Catholic Medical Professionals Urged to Evangelize Culture with Courage

The Catholic Medical Association’s annual conference offered encouragement and fellowship for medical professionals in an often-hostile field.

More than 600 Catholic medical professionals, priests, and bishops gathered in Orlando, Florida for the Catholic Medical Association’s 83rd educational conference, September 25-27. This year’s theme, “Courage in Medicine: Defending and Proclaiming the Faith in the New Evangelization,” asked doctors to “examine the grave threats posed by radical and progressive secularization of our society and its impact on the practice of medicine.”

Speakers chosen from medicine, law, journalism, and theology were invited to “highlight the ways in which healthcare professionals are on the front lines of a battle between good and evil—a battle that has raged throughout all of salvation history and that is still waged daily in the choices made by Catholic physicians.” Doctors, nurses, and counselors see first-hand the dehumanizing ravages of modern medical ethics where even euthanasia and “gender reassignment” surgery are approved medical services.

Peter Morrow, MD, president-elect of CMA and chair of the conference, reminded members that Catholic professionals “bear public moral witness to the critical medical issues of our time.” Members, drawn from 86 regional guilds, accepted the challenge as an urgent call to evangelization within their disciplines.

Cardinal Raymond Burke opened the conference with a spirited call to faith under fire, titled “Physicians as Standard Bearers in the New Evangelization.” The cardinal urged medical professionals to live their convictions, a “noble mission,” in the front-line battle against the redefinition of marriage, eugenics, gender theory, euthanasia, and research that destroys human embryos. He quoted Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI on the phenomenon in Western civilization in which man lives as if God did not exist. Where God is absent, man himself loses dignity and sanctity, according to Burke; it is a “fatal misunderstanding of freedom” when society turns from God. When “God is dead,” man is in search of ever-more comfort and pleasure, but at an increasingly higher cost.  

The God-less solutions to addiction, suicide, broken families, and despair narrow toward a “perversion of ethos” in which the moral norm is inverted, Cardinal Burke said. There are aggressive attempts to banish religion from the public square. Society is told that nothing is evil in itself, thus a moral relativism dominates public opinion. The result is “morality replaced by a calculus of consequences,” according to Burke.

The cardinal stirred the crowd with an evangelical challenge to make the moral foundations of life “audible and intelligible” to their patients and peers. The reversal of societal woes will require “public discourse,” and the “implication for medicine is evident,” he said. Additionally, a “proclamation of the truth of conjugal life” is critical to the recovery of the culture. Burke urged a close study of Veritatis Splendor to better equip medical professionals. Catholics should not be manipulated by ideology, but stand as unique guardians, servants of human life: “Do not be timid about the great gift you have to offer,” he said.

Between talks, physicians congregated on a sunny patio to share experiences. Rather than “talk shop,” they traded ethical dilemmas, sought advice, and advised others who had been stigmatized by partners or university faculties due to their belief in the sanctity of life. “It’s a shock to see how medicine is changing—it’s all about enabling lifestyles rather than about healing,” said a West Virginia doctor. Another agreed that a “soft persecution” had begun against doctors and nurses of conscience.  

Several doctors at the CMA worried about the implications of terminology such as “brain death” or “death thresholds,” expressing concern over numerous recent attempts to redefine death for the purpose of harvesting organs, including by the World Medical Association.   

Popular Catholic author Mike Aquilina spoke to members about “Challenges Before Us in Historical Perspective.” The Greco-Roman world of the first Christian centuries was also a culture of death until the disciples of Jesus rode to the rescue, Aquilina said. Following the Resurrection of Christ, Roman culture was prosperous but hedonistic. Anti-marriage and low-fertility trends (marked by female infanticide) resulted in a precipitous population decline—a tad frightening when barbarians are on the other side of the wall. With his empire hanging by a thread, even Caesar could not boost the population. Aquilina pointed out that it was into this disorder that the early disciples brought the Gospel, along with ideas of human dignity and human rights. Today we have better communication tools and faster travel.

A luