Tag Archives: Fr. Thomas Berg

Hurting in the Church

Fr. Thomas Berg
Our Sunday Visitor, 2017
208 pages, paperback $15.95

Far too many Catholics have had painful experiences in the Church and many have simply walked away. Father Berg, an occasional contributor to Legatus magazine, begins by telling his own painful, life-changing story which ultimately led him to love the Church more intensely notwithstanding the sinfulness of its members.

Subtitled A Way Forward for Wounded Catholics, the book rides the momentum of the Year of Mercy. Father Berg offers his reflections as a necessary examination of conscience and a clarion call to Catholics to become healers of an ailing inner culture of our Church.

Order:  Our Sunday Visitor, Amazon

When things don’t seem to get better

Fr. Thomas Berg writes that we are not necessarily called to be successful . . .

Fr. Thomas Berg

Fr. Thomas Berg

Arriving at the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars annual conference in Philadelphia last September, I was delighted to find out that Archbishop Charles Chaput would be the main celebrant and homilist at Mass the following day.

I have long been a fan of the archbishop, not least of all for the depth of his message, the clarity of his thought — and for his candor. True to form, he opened his homily with the following reflection (paraphrased): As he now reflects back on his years of priesthood and episcopacy, the one thing that has surprised him is that during these years things have not gotten any better in the Church!

How’s that for candor?! The archbishop’s point, of course, was not to throw a wet towel on our conference, nor to get us all depressed. He certainly did, however, intend to reconnect us with what we might call the realism of the Gospel as it applies to our efforts at personal holiness and at evangelizing the culture.

He went on to remind us that the reality is that Christ’s resurrection was preceded by Calvary — and that in the paradoxical ways of grace, the grain of wheat must fall in the ground and die before it bears fruit. It reminds us that we are called not to lay aside our cross and follow Jesus, but to pick it up, drag it, and struggle under its weight. Gospel realism also tells us that it might often seem that things are not getting better, but worse!

Of course, there are victories in the struggle to evangelize the culture — and plenty of them. For example, the fruits of the right to life movement over the past 40 years have resulted in the continued decline of abortion rates in the U.S., the passage of Women’s Right to Know laws with 24-hour reflection periods, partial birth abortion bans, bans on abortion of 20-week-old unborn infants capable of experiencing pain, and education efforts that have moved so many young people to take a stand every year at the March for Life in cities across the nation.

Yet no matter how often we remind ourselves of the victories, we are at times overwhelmed by a sense of paralysis — perhaps even a sense that our efforts seem to go one-step forward and two-steps backward, and even that we’re losing the culture wars.

What to do then? In those moments we need to recall Gospel realism  — that the life of every committed Christian and the life of the Church as a whole, by God’s own unfathomable design, must experience Calvary  through struggle, setbacks, opposition, contradictions and cross. We must remember that if we are faithful, our own Christian experience as disciples and evangelizers will necessarily be cruciform.

Christ on the cross — stretched in all directions — gives definitive form to the Christian life of the members of his Body as we follow Him in the present state of life, still alien-residents and sojourners, still making our way — ever so arduous most of the time — to our true homeland. This explains why we feel stretched to the point of breaking at times — and why an archbishop might honestly sense that “things don’t seem to be getting better.”

This realism of the cross reminds us that we are not good judges of “success,” “progress,” and “victory,” which ultimately must be assessed over time and according to the ways of God’s inscrutable providence and paradoxical designs. More importantly, Gospel realism also reminds us that the Holy Spirit, in spite of appearances to the contrary, is always at work in the world. And His work does obtain victories on a daily basis. But more often than not, those victories happen one soul at a time. Yes, it’s that changing-heartsand-minds-one-at-a-time thing. It’s not a cliché; it’s a reality!

As Lent draws near, let’s remember that when Jesus calls us to follow him and engage in the work of evangelization, he does not promise palpable success. On the contrary, he assures us that “all will hate you on my account,” that our efforts will all be molded in the mystery of the cross, and that consequently, the “mystery of iniquity” resists Christian goodness. We will struggle on a daily basis with our own inadequacies, sinfulness, and many apparent failures in his service.

Jesus does not promise that we will actually see the promised land of a more thoroughly Christianized culture. The important thing today and always will not be the apparent “victory,” but the intensity of our love — genuine Christian agape love — with which we engage the world one heart and one mind at a time.

FR. THOMAS BERG is a priest in the Archdiocese of New York and professor of moral theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary (Dunwoodie).

The ethical minefield of stem-cell science

Fr. Thomas Berg: Medical advances show promise, but progress is fraught with dilemmas . . .

Fr. Thomas Berg

Fr. Thomas Berg

For better or worse, the age of regenerative medicine is upon us. The goal is the streamlined and cost-effective production of genetically matched, patient-specific tissues for use in therapies. While still rather elusive, that goal appears attainable by both licit and illicit means.

One morally reprehensible area of stem-cell research deserves special note. Human embryonic stem-cell (hESC) research relies on a procedure in which cells are obtained from six-day-old human embryos (usually donated by assisted fertility clinics), killing the embryos in the process. Those cells are then placed in a culture where they acquire the capacity for indefinite self-replication. They are called “pluripotent,” meaning they can be coaxed to develop into any tissue type.

For far too long, the hype over hESC research drew much attention away from the morally unproblematic field of adult stem-cell research which, unlike hESC research, has a formidable and growing track record for producing a steady stream of clinical trials and patient-ready therapies. There has been a shift of scientific interest and funding away from hESC research and toward morally acceptable approaches.

The hESC field ran into an unprecedented challenge when federal Judge Royce C. Lamberth ruled on Aug. 23 (in Sherley v. Sebelius) that the Obama administration’s guidelines for funding hESC research violate federal law. He placed a temporary injunction on any further federal funding. On Sept. 7, the same court denied the government’s request for a stay of the preliminary injunction pending appeal. Two days later, the Court of Appeals granted an administrative stay of the injunction pending further review. Meanwhile, the merits of the case still remain to be examined before the District Court. In the interim, federal funding of hESC research through the National Institutes of Health (NIH) continues, but prospects of future funding remain questionable.

Fervor over hESC research notably waned in the past year as public frustration over the lack of tangible progress toward long-promised therapies mounted. Most notable was a January 2010 editorial in Investor’s Business Daily, which angrily criticized the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), created in 2004 by popular referendum with a mandate to manage $6 billion of California tax-payer dollars to conduct embryo-destructive research. “Five years after a budget-busting $3 billion was allocated to embryonic stem-cell research,” wrote the editors, “there have been no cures, no therapies and little progress.”

The announcement in 2009 that biotech firm Geron was granted FDA approval for a first-ever clinical trial with human subjects (all spinal cord injury patients) with hESC-derived tissues sparked hardly a blip of interest in the media. But the decision drew criticism of the FDA from scientists who expressed grave concerns for the safety of the human subjects involved in the trial. Since the Geron venture is only a safety trial using a small number of human subjects, it will still take years and further trials to assess whether any actual spinal cord treatment can be derived.

Following that same shift of interest toward more promising areas of research, stem-cell researchers have focused primarily on “induced pluripotent stem cells” or iPSCs for the better part of the past three years. Unlike hESCs, which are obtained by destroying embryos, iPSCs are made directly from adult cells — such as skin cells. Scientists can “reprogram” them to a pluripotent state (much like rebooting a hard drive), rendering them functionally identical to stem cells obtained from embryos.

Much of the iPSC work done to date has regrettably relied on tissues derived from aborted fetuses or has otherwise involved lines of hESC cells. However, it’s certainly possible to accomplish iPSC research in morally licit ways. At the current state of iPSC research, however, it does not remain entirely clear when it will produce therapeutic applications.

As for the human cloning enterprise, while currently somewhat of a scientific sideshow, potential remains for it to go mainstream as a research tool of choice in the field of regenerative medicine.

Once remaining technical obstacles to the successful cloning of human embryos are overcome, it could very well emerge as the technology of choice for specific therapies. Consequently, as we begin 2011, we find ourselves only at the very tip of the iceberg of morally problematic issues that will arise as the broader project of regenerative medicine continues to unfold.

Rev. Thomas V. Berg is a priest in the Archdiocese of New York, member of the New York State Task Force on Life and the Law, member of the Ethics Committee of the Empire State Stem Cell Board, and adjunct professor of Medical Ethics at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y.

The Terri Schiavo effect

Father Thomas Berg explains the bishops’ new directives on feeding the disabled . . .

