Tag Archives: Catholic health care

Catholic rehab makes all the difference

People recovering from serious injuries, strokes, life-changing illnesses, and catastrophic accidents often need more than just physical rehabilitation.

Their spirits also need to be uplifted. That is an important insight the staff at Madonna Rehabilitation Hospitals in Nebraska understands infinitely well.

Rehab involves much more than physical adjustment

“Our patients and our families are sometimes struggling to understand the reason for their condition, not only just the physical aspects of it,” said Paul Dongilli Jr., the president and CEO of Madonna Rehabilitation Hospitals.

Dongilli, a speech pathologist by training who is a member of Legatus’ Lincoln Chapter, said people come from 24 different states, as far away as Alaska and Washington State, to be treated at one of Madonna Rehabilitation Hospitals’ two locations, in Omaha and Lincoln.

Physicians and nurses in those other states often refer their patients to Madonna because of the cutting-edge, first-rate rehabilitative care that is matched by the psycho-social and spiritual care offered at the facilities.

“When those individuals are paired with our social workers and our psychologists, they’re able to deal with the psycho- social aspects of a devastating injury or illness,” said Dongilli, who has been with Madonna since 1983.

Whereas most hospitals and care centers have small rehabilitation units on-site, Dongilli said Madonna Rehabilitation Hospitals are one of the only, if not the lone, freestanding Catholic rehabilitation facilities in the country.

“We’re not part of a larger acute care system, and in most acute care systems, rehabilitation is a small part of what they do,” Dongilli said. “Maybe they don’t invest in the technology and have the resources that are needed to treat patients who have had devastating spinal cord injuries, brain injuries, children as well as adults, where we have, because that’s all we do.”

Founded by Benedictine nuns – with a priest in residence

Benedictine nuns founded Madonna Rehabilitshort-term recovery and room for another 125 individuals who have chronic conditions and require longer-term care. The Omaha facility opened in 2016 and has room for 110 patients.

The facilities today are sponsored by the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska, and they retain a distinctive Catholic identity.

Madonna has a Catholic priest in residence, and offers daily Mass and access to the sacraments for patients, their families, and staff. Both locations have beautiful chapels and sacred art throughout the facilities.

“When you come into the facility, the look is such we think that it reinforces that Catholic identity,” Dongilli said, adding that spiritual care is offered for people of different religious and denominational backgrounds.

Patients come from afar

From its beginnings 60 years ago, Dongilli said Madonna Rehabilitation Hospitals has evolved into a health care system that serves patients from around the country, primarily from an eight-state region in the Midwest.

“When individuals and their families are faced with these horrific injuries and they’re looking for a facility to help them, in most areas they’re told that they don’t have those resources,” Dongilli said, adding that trauma centers in other states that work with Madonna are quick to refer their patients to the Nebraska facilities.

“So people are willing to travel to access a resource that they can’t get in their immediate community,” Dongilli said.

Madonna has a dedicated pediatric unit and long-term care for patients who require ventilators. The staff specializes in complex medical, traumatic brain injury, spinal cord injury, pulmonary conditions, severe stroke, other neurological conditions, and pediatric rehabilitation.

Offering hope, spiritual recovery

Dongilli, who worked in Madonna’s brain injury and stroke units and worked his way up to chief operating officer and then CEO three years ago, said Madonna offers hope and healing to thousands of patients every year.

“What we provide is a more holistic approach to care, balancing the more physical aspects of medicine, nursing, and therapy with more of the psycho-social and spiritual aspects of recovery,” he said.

In addition to the chapel, Dongilli said Madonna has a large therapy gym and carefully manicured grounds that contribute to the peaceful, spiritual, and mentally healing atmosphere.

“We have been very careful over the years to have green space and nature and some beautiful settings that are part of God’s creation that our families and our patients can access to have some quiet time or for reflection,” Dongilli said. “Those things, we think, very much make a difference and aid in the recovery process. It helps provide hope.”

In addition to focusing on the mental and spiritual healing, Madonna’s team of specialized physiatrists, hospitalists, therapists, rehabilitation nurses, clinicians, and researchers work with advanced technology and equipment to help each patient achieve the highest level of independence possible.

Research institute developing new technologies

Dongilli said Madonna has “a small but mighty” research institute that has been successful in developing technology to support rehabilitation efforts, and added that the technology is now being commercialized and sold to other health care facilities in the United States and abroad.

“We think we have the opportunity now in working with the University of Nebraska to expand our research efforts and develop equipment and technology that will help advance the field of rehabilitation and the outcomes of the patients that we serve,” Dongilli said.

Dongilli added that Madonna started a department to train physicians, and recently accepted the first group of residents from the University of Nebraska’s College of Medicine who will be trained in physical medicine and rehabilitation.

“I think what the future holds for us is to be a regional center, not only for the treatment of patients, but also a training facility for physicians and other professionals specializing in rehabilitation,” Dongilli said.

Founded with Mary’s blessing

The founding Benedictine Sisters named the facility after the Madonna because 1958 was a Marian year, said Dongilli.

“They had a vision that if individuals could have good nursing care and therapy care, that folks who previously had to be institutionalized could return back to their homes and to their communities,” Dongilli said. “They really established a vision for rehabilitation. They recognized the blessings that Mary would provide for their efforts and for hopefully sustaining the hospital and the facility.”

Despite changes in medicine and technology over the decades, Dongilli said Madonna’s core philosophy remains the same.

“That notion of doing God’s work, a vision for doing rehabilitation under the guidance of the Blessed Mother, has really been a core tenet for us,” he said.


BRIAN FRAGA is a Legatus magazine staff writer.

Following the Doctor-Saint of faithful medicine

Through medical clinics that bear her name, St. Gianna Molla continues to provide health care to families around the globe while proving to society that modern medicine can be practiced along ethical and religious guidelines.

Two Legates who are physicians – Doctors Max Mercado in Philadelphia and Robin Goldsmith in Green Bay, Wisconsin – have drawn inspiration from the 20th century Milanese pediatrician who was a devout Catholic, wife, and mother who sacrificed her own life in a troubled pregnancy so that her fourth child could be born.

Mercado and Goldsmith have opened clinics named for St. Gianna Molla in their respective cities, who was canonized in 2004 by Pope St. Pope John Paul II. Though she died in 1962 at age 39, St. Gianna’s story and her pro-life example continues to inspire people around the world. The Legates who have opened clinics under her patronage believe St. Gianna has a role to play in reforming medicine and ushering in a true culture of life.


The Gianna Center of Philadelphia opened in March after about a year of planning, said Mercado, the president of Legatus’ Bucks County Chapter who will serve as the center’s CEO.

“The goal and purpose of the Gianna Center of Philadelphia is to lay down a foundation for the culture of life to flourish in the lives of individuals and families,” said Mercado, adding that the clinic offers general gynecological care, natural family planning education, and infertility services.

Those services are provided while honoring the sanctity of human life, the dignity of women, and the integrity of marriage.

“We are following the teachings of the Church,” said Mercado, who explained that the St. Gianna Center does not provide services such as in vitro fertilization. To assist couples experiencing difficulty conceiving, the clinic uses NaProTechnology, a medical and surgical technique used to treat the direct source of various gynecologic and reproductive health conditions.

“We also refer to social services families that are in need,” Mercado said. “And as a mission, we seek to provide pro-life reproductive health care to women and families that follow the bishops’ ethical and religious directives for Catholic health care services.”

The Catholic community in Philadelphia, a city with a large number of medical schools, encountered St. Gianna’s story during the World Meeting of Families that was held there in 2015. St. Gianna’s youngest child, Gianna Emanuela Molla, (herself a physician), attended the event and shared her testimony of growing up as the daughter who was saved by her saintly mother. St. Gianna was also a co-patron of the event.

“This is a saint who captures the imagination of a lot of young women who are exposed to secularism and the culture of death,” Mercado said. “We’re saying to them, ‘Come out of darkness. Come into the light.’”

The Gianna Center of Philadelphia is located in the city’s northeast section and is affiliated with the National Gianna Center Network, which has a string of clinics in New York, New Jersey, Kansas City, and Wisconsin.

The clinic in Philadelphia is also staffed with Dr. Delia Larrauri and Barbara Rose, a nurse practitioner, providing direct care for women and families. Mercado said he and the center’s staff and directors have been getting the word out to local Catholic agencies. Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia has also given the center his blessing.

“The centers are pro-woman, pro-families, and they’re prolife,” Mercado said, adding that there is a need for medical facilities that offers women’s health and fertility services through a pro-life perspective. All too often, OB-GYN practices in Philadelphia and across the country see no problems with prescribing birth control pills to address a variety of conditions such as menstrual cramps and irregular cycles.

“There are other treatments besides oral contraceptive pills,” Mercado said. “I mean, what are we doing here? Are we really giving choices to women or are we just going along with whatever the common treatments are and forgetting about the women’s beliefs?”

Being named for a 20th century woman who went to medical school, got married in her 30s, had children, worked as a physician, and is a canonized saint in the Catholic Church can only help the clinic’s mission.

Said Mercado, “Her life is an amazing story.”


Dr. Goldsmith, a member of Legatus’ Northeast Wisconsin Chapter, was praying in Eucharistic adoration when St. Gianna’s name came to her mind.

“I knew almost nothing about St. Gianna. I knew her name, but very little about her,” said Goldsmith, who a few years ago was asked by a fellow Legate to launch an initiative to bring back “faithful medicine” because the medical field was headed “in the wrong direction.”

Asked to think about it, Goldsmith said that for several weeks she prayed, pondered, and discussed the idea with friends and family. Eventually she concluded that something had to be done in the form of a Catholic medical clinic that took care of all people.

“You see women’s clinics, you see family practice clinics, but there aren’t many clinics that really emphasize taking care of everyone from the beginning of conception to natural end of life,” Goldsmith said. “Everyone needs to be cared and loved in dignity and respect according to our faith.”

After deciding to start a new clinic under St. Gianna’s patronage, Goldsmith said she scheduled a meeting to get the approval of Bishop David L. Ricken of Green Bay. The bishop loved the idea, gave her his blessing and asked what she planned to name the clinic.

Before she could answer, the bishop told Goldsmith that St. Gianna’s name had come to him in prayer. Stunned, Goldsmith said she had had a similar experience. The bishop replied, “Well, of course it did. That’s the Holy Spirit.”

“It’s been one event after another just like that,” said Goldsmith, who noted that many of the clinic’s major events, such as its opening day and consecrating Mass, have occurred on Marian feast days.

“We feel very strongly that Mary has been very involved in making this clinic unfold,” said Goldsmith, the president and chief medical officer of the St. Gianna Clinic in Green Bay.

The clinic is aligned with the Hospital Sisters Health System, and is located across the street from HSHS St. Mary’s Hospital Medical Center. The clinic offers family medicine and a complete range of OB-GYN services and treatments, including pregnancy and fertility care. The clinic is staffed by Doctors Scott Stillwell and Melissa Weidert.

Like its counterpart in Philadelphia, the St. Gianna Clinic in Green Bay does not provide treatments that violate Church teachings. The center offers NaProTechnology and uses the Creighton Model Fertility Care System to diagnose a woman’s specific health condition.

“The approach is very beautiful. It’s about restoring a woman’ body back to health instead of just covering it up with medication,” Goldsmith said.

In addition to medical services, the clinic offers spiritual support. The staff prays together and with patients. In the waiting room are first and second class relics of St. Gianna Molla.

“Personally for me, I feel an incredible closeness to St. Gianna because she was a female physician, a mother of four, as am I, and a wife who was extremely pro-life and loved to teach about the faith, especially as it pertained to medicine,” said Goldsmith, who hopes her clinic will be one of many such facilities across the country that will change the face of Catholic healthcare in St. Gianna’s image.

“She completely embodies what we do here at the St. Gianna clinic,” Goldsmith said. “We believe that every life is beautiful, every life is worthy of respect, honor and dignity. Just as she honored every patient and every life that she encountered, we try to do the same here.”

BRIAN FRAGA is a Legatus magazine staff writer.


Treating the frail as Christ did

Catholic health care has always seen its mission of providing healing and compassion to the suffering as an extension of the healing ministry of Christ.

In his 1995 encyclical The Gospel of Life, St. John Paul II wrote that health care personnel have a “unique responsibility” in that their profession “calls for them to be guardians and servants of human life.”

“Health care professionals,” the Catholic bishops of the United States have stated in a similar vein in their Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, “pursue a special vocation to share in carrying forth God’s life-giving and healing work.”

Recently a few Legates who are doctors shared how their Catholic faith intersects with their work in the medical profession.

Compassion for the most vulnerable

As an ophthalmologist who specializes in retinal problems, Dr. Kenneth Diddie has spent many years screening premature babies in neonatal intensive care units (NICUs) for retinopathy of prematurity (ROP), a common but sometimes serious condition. Lowbirthweight babies born at 24 or 25 weeks’ gestation are the most prone to developing ROP.

“If I find threshold levels of this condition, I perform laser treatment on the baby’s eyes in the NICU to prevent retinal detachment and blindness,” explained Diddie, a Legate of the Ventura/LA North Chapter in southern California.

That work, along with Church teaching on the sanctity of human life, helped spur his conversion to Catholicism in 2001. What caught his attention was the debate over restrictions on late-term abortions, in which “prochoice” organizations argue that abortion should remain legal and available throughout pregnancy, even up to 40 weeks.

“When I heard people defending late-term or partial-birth abortion, it was clear to me that they were okay with killing babies older than those I was screening and lasering,” said Diddie, who was Episcopalian at the time.

“The fact that the Catholic Church was opposed to aborting human life at any age was a major factor in my joining the Church.”

Although he also treats adults, Diddie is particularly passionate about treating premature infants, which he says “are the most vulnerable and at risk.” Many of his young patients face other physical and socio-economic hurdles, so he will treat them regardless of their families’ insurance coverage or ability to pay. “I want to make sure, to the best of my ability, that they do not have the additional burden of decreased vision or blindness,” he said.

He hopes his actions — his compassion and care for his patients — speak louder than words: “Even though I do not go around blowing my own trumpet, I think my attitudes are not lost on those in our office or in the hospitals.” His efforts come with rewards. “Several years ago, the mother of one of the babies that needed laser treatment sent me a photo of her son graduating from college,” Diddie recounted. “She thought I would like to see how my work had been beneficial to him. “That outcome, compared with what was possible as recently as 60 years ago, is indeed miraculous.”

Using God-given talents to serve others

Dr. Stephen A. Olenchock, chief of cardiovascular surgery at St. Luke’s University Health Network in Bethlehem, PA., believes Catholics should let faith guide their work regardless of profession, including health care.

“Daily, as a cardiac surgeon, you may be introduced to new people who may have serious medical conditions which placed then in a vulnerable situation both physically and emotionally,” said Olenchock, a Legate of the Lehigh Valley Chapter. “My Catholic faith tells me to attempt to meet people where they are, and to try to use my God-given talents to the best of my ability to help care for others.“

Olenchock has performed some 800 cardiac surgeries, most of them involving heart valve procedures. It’s a serious undertaking that goes well the majority of the time, but occasionally difficult situations arise. He may have to help families deal with the loss of a loved one, or to prepare them to deal with the stress and challenges when a patient requires a long recovery.

