Medicine at the Service of Marriage and Family

Address by Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila

CMA National Conference

Sept. 7, 2017, 9:00 a.m.

Downtown Denver Sheraton

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It’s a joy to be here with all of you this morning for the beginning of the 2017 Catholic Medical Association conference. Welcome to Denver and to this archdiocese!

The practice of medicine is something that has always interested me. As some of you know, my father was a cardiologist and I was a pre-med student for four years at the University of Colorado at Boulder. During my summer breaks, and while in college I worked in hospitals.

But, it’s obvious from the fact that I’m standing in front of you with a collar on that God had other plans. (laughter pause) At my second assignment as a priest I helped cover 4 hospitals, including the University Hospital, which at that time was located on Colorado Blvd.

From my own experience and those I’ve personally known who have practiced medicine, I can say with certainty that yours is both a beautiful and demanding calling. Many of you work or have worked 12-hour shifts and then stayed on to help with a patient in need. You have sat at the bedside of a patient who is confronting death, consoled family members who have lost someone. At times, you have seen humanity at its worst, but you’ve also seen it at its best.

As Catholic medical professionals, you are also on the frontlines of the battle over the identity of our culture. You see and grapple with the fallout of relativism and the Evil One’s assault on the human person in ways that the average person doesn’t experience.

As a bishop and shepherd of souls, I would like to begin this talk by saying “Thank You” for your love and devotion to Christ in the sick and suffering, for your willingness to witness to the faith on the frontlines. (Pause)

I’ve been asked to speak today about “Medicine in Service to Marriage and the Family,” which is a vitally important topic. I will do that by first examining the impact of relativism on American culture, since it warps and changes our collective view of the human person. I will then briefly outline what the Church teaches about the human person and the role of marriage and family in society. Finally, I will reflect on how the Catholic practice of medicine can serve married couples and their families in their mission to be leaven in the world.

We live in a country that is blessed with many ethnicities, languages and customs. This presents us with the challenge of discovering the truth that is common to our various cultures and promoting it in our laws, practices and society. That this project is floundering in contemporary America is evident from the growing number of violent demonstrations, racial tensions and the state of our political discourse. There is truly a loss of the sense of the innate dignity of every human being from the moment of conception until natural death.

Instead of searching for common ground and ensuring our society rests on the truths of the natural law, many people have taken the approach of saying: ‘Everything is relative; there is no objective truth,’ justifying this approach in the name of “tolerance.” We are obsessively feeding our emotions and starving our reason.[1]

It should be no surprise, then, that Oxford Dictionary selected “post-truth” as its 2016 word of the year. The dictionary defines “post-truth” as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

This truth-less worldview profoundly impacts the way we view the human person, and therefore, the practice of medicine. If everything can be changed and truth is in the eye of the beholder, then one can decide to reject his gender or race, or justify any behavior, all without regard for others or society. In a world that says truth is created by the individual, our points of commonality begin to break down: families, friendships and even larger scale communities like neighborhoods or cities can become fractured and descend into chaos.

The pervasiveness of this way of approaching life was crystalized for me when I heard from a grandparent of a college student lamenting that his granddaughter is asked each semester by the school if she has changed her gender. By the time she graduates, she will have to answer this question at least eight times!

In the digital realm, Facebook made headlines in 2014 by offering 58 gender options for its users,[2] and then a year later added an option for users to create their own custom gender if they couldn’t identify with one on the already extensive list.[3]

What is perhaps worse than the confusion that relativism breeds is the fact that people are embracing the idea that it’s impossible to know the truth. For you in the medical profession this has serious consequences. The respect for truths about the human person’s dignity and worth that once served to protect life are being brushed aside in favor of a utilitarian approach to the pursuit of health. Particularly in difficult circumstances, patients are being counseled to make decisions based off a “quality of life” assessment, which in some settings doesn’t even consider the spiritual realities in play.

Here in Colorado we’ve seen this occur with the legalization of assisted suicide just this past year. The main argument the advocates of assisted suicide advanced was that letting those with terminal illnesses kill themselves was the compassionate and dignified thing to do. Sadly, assisted suicide was approved of by 65% of the people.

Similarly, just this past month, the announcement by scientists in Oregon that they had successfully edited the genes of embryonic humans to remove a gene which caused a hereditary heart defect overshadowed the sad reality that these children were subsequently killed. They were, in the words of the neuroscientist Fr. Tadeusz Pacholczyk (Pak-ol-chick), “created in vitro and treated not as ends, but as mere means or research fodder to achieve particular investigative goals.”[4]

The damage that this approach to medicine is already inflicting is immense.