Fr. Thomas Berg

Fr. Thomas Berg

Ethical debate about providing patients with artificial nutrition and hydration has intensified over the past five years since the case of Terri Schindler Schiavo, the brain damaged Florida woman whose husband successfully fought to have her feeding tube removed. Deprived of nutrition and hydration, she died on March 31, 2005 — 13 days after judges ordered the tube removed.

Last November, U.S. bishops voted to revise their Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services (ERDs) on the issue of providing patients — particularly those lingering in a “persistent vegetative state” (PVS) — with artificial nutrition and hydration (ANH). The ERDs are intended to offer authoritative moral guidance to Catholics on difficult moral questions.

The revision of ERD 58 now makes clear that patients with chronic conditions like PVS, and who are not imminently dying, should receive food and water by “medically assisted” means if necessary. The directive now states:

“In principle, there is an obligation to provide patients with food and water, including medically assisted nutrition and hydration for those who cannot take food orally. This obligation extends to patients in chronic and presumably irreversible conditions (e.g., the ‘persistent vegetative state’) who can reasonably be expected to live indefinitely if given such care.”

The ERDs were last revised in 2001. At the time, there was still an unsettled question among Catholic ethicists as to whether there was a moral requirement to provide ANH to patients in PVS. Some opined that provision of ANH to such patients would constitute “extraordinary” (and therefore morally optional) medical care. In 2001, Directive 58 stated that there should be a “presumption in favor of providing nutrition and hydration” to such patients.

Finally, in 2004, Pope John Paul II provided a more specific clarification on this question. In his address to the participants in the international congress on “Life-Sustaining Treatments and Vegetative State,” the Pope clarified that for such patients: “The administration of water and food, even when provided by artificial means, always represents a natural means of preserving life, not a medical act. Its use, furthermore, should be considered, in principle, ordinary and proportionate, and as such morally obligatory, insofar as and until it is seen to have attained its proper finality, which in the present case consists in providing nourishment to the patient and alleviation of his suffering.”

It was on the basis of this statement and subsequent clarifications from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 2007 that Directive 58 was edited last fall. What specifically does this mean and what conclusions can we draw from it?

• Clinical protocols that would indiscriminately withhold or remove ANH from such patients, without due regard for the moral guidelines articulated in Directive 58, leave death by starvation or dehydration as the logical outcome. John Paul wrote that such an omission could constitute “true and proper euthanasia.” Catholic health care facilities must assure that their protocols are in line with Directive 58 — including their policy regarding patient requests to be deprived of ANH.

• Provision of food and water are to be considered a part of normal care giving (not an “extraordinary means”), even when provided artificially as with the assistance of a gastric feeding tube (granted that its insertion is, in fact, a medical procedure, that its maintenance requires periodic attention from a health care professional, and that there are financial considerations involved).

• This teaching certainly extends beyond the specific case of persons in PVS to include any patient suffering a pathology that makes them unable to assimilate food and water without artificial assistance, such as advanced Alzheimer’s disease or acute dementia.

• Under what circumstances could Catholic patients in good conscience withhold or withdraw ANH? Directive 58 states that such provision is obligatory “in principle.” The possible exceptions to that obligation are fairly narrow, however.

ANH is not obligatory when it cannot reasonably be expected to prolong life, when it is judged to constitute an “excessive burden” for the patient (as in the rare instance that it might cause “significant physical discomfort”) or when the patient can no longer assimilate food and water (as when death is imminent).

Determining if and when ANH can be removed will normally require consultation between family and care-givers, attending physicians and, if necessary, a priest or ethicist trained in the Church’s moral teaching on such matters.

• Consequently, Catholics considering end-of-life decisions should adhere to the moral truths affirmed in the revision of Directive 58 and plan their health care accordingly. It would be immoral for them to indicate in their “living wills” or advance medical directives a desire to forgo or have withdrawn the provision of food and water if they should suffer severe cognitive impairment.

In sum, the revision of Directive 58 underscores the moral complexity of contemporary health care, as well as the competence of the Church in providing solid moral guidance on such complex moral issues. It reminds us, moreover, that those who find themselves in impaired states requiring the administration of ANH retain their full human dignity until their natural demise. “The loving gaze of God the Father,” wrote John Paul II, “continues to fall upon them, acknowledging them as his sons and daughters, especially in need of help.”

Rev. Thomas V. Berg is a priest in the Archdiocese of New York and executive director of the Westchester Institute for Ethics & the Human Person.