“Some of these situations affect not only the families of patients, but the entire staff of caregivers involved with the patient,” said Olenchock. “I very frequently, although privately, pray for my patients and their families, especially in these very difficult situations. I often pray for God just to give me the strength to use my talent to the fullest, and this helps me in the stress of situations.”

On many occasions — often in unexpected, miraculous ways — his experiences as a surgeon has strengthened his faith in God, he said. The “most memorable” case involved emergency surgery he performed on a patient whom he felt certain would not survive the operation. “I actually remember thinking that everything I am doing to try to save this person was not working, and it seemed as if I was actually trying to stop something God had planned,” he said. When the patient “miraculously survived,” it was clearly due to something more than the medical intervention provided.

“I personally witnessed the power of prayer from his family and from all of the medical providers,” said Olenchock. “This was a big part of my own personal faith journey, and really helped strengthen my belief in God and life ever after in his Kingdom of Heaven.”

For ‘the least of my brothers’

Dr. John Marta, a Colorado Springs (CO) Chapter Legate, has retired from the practice of anesthesiology, but he gladly continues to give public talks about his favorite subject, the Holy Land.

A native of Jerusalem who immigrated to the United States in 1960 to attend college and medical school, Marta came from a devoutly Catholic family and received his early education in Franciscan schools. His father was a longtime Catholic school principal as well as an official organist to the Holy Land, where he played for the High Masses at Jerusalem’s Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre and for the Christmas Midnight Mass at Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity. His mother, who converted to Catholicism, was the daughter of a Greek Orthodox elder in Bethlehem.

“My faith has always been in the forefront of my professional life,” said Marta, who retired in 2014 after more than four decades of private practice in Colorado Springs, where he was a longtime chief of anesthesia at Penrose Hospital and operated a pain-management clinic. When appropriate, he would pray with his patients before surgery. “Patients would request me for future surgeries and ask me to pray with them,” he said. “This, to me, was powerful.”

A mystical experience early in his medical career brought him a fresh appreciation of his work as a vocation to serve the poorest and neediest of society, he noted.

“As a naive young anesthesiologist, I would occasionally complain to myself when I would be awakened at two o’clock in the morning to report for surgery on a disheveled, smelly patient who was vomiting all over himself, knowing fully well this person had no insurance,” he recalled.

On one such night of interior grumbling, Marta heard a very clear “voice” telling him, “John, this person is ‘one of the least of my brothers.’

That moment of revelation changed him. “From then on, taking care of ‘all of these people’ became a duty and a privilege for the rest of my professional life,” he said.

It changed his patients, too, it seems. “At my retirement, many of my disadvantaged patients came to say goodbye, and we cried together,” Marta said. “They said to me: ‘You are the only one who was willing to take care of us without expecting payment. Who is going to take care of us now?’

“I assured them that there are many wonderful Christian doctors who are willing to do the same for them,” he said. Marta said he witnessed so many miracles during his years of practice that he “took them for granted.” What stands out above all, however, are the miracles of birth.

“I don’t know how anybody who observes these miracles can ever deny them,” he said.

GERALD KORSON is a Legatus magazine staff writer.

Keeping Catholic health care on-mission and on-message

Annette M. Walker, a Legate of the Orange Canyons (CA) Chapter, is president of strategy at Providence St. Joseph Health, which oversees 50 hospitals and 829 clinics across five states, and chief executive of St. Joseph Health System. She recently answered a few questions for Legatus about her work as a Catholic health care executive.

LEGATUS: How does your Catholic faith infuse your professional work? Conversely, how does your professional work affect your faith?

WALKER: My Catholic faith influences everything in my life, including how I approach my work and how I engage with others. The best way to look at it is that I work for a Catholic ministry that happens to operate in the American health care industry. I am constantly reminded of and challenged to live up to that expectation.

It is not enough to be a good leader or manager; decisions need to be made in the light of a ministry. For example, a layoff for financial stability in most American businesses might be fairly simple. In Catholic health care, questions about justice, disproportionate impact on low-wage vs. high-wage earners, and dignity are paramount concerns that must also be addressed.