Fortunately, as you all know, the Church is not opposed to science – faith and reason, fides et ratio, are complimentary.

As Catholic physicians and medical professionals, you serve as protectors of human dignity in medicine by employing the objective measurements and research your profession provides you with against attempts to justify things like gender reassignment surgery, hormone treatment for people wanting to forcefully alter their gender, assisted suicide or embryonic stem cell research.

You are on the front lines of the assault on the dignity of the human person. But how should you respond?

Some of you may be familiar with Dr. J. Budziszewski (Boojee-shefski) from the University of Texas at Austin, where he teaches political philosophy and ethics. He once had an exchange with a student that offers a somewhat humorous but also insightful way to share truth with people who claim truth doesn’t exist. He recalls:

One day a student approached me after class. He reminded me that I had mentioned moral law during the lecture, then said, “Last semester I learned that there isn’t any moral law. Every society makes up its own right and wrong, its own good and bad, its own fair and unfair — and each one makes up something different.”

I answered, “It’s a relief to hear you say that, because I’m lazy and I hate grading papers. At the end of the semester I’ll be able to save myself some work by giving you an F without looking at your papers at all. Since you don’t believe in moral standards like fairness that are true for everyone, I know you won’t object.”

He shot me a startled glance — then admitted that there are true moral standards after all. [5]

When your colleagues or patients argue for ideas that run contrary to science and the created order, you should be ready to present them with the truth in charity.  Of course, you should prudentially discern how to best lead them to the truth, drawing on science, the natural law and appealing to their God-given desire for true happiness.

Pope Benedict XVI captured this approach in his encyclical letter, Caritas in Veritate, writing:

Each person finds his good by adherence to God’s plan for him, in order to realize it fully: in this plan, he finds his truth, and through adherence to this truth he becomes free (cf. Jn. 8:32). To defend the truth, to articulate it with humility and conviction, and to bear witness to it in life are therefore exacting and indispensable forms of charity. Charity, in fact, “rejoices in the truth” (1 Cor. 13:6).[6]

The Church’s Teaching

At this juncture, I would like to turn to my second topic, the Church’s teaching on the human person and the role of marriage and family in society. Getting this right is essential because understanding who the human person is changes how medical and surgical care is provided.

The Catechism lists four things that make humans unique in creation.

  1. Man is created ‘in the image of God’
  2. He unites the spiritual and material worlds
  3. He is created ‘male and female’
  4. God established us in his friendship.”[7]

Because we are unique in these ways, we are the only visible creature that is able to know and love our creator. Even more amazing is the fact that we are “the only creature on earth that God has willed for its own sake”—only humans are called “to share, by knowledge and love, in God’s own life.” This is the purpose for which we were created and the fundamental reason for our dignity.[8]

And finally, we know from divine revelation and the witness of many down through the centuries that sharing in God’s life is what makes us genuinely happy.

If our transcendental nature seems abstract, ask yourself, “Have you ever seen an animal praying?”

Men and women are made for eternity; we are made to share in God’s own life and love, and to give his love to others.

The family flows from being made in God’s image and likeness.

The family, as a communion of persons, is meant to reflect the love that exists between the three Persons of the Trinity. As Pope Benedict XVI said, The human family is, in a certain sense, the icon of the Trinity because of the love between its members and the fruitfulness of that love.”[9]

Fathers and mothers play an indispensable role within the family by modeling for their children the relationship of God the Father to them. A successful father and mother are confidently rooted in their own identity as a beloved son or daughter of God the Father, looking to the example of Jesus. The best parents I know are also attentive to the movements of the Holy Spirit and accepting of his seven gifts: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord.

The story of St. John Paul II’s childhood is worth remembering as an example of this kind of parenting.

Even though his mother Emilia passed away when he was only 9 years-old, St. John Paul was formed into a holy young man by his father, Karol. The two spent a great deal of time together and even shared a bedroom. Later in life, St. John Paul recalled waking up on many occasions in the middle of the night to see his father kneeling, deeply absorbed in prayer. This left a life-long impression on the future Pope and propelled him into a deep, intimate relationship with God the Father. Because of his father, the world was gifted with one of the most fatherly Popes in modern history.

When I think of mothers, a frequent saying of St. John Vianney comes to mind: virtue “passes from the heart of the mother to the heart of the children.”

This truth can be seen in the life of Margherita Sanson, the mother of St. Pius X, who never held an exalted position or social status. She taught her nine children to pray throughout the day, listen to the Scriptures and to end each day with a recollection. After her son Giuseppe, the future St. Pius X, was consecrated Archbishop of Mantova, some onlookers saw her meet with him. They said she pointed to her wedding ring and then to her son’s episcopal ring and said, “My son, if I had not had this, you would not have had that.”[10] Mothers truly play a vital role in forming their children in virtue and holiness.

When mothers and fathers fail in their vocation to reflect the love of the Holy Trinity, their children usually inherit a warped or deficient view of God the Father and, consequently, a poor understanding of their own identity as a child of God.

The foundational role that the family plays in forming our first relationships, our understanding of God and our identity is why the Second Vatican Council, Pope St. John Paul II and his predecessors have called it “the first and vital cell of society.”[11]

Moreover, as the theme for this conference appropriately notes, the family is a sort of sociological and spiritual barometer. “As the family goes,” St. John PaulII noted during his 1986 visit to Australia, “so goes the nation, and so goes the world in which we live.”[12]

I’m sure every one of you has experienced that today there are many families struggling, perhaps even someone in your own family. The good news is that doctors, nurses, physician’s assistants – every medical professional – can help children, parents and other family members in unique ways.

Catholic Medicine Serving Families

Before offering my thoughts about how Catholic medical professionals can serve marriages and families, it is important to note that the pressures on you and on the medical profession as a whole are substantial. Not only have you had to contend with threats to your conscience rights, like the HHS contraception mandate or the spread of legal assisted suicide, but the impact of the Affordable Care Act has also placed significant stress on many practices as well.

Given this context, I would like to now offer some guidance on how you can serve married couples and families.

When the Second Vatican Council spoke about the role of the laity in the world, it said, “they are called by God to exercise their apostolate in the world like leaven, with the ardor of the spirit of Christ.”[13] Being leaven in the world means offering a witness that is oftentimes countercultural – especially in the area of sexuality.

 

The good news is that there are many families who are striving to enliven our culture with the Gospel. I’m sure that you all know some of them, too. These mothers and fathers are looking for doctors that can help them stand against the cultural pressures pushing for the acceptance of any kind of behavior or suggesting that the Church’s teachings are not truly freeing.

 

By supporting them with faithful, excellent medical care that respects the Church’s teachings, you are helping them serve as leaven and light in a morally decaying and dark world.

 

The key to being able to serve families and marriages is to recognize that you are first a patient of the Christ the Divine Physician. Much like when one of your patients comes to you and explains their pains and symptoms, you must daily place yourself before Christ and acknowledge that you need his medicine, that is, his grace. As Jesus said in the famous passage from Mark’s Gospel, “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.”[14]

 

By recognizing your own spiritual condition and seeking the remedy of prayer, the Sacraments and community with fellow believers, you will be equipped to help patients return to genuine health. Indeed, this is what the early Church did shortly after Jesus’ death and resurrection. The Acts of the Apostles tells us, “They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers.”[15]

 

Right after we hear the description in Acts of what the early Christians did, we read: “Awe came upon everyone, and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles.”  Your medical practice may not experience actual miracles – although it could!—but I guarantee that parents, spouses and families are searching for a place of love and support, especially when the culture is so hostile to people of faith.

 

The way you treat and care for the families who come to you should flow from your spiritual preparation for your work. A mother, father or child who comes into your office should feel welcomed with Christian charity, know that they are valued and loved by the staff in your office, and through that encounter, experience that they are a part of a community. The difference between secular health care and Catholic health care should be evident in how much time providers spend with patients, in how they listen to their concerns and, when the situation is right, and in a willingness to pray with clients with their permission.

I can still remember when liver transplants were in their infancy at the University of Colorado. One evening, I went to anoint a young man before his surgery. Dr. Starzel was there and I told him I would wait outside. And he said, “No Father, come in. John needs you more this evening, and he will need me more tomorrow morning.” His simple recognition of John’s spiritual needs was a great witness.

The example of St. Mother Teresa is also worth reflecting on as a model for how to interact with patients. Mother Teresa often cited her own meditation on the words of Jesus, “I thirst,” as her motivation for her labor of love. Jesus thirsts to give us his love and to receive our love in return, she said. Her desire to quench Jesus’ thirst was what drove her to pick up the dying and abandoned off the street and give them love, even if she couldn’t cure their ailments.

