Medicine As If Catholicism Mattered

I spent a couple of pleasant days last week at the annual conference of the Catholic Medical Association, which met this year in Santa Barbara, California. Not a bad venue – Catholic medical professionals aren’t dumb. But the real pleasure was to be part of a group of 500 people that included doctors, nurses, pharmacists, chiropractors, medical ethicists, and others passionately committed not only to the healing arts, but to the Catholic faith.

Yes, you read right, 500 of them, and that’s only those who were able to attend. If you get your impression of Catholic healthcare professionals today solely from secular sources, you would assume that they’re all caving or about to cave on the HHS mandates, playing duplicitous games on the life issues at their institutions, and in essence not really different from their mainstream counterparts.

You’d be wrong – as I myself was before last week. There’s actually a significant segment of the Catholic medical community that is both principled and making efforts to be even clearer about what being a Catholic requires of them today.

You won’t be surprised to hear that they drew on some of our writers at The Catholic Thing and a wider circle of our friends as speakers: Matt Hanley of the National Catholic Bioethics Center, Christopher Kaczor of Loyola Marymount University, and Andreas Widmer of the Catholic University of America, among several others.

Matt Hanley gave a pair of beautiful lectures that combined, as he has several times for TCT, careful moral reflection with empirical evidence about public health. For example, did you know that there’s no study showing that Risk Reduction programs – e.g., condoms provided to stop the spread of AIDS in Africa – have any measurable effect on such epidemics, except perhaps to encourage people to engage in risky behavior in the false belief that they’re protected?

By contrast, in several African nations where it was not assumed that people were too immature to be taught Risk Avoidance – i.e., fidelity and chastity – instead of seeking technological solutions via Risk Reduction for human problems, there have been sharp reductions in the incidence of AIDS and its spread.

By the way, Pope Benedict made this very point a few years ago, which is well supported by careful empirical research, to general mockery and scorn. Our culture doesn’t need science to tell it what it already “knows.”

Hanley’s general case for treating people as morally responsible agents, even if they’re poor in Africa, was reinforced by Andreas Widmer, a former Swiss Guard, who’s written for us here, and also wrote a book on what he learned about leadership from Pope John Paul II. In recent years, he’s tried to bring together Catholic notions about the human person with the need for development in places like Africa.

Africa is an instructive case. It has only 12 percent of the world’s population and receives one-third of global philanthropic donations. Yet it remains relatively underdeveloped. Why? Widmer compared it, at least initially, to a counseling situation. When there’s a crisis, you handle it, but then help move the person into a more self-reliant mode. Otherwise, you create a kind of co-dependence.

That may be okay with those who don’t have a high view of all human persons as free and responsible and made in the image of God. Or of well meaning but misguided celebrities like Bill and Melinda Gates or the Irish rocker Bono (a Catholic), says Widmer. But the humanity of both giver and receiver have to be a carefully co-ordinated so that the full human personhood of all is always in play. Philanthropy has a definite role in troubled regions, but it’s ultimate goal should be to eliminate its own reason for being by enabling people to become fully mature, self-governing adults in their own right.

I haven’t mentioned – because I want to get all this in first – that one of the themes of this year’s conference was medicine and social justice. But the organizers did not take the usual clichéd approaches. They put all that, as you might deduce from the account above, under a strong sense of authentic Catholic social thought. Bishop Robert Vasa of Santa Rosa, a strong and growing presence in the United States, celebrated Mass each morning and was honest enough to say he was more puzzled after hearing the well-crafted lectures on medicine and justice than before.

And that’s all to the good because, contrary to common assumptions, these are not simple questions, as Obamacare is starting to instruct the whole world. But the CMA went even further, warning of decidedly unjust threats just down the road.

I’ve generally thought it a bit extreme to describe us as heading towards “death panels” and other large horrors in the current reforms of medicine. After hearing from an impassioned speaker about POLST (Physician Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment), I’m not so sure. I am sure that we need to be extremely vigilant about all such programs. POLST is billed as a more effective way for people nearing the end to express their exact wishes about choices of treatments. But good Catholic doctors have seen – and worry about – how in fact this system is being used to limit treatment of the elderly without a doctor ever having spoken to a patient about his or her wishes. And they’re being warned about subtle ways these deceptive programs are being insinuated into private medical practices.

Over and beyond the riches of speakers, spiritual opportunities, instruction, however, what most impressed me was the overall spirit of this assembly – not merely concerned about educating members (though obviously engaged in that). But this is a group that knows itself to be operating in a culture that is now at odds with the great tradition of medicine from the days of the original Hippocratic Oath down to our day.

They have many hard battles ahead. But what a comfort to know that some of our medical professionals, our good Catholic men and women in healthcare fields, have both the brains and the heart to do something, often against strong pressure and narrowing odds.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.