Catholic health care providers and clergy are meeting in Rome this week to develop responses to the different ethical issues they are facing when they work with secular governments.
“The importance of this conference is in showing how much the Church is involved in health care and it highlights the pitfalls and obstacles we have to overcome,” South African Cardinal Wilfred Napier of Durban, told EWTN News on Nov. 16. “But it also allows us to see what we can do in all the different situations of the world, including in South Africa.”
Meeting in the Pope Paul VI Audience Hall, some 800 health care professionals and clergy are attending the Nov. 15–17 conference to examine Catholic identity in health care. The conference will focus on key issues like respecting life at all stages, giving compassionate care that treats a patient as a child of God, and palliative care to relieve and prevent the suffering of patients.
The conference is also addressing bioethical challenges and what do when government health care funding may have anti-Catholic strings attached.
Cardinal Napier said maintaining the Catholic identity of health care is a constant concern in South Africa.
“In South Africa the main issue is that (government funding of healthcare) is so often linked to conditions such as providing a full range of reproductive health products available,” he explained.
He said that the conference is addressing the need for Catholic hospitals to positively present their pro-life position when the media often portrays the Church as a “stick in the mud” for not distributing contraceptives, let alone facilitating abortions.
Cardinal Napier believes that this requires explaining the Catholic position in terms of “ethical and moral principles rather than simply a doctrinal position we have adopted.”
Auxiliart Bishop Donald Sproxton from the Perth archdiocese is attending the conference as chairman of Australia’s Bishops' Commission for Health and Community Services.
He spoke to EWTN News after participating in a round table discussion on “Catholic Hospitals in a Changing World.”
“The unique thing we have in Australia is the partnership the Catholic Church is able to develop with the government in providing structure for health in a government hospital,” he reported.
In fact, the Church recently inked a government contract to run a public hospital for 23 years.
“We are discovering that in a secular society there are many who are very critical of the Church running a public hospital,” he said, noting that Catholic health care in Australia is growing.
He also said that the conference is examining how each diocese can effectively maintain their hospitals’ Catholic identity, given the continuing decrease in consecrated religious to run them. One way is for the Church to create ethics committees at hospitals.
Bishop Sproxton had been chatting with a colleague, Rowena McNally, deputy chair of Catholic Health Australia's Stewardship Board.
She said she was heartened to hear the conference addressing issues such as increasing Catholic evangelization efforts within health care, countering threats to Catholic identity from anti-Christian secularism, and how to maintain Catholic healthcare “which remains true to the Gospel and where many of our employees and patients are not Catholic.”
Two of the conference papers that were presented are especially pertinent to much of the developed world, Australia in particular, McNally noted.
One addressed secular pressure to disrespect life at its beginning and end, from contraception and abortion at one end, to euthanasia at the other. The other submission concerned the valuable role of research in medicine and conducting it according to Church teaching.
McNally said that while embryonic stem cell research is a “potential issue” in Australia, science is showing that using adult stem cells “is perfectly effective, which solves a lot of problems.”
The conference will conclude with a Nov. 17 Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica and an address from Pope Benedict XVI.
The Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers was established by Blessed Pope John Paul II to provide a forum to discuss Catholic-related healthcare issues. Some 120,000 Catholic healthcare facilities operate worldwide, putting into practice Christ’s command in St. Matthew’s gospel to “Go, preach, and heal the sick.”