“Open your hearts to the love of God,” Mother would tell her sisters and volunteers, “He will give you (His love) not to keep, but to share.”[16]

Another way that health care providers can serve families is by being aware of and connected to service providers that will understand and support their values. This should span the whole range of issues that a family can deal with, from financial guidance to mental health counseling to people and clergy who can accompany them in the living the faith.

As greater numbers of families struggle with the demands of modern life and the pressures of a secularized society, the importance of learning to accompanying them is essential.

Pope Francis has wisely encouraged the entire Church to learn this way of life, which Jesus modeled for us through his formation of the 12 apostles.

In his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis explained accompaniment this way. “Someone good at such accompaniment does not give in to frustrations or fears. He or she invites others to let them­selves be healed, to take up their mat, embrace the cross, leave all behind and go forth ever anew to proclaim the Gospel.”[17]

For those of you who are experienced medical providers, accompaniment should not just apply to patients. It should also include medical students and those who are just starting off in the health care field. You know all too well how difficult it can be to navigate the demands of Catholic medicine successfully, so helping others to do so should be a priority as well.

Conclusion

This past February the Holy Father met with a group of medical professionals and pastors and spoke to them about the World Day of the Sick that would be observed two days later. His words provide a good summary of the cultural atmosphere within the U.S. health care industry. “If there is a sector in which the ‘throwaway culture’ demonstrates its most painful consequences,” he said, “it is the health care sector.”

As Catholic medical providers, each of you must do all that you can to help restore a sense of human dignity to those who come to you for care. This can only be done with an authentic understanding of what it means to be created in the image and likeness of God and to be made to give of ourselves. You must help fight the trend toward a self-referential lifestyle by showing the love of God to your patients and their families.

I would like to conclude my remarks this morning by sharing with you something that I recently learned about the Servant of God Julia Greeley. First, some background: Julia Greeley was a former slave and African American woman who lived in Denver beginning around 1879, until she died in 1918. Last December, the Archdiocese opened her cause for canonization, which is the first cause opened in our history. Julia was known for her secret acts of charity for the poor, even though she only earned $10-12 a month doing odd jobs and housekeeping work.

This past May, we exhumed Julia’s remains as part of the process of investigating her life and virtues and we learned something about her we hadn’t previously known. We knew from oral testimonies that Julia walked with a limp, but we didn’t know that she did this because the bones in her knee were grinding together and because she had a bone spur in her heel. Despite this hardship, Julia did not complain about her difficulty as she hobbled down Denver’s alleys carrying medication, food, clothes and fuel to the poor. In fact, Julia could be counted on to be faithfully present at daily Mass, constantly serving the poor, and making a monthly trek on foot to hand out Sacred Heart League leaflets to the firefighters at Denver’s 20 fire stations.[18]

I encourage you to pray to Julia as you go about your work on the front lines of evangelization, bringing Christ’s love and truth to the suffering. May God bless every one of you as you seek to grow in faith during this conference and faithfully live out your vocation to medicine.

[1] Cf. Archbishop Charles Chaput, August 24, 2017 column “The Epidemic And Its Cure”.

[2] Online article from ABC News, “Here’s a List of 58 Gender Options for Facebook Users,” published on Feb. 13, 2014.

[3] Post by Facebook’s Diversity Team from Feb. 26, 2015.

[4] Online article from CNA, “First human embryos edited in the USA. Here’s why it’s problematic.” Published on Aug. 2, 2017.

[5] J. Budziszewski, “Handling Issues of Conscience.” The Newman Rambler 3, no. 2 (Spring/Summer 1999): 2-9.

[6] Pope Benedict XVI, “Caritas in Veritate,” #1, 2009.

[7] Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, #355.

[8] CCC, #356.

[9] Pope Benedict XVI, December 27, 2009 Angelus address.

[10] Excerpt from “Mothers of History,” by J.T. Moran, C.SS.R., Australian Catholic Truth Society, 1954. Retrieved online on 8/30/17 from Catholicsaints.info.

[11] Pope Saint John Paul II, “Familiaris Consortio,” 42, 1981.

[12]Pope Saint John Paul II, Homily in Perth, Australia, #4, 1986.

[13] Second Vatican Council, “Apostolic Actuositatem,” 2, 1965.

[14] Mark 2:17, NABRE.

[15] Acts 2:42, NABRE.

[16] Susan Conroy, “Mother Teresa’s Lessons of Love and Sanctity,” Chapter 3, OSV, 2003.

[17] Pope Francis, “Evangelii Gaudium,” 172.

[18] Fr. Blaine Burkey, OFM Cap., “In Secret Service of the Sacred Heart,” pages 53-54, 2015.