The truth about Catholic health care

April 1, 2011
Filed under Bioethics

Health care was essential to Jesus Christ, it’s essential to the Catholic Church . . .

Dr. Patrick Lee

by Patrick Lee

While there are no Catholic restaurants or Catholic grocery stores, there are specifically Catholic hospitals, clinics, hospices and nursing homes. Why? Catholic health stems from how Jesus conducted his public ministry. He not only preached and forgave sins, but he cured, restoring sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, and speech to the mute.

Jesus cured lepers, the lame, and even raised the dead. Moreover, Jesus commanded his disciples to “heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers” (Mt 10:8) and promised them divine assistance in this work (Jn 14:12). So, in serving the sick and caring for the dying, Christians are fulfilling an apostolate, not just a job. The Church is the Body of Christ, the extension of Christ in space and time; and so healing physical sickness, injuries, and caring for the dying constitute part of the Church’s specific mission.

But, one might ask, why did Jesus himself heal the physically sick and injured? Didn’t Christ become man in order to proclaim the kingdom, die for our sins, and form a Church to carry on that work? Jesus healed partly because he simply cared for the physical well-being of the sick and injured who were brought to him. But he also healed physical maladies as part of his larger mission of proclaiming and making present his kingdom. This means that the salvation Jesus offers is not a purely spiritual reality but includes our whole selves, body and soul. The complete victory is reached only in being joined to Christ in the resurrection. Only then is death is fully conquered. But, lest salvation be identified as something purely spiritual — only for part of us, not the whole of us — followers and imitators of Christ have been commissioned to cure the sick and care for the suffering and dying.

A second reason for Catholic health care can be understood by comparing it to Catholic schools, especially Catholic universities. Of course, learning also occurs in non-Catholic universities — physics, chemistry and biology, for example, do not depend on revealed truths. But the whole of learning — an accurate view of the world as such, and of its ultimate purpose — can be grasped only in a broad study crowned by theology and pursued in the context of faith and theology.

Analogously, sickness and suffering can be treated by medicine and secular social work, but they can be treated most effectively only in the larger context provided by our faith. Only in this context can they be treated with realism and an appreciation for their ultimate meaning. Only the Catholic health care institution has the resources to treat the whole person — body, mind and spirit.

Catholic health care is founded on the faith that sheds light on the profound dignity of each and every human person — made in God’s image, a person for whom Christ suffered and died — a dignity inherent in that person from the moment of conception until natural death, especially including persons enduring intense suffering, frustrating unconsciousness or advancing dementia.

Our faith reveals that suffering is not meaningless. While suffering should be treated, it finds meaning as joined to Christ’s sufferings. And by faith we know that death, while in itself bad, is not the worst enemy; we will be raised from the dead, and we have trust that by God’s grace we will meet again in heaven. Sickness, suffering and death are realistically confronted only with the light provided by our faith.

What lessons can we learn from these truths about Catholic health care? First, Catholic health workers must remember that the Christian mandate is not just to cure the sick. Jesus’ physical healing was only part of a larger, more encompassing cure, centered on the forgiving and redeeming of sins, the infusion of divine life. And it was precisely his insistence on addressing the whole person — sin, as well as physical sickness — that triggered the most fierce resistance against his mission. Just so, the aim of a Catholic health care institution can never be only to cure the sick, but — just as Jesus did — to care for health within the larger context of bearing witness to the truth of the whole Gospel and handing on Jesus’ salvific deeds, especially the Sacraments.

Second, the more encompassing healing is related to physical healing somewhat as faith is related to reason. Just as many Catholic schools are tempted to conform to standards set by the secular world of learning and to dilute their Catholic identity, Catholic health care facilities must resist a similar temptation and strive not to forget their specifically Catholic mission. This is not just a temptation with respect to particular ethical issues. Rather, faith must permeate the whole approach of the Catholic health facility to sickness, suffering, and death. Then, we pray, at the end of the world, Our Lord will say to us, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Mt. 25: 34).

Patrick Lee, Ph.D., is the John N. and Jamie D. McAleer Professor of Bioethics and the director of the Institute of Bioethics at Franciscan University of Steubenville.

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