LEGATUS: What are some of the challenges of ensuring that health services are provided in accordance with Catholic social teaching? How do government regulation, the insurance industry, and pressures of public opinion impact the delivery of authentically Catholic health care?

WALKER: The Catholic health care tradition is the healing ministry of Jesus. Most days it is easy to see and feel God’s presence – especially in the provision of care – but it’s always good to ask yourself the question – “What would Jesus do?” If you ask yourself that question, odds are you will do the right thing. My ministry is particularly faithful in its commitment to the poor and vulnerable. Catholic health care is continually challenged by public perception and a focus on what we won’t do – for example, abortion.

There isn’t enough attention to all that we do and the many ways we help our communities. We care for people no one else cares for, support women and children, provide food, housing and educational opportunities in addition to providing excellent and comprehensive health care that improves the health of the communities we serve. That being said, there is intensive pressure to apply secular beliefs on Catholic institutions, particularly in the areas of respect for life — all life.

LEGATUS: What kind of adjustments have Catholic health care organizations had to make in order to deal with changes in health care laws and regulations?

WALKER: We are operating in the complex world of American health care which is becoming more challenging every day. At times, it would be easier to separate ourselves and try to operate in a silo. We recognize, however, that that fulfilling our mission as Catholics means being in the world and witnessing that God is present and accounted for. So we persist. We stand on the things we must, we find partners with whom we can find some common ground of good, and we advocate for those who cannot advocate for themselves.

Is Catholic health care a thing of the past?

Matthew Rarey: consolidation, regulation, and persecution pose a three-fold challenge . . . 

Health care providers are taking a beating from ObamaCare, and Catholic hospitals and physicians fighting to keep the faith are no exception. Many suspect that the end game is not only a singlepayer system, but a shutdown of faith-based delivery.

“Catholics should be worried,” warns John M. Haas, president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center. “It’s not so much a Catholic identity issue within Catholic health care, but fierce and relentless threats from government and a profound shift in cultural attitudes regarding issues such as contraception.”

Such threats have already forced the Church out of other social ministries — including adoption services — thanks to laws and mores condoning same-sex “marriage.”

Regulatory culture

A statue of the Blessed Mother stands in front of Loretto Hospital in New Ulm, Minn.

A statue of the Blessed Mother stands in front of Loretto Hospital in New Ulm, Minn.

John F. Brehany is executive director and ethicist of the Catholic Medical Association, an association of individuals across the country dedicated to learning, implementing, and sharing their faith in the health care industry. Most of its 2,000 members are physicians.

He cites two factors militating against a robust Catholic identity in health care.

“First, the federal government is actively hostile to the Catholic faith and at best indifferent to the protection of conscience rights in organized medicine,” Brehany says. Of particular concern is the Health and Human Services (HHS) mandate. This employer requirement to provide insurance plans covering contraceptives, abortifacients, and sterilization procedures is “proving a real challenge to the Catholic institutional presence in health care.”

The U.S. Supreme Court heard cases seeking the mandate’s repeal in late March and is expected to give its ruling at the end of June.

Second, says Brehany, is the financial pressure being exerted upon health care providers to stay in business. To “cut more costs out of the delivery structure, many are consolidating,” he notes. Encouraging this trend is the need to comply with ever more burdensome federal regulations — a costly procedure that’s putting many physicians out of private practice.

“Government has so ramped up regulations and penalties for compliance with federal law that private physicians are being driven out of business and joining hospitals,” Brehany explains. “They can’t afford the software systems and lawyers necessary to letting them know whether they’re in continual compliance,” thus avoiding crippling penalties. When Catholic hospitals consolidate with non-Catholic hospitals for similar reasons, these consolidations can pose “a challenge to maintaining a robust Catholic identity.”

Consolidation, not compromise

John Haas

John Haas

In 2012, Catholic Healthcare West relinquished its formal Catholic identity in order to expand its network to include non-Catholic hospitals, thus increasing its marketing power and profitability. Now called Dignity Health, it may be a harbinger of further consolidations by which Catholic health care providers drop their Catholic identity for the sake of the bottom line.Despite that change in name and formal identity, “there’s more than meets the eye with the Catholic Healthcare West issue,” Haas notes. Dignity Health’s transformation was made in consultation with the Church and approved by former San Francisco Archbishop George Niederauer. It has promised to run its Catholic hospitals in accord with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) document Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services.

“But it now means that the overarching system of Dignity can bring non-Catholic hospitals into the system and have them continue doing things Catholic hospitals can’t,” says Haas, citing sterilization procedures. “Dignity has said none of its hospitals can perform abortions, however. There’s still a strong Catholic moral influence.”

Haas says that consolidation is the trend of the future.

“You can find almost no freestanding hospitals anymore — they’re all entering into collaborative arrangements to survive,” he told Legatus magazine shortly after returning from a meeting in Rome, where he is a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life. “When a non-Catholic hospital or system puts pressure on a Catholic partner to do things not in accord with moral law, that’s where the threats come in.”

The National Catholic Bioethics Center, led by Haas, gives ethical guidance to Catholic health care providers considering collaborative arrangements with non-Catholic entities, helping them stay true to their Catholic identity. A major concern is maintaining the principle of non-material cooperation with evil.

The NCBC worked with one Catholic health care system for over a year to maintain its integrity through the consolidation process, Haas says. The $620 million deal did not happen until the NCBC affirmed that no ethical or religious directives would be broken.

“What came into play were tubal ligations, contraception, and sterilization, which are such a miniscule part of the overall delivery of health care but in our day and age, such a neuralgic issue,” says Haas.

Peter Breen

Peter Breen

For now, vigilant bishops are key to ensuring the Catholic identity of Catholic health care, Haas says. However, a game changer may be in the works: The Obama administration’s repeal of conscience provisions, which had allowed health care providers to receive federal funds despite refusing to perform procedures the Church deems unethical, could threaten the very existence of Catholic health care.

“You often hear people saying with great bravado that a Catholic hospital would close down before it did abortions [to receive the government funding so vital to their operation],” he notes. “If it came to that and a Catholic hospital refused to do abortions, the state could take it over and say this institution exists by our leave as a non-profit. It’s happened before in Church history, but not yet here in America.”

Catholic health care in the catacombs?

Peter Breen, executive director and legal counsel of the Thomas More Society, says the movement in politics to devalue faith-based ministries has turned into active hostility.

Concerning mergers between Catholic and secular health care institutions, Breen says “there’s a real fight over whose ethics will win out.” In a case not yet made public, the Thomas More Society is defending a Catholic doctor that a secular hospital involved in a partnership with a Catholic hospital refused to hire because of his opposition to administering abortifacient birth control.

Even more ominous, Breen cites a recent suit that the American Civil Liberties Union filed against the USCCB because its Ethical and Religious Directives bars abortion.

“I don’t mean to be apocalyptic,” says Breen, “but if Catholic bishops are unable to set ethical guidelines for institutions calling themselves Catholic, we’re going to have a hard time maintaining an official relation between the Church and not-for-profit Catholic health facilities. If the ACLU is successful, we’ll be put in a tough spot as a Church.”

Joseph Piccione, senior vice president for mission and ethics at Peoria, Ill.-based OSF HealthCare System, says he’s hopeful yet realistic about the continuance of that fundamental part of Catholic discipleship and identity: caring for the sick.

“When we see how Catholic ministries have struggled to remain active even in oppressive communist regimes, we know that we have a learned flexibility from their example,” says Piccione, who holds a licentiate in theology as well as a civil law degree. “We need to be quick on our feet and find ways to continue to serve. Why? Because that’s what the Lord wants of us.”

MATTHEW A. RAREY is Legatus magazine’s editorial assistant.

Learn more:




The truth about Catholic health care

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

Dr. 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.