army, fought against the French and the Turks, and indulged in all manner of extracurricular depravity with fellow soldiers. Following a scare, he decided to amend his life, resolving to offer himself in ransom for Christians held captive by Muslims in North Africa. But events led him to Granada, where he turned to selling religious literature. 

There, he heard John of Avila preach about repentance, which affected him so much that he bemoaned his sins in public, gave away his money, subjected himself to ridicule, and was eventually placed in the hospital and treated as a lunatic – which at the time meant scourging. John of Avila came to visit him and perceived that he was not mad, but rather motivated to undergo such ostracism and treatment as a means of penance. He told him to put his energies instead towards the service of others.

He began by caring for others in the same hospital, and quickly decided to found one himself – at age forty. He sought out the sick on the streets and nursed them on the spot, but soon rented a place to which he personally carried them. His relentless efforts attracted the attention and support of the local bishop; the Brothers Hospitallers, formed with like-minded men, survives to this day. 

After fifteen years of constant service, he died on March 8, 1550, the same year another patron saint of the sick with a remarkably similar biography was born. St. Camillus de Lellis, mercenary and brawler, found himself wandering from place to place for a time, trying to overcome a serious gambling addiction, a bad temper, and an “obstinate self-will.” He also cared for others in the hospital where he underwent treatment before founding his own health-care oriented religious order, identified by its red cross, which innovated by tending to anyone injured on the battlefield without distinction. Sound familiar?

Their lives remind us that having once been at odds with the Church does not disqualify one from becoming a saint – or from making enduring contributions to health care rooted in uncompromising fidelity to the Gospel. That should give hope to us all – even to those who have done great damage to the Church (and the country) from within by their obstinate dissent, such as the Catholic Health Association (CHA) and Catholic Health Care West (CHW).

     The Miracle of St. John of God (Francesco Solimena c. 1690)

One CHW hospital in Phoenix was recently stripped of its identity for performing a direct abortion. Other CHW hospitals have a troubling record of performing sterilizations, covering contraception, and granting funds to organizations that promote such things. The obvious problems with ObamaCare did not stop the CHA, under the leadership of Sr. Carol Keehan, from endorsing it over the bishops’ plain objections. By posturing to create the impression that Catholics were united on the essentials – abortion and conscience protection – they helped pass the bill, which is likely to be counterproductive and unconstitutional in any event. 

Whereas St John of God was content to play the fool, the CHA chose expediency – to stay in the good graces of the politically powerful by aligning itself with vague but ultimately hostile proposals at the expense of its identity. 

Though both St. John of God and the CHA managed to convince themselves that what they had chosen to do was good or right, only St. John showed a willingness to listen to and accept reasonable counsel. He chose to follow John of Avila’s directive to channel his zeal towards something more fruitful, whereas the CHA put its passions and interests first, explicitly rejecting clear and charitable reminders from the bishops that the organization is in fact quite off-base, however well-meaning it might be. Being a witness to the faith – and moral truth, the indispensible means of protecting humanity from abuses of power – simply proved too much to ask.  

This was not the case, Robert Ellsberg tells us in his book All Saints, for the martyrs of the plague in third-century Alexandria – a time of great persecution. People who had been living in hiding nonetheless came forward, as Christians, to care for the sick and to bury the dead – risking both infection and arrest. In the process of performing these great works of mercy, several of them also caught the disease and perished. Sixteen centuries later, St. Damian of Molokai kept that tradition alive; he came down with leprosy after personally tending to the lepers exiled on the island.

Taking a principled stand against the “fatally flawed” ObamaCare bill seems quite do-able in comparison with such heroic charity and courage. It would not have cost Sr. Keehan her life, though it would indeed have cost her the ceremonial pen Obama awarded her for her complicity. 

Truth be told, it probably would have cost her a bit more than that pen she so proudly displays – perhaps the “obstinate self-will” that St. Camillus also struggled to overcome. I hope Sr. Keehan gets there. The great patron saints of the sick prove that no person is irretrievable; the grace of God is greater than any waste or affront.

In the meantime, though, we need to secure conscience protections for professionals within Catholic organizations intent on being dutiful subcontractors to the state (which is now seeking to strip those very protections), who simply wish to live out their vocations without succumbing to the Zeitgeist.

Matthew Hanley’s new book, Determining Death by Neurological Criteria: Current Practice and Ethics, is a joint publication of the National Catholic Bioethics Center and Catholic University of America Press.