One of the greatest challenges of our age is what Thomistic scholar Servais Pinckaers called “secular Christianity.” In The Sources of Christian Ethics, he defines it as “the temptation to adapt to the world and its spirit in the name of sharing its values and hopes.” This is a major threat to Catholic health care. Industry standards, market consolidation, government regulations, financial realities, and medical standards apply serious pressures. Medical associations and public policies misappropriate “dignity,” “rights,” and “treatment” to encourage, demand, and even coerce participation in immoral practices like abortion, sterilization, contraception, “sex reassignment,” and physician assisted suicide. In an effort to keep Catholic ministries going in our pluralistic society, “common values” with non-Catholic entities are quickly emphasized. It becomes easy to conflate the fundamentally Christian notion of dignity with damaging secular doppelgangers.
The integrity, vibrancy, and distinctiveness of the Catholic faith as expressed in health care ministries are paramount. In its 2014 guidelines on collaboration, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith noted that Saints Cosmas and Damian, physicians martyred because of their faith-driven manner of caring for the sick, are examples of the prophetic witness and evangelical spirit that should suffuse Catholic health care. This goes beyond experts identifying the technicalities of what “could be legitimate” or “hasn’t been explicitly condemned by the Magisterium.” It means refocusing on the Church’s primary mission and supreme law: salus animarum, the salvation of souls. With this goal, then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s words to his brother bishops in 1984 ring true: “morality requires not the specialist, but the witness.
The importance of witness is reflected in updates to the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, released last year in its sixth edition by the bishops of the United States. Part Six, dealing with affiliations between Catholic and non-Catholic health care organizations, now repeatedly calls on Catholic health care leaders to consider how their decisions impact efficacious witness. For example, it must be determined whether any alignment with a non-Catholic organization, no matter how promising, “will risk undermining the institution’s ability to fulfill its mission of providing health care as a witness to the Catholic faith.” This is not a simple box to check. It demands careful consideration of the spiritual goods at stake for patients, staff, local communities, and the Church.
What are some ways Catholic health care could give prophetic witness with a view to the salvation of souls? Standards incompatible with the Christian understanding of human dignity— now encountered more frequently—must be identified and firmly rejected as harmful, physically and spiritually, to patients and society. Sound alternatives to immoral practices must be sought and promoted, along with the providers who offer them. A notable example would be fertility awareness-based methods for avoiding or achieving pregnancy, rather than contraception or in vitro fertilization. Education and resources for staff, patients, and the community should be offered, including moral and spiritual concepts. The depersonalization of care delivery—for both doctors and patients— should be minimized. Social and political influence must be directed to protecting providers and patients from unjust policies, while advancing ones that enable the Catholic vision to flourish in health care.
We are living in a challenging time for the Church and for U.S. health care, but also an exciting time. Change is happening. If Catholic health care aims to merely get along with common values, it will end up conforming to this age: the salt will lose its flavor. If it heeds the call to witness, it can help transform society according to the law of the Christ, the Divine Healer.
JOHN A. DI CAMILLO, PH.D., BE.L., is a staff ethicist at The National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia. He earned his bioethics doctorate and licentiate degrees at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum in Rome. He lives in Lancaster County, PA, with his wife Serena and their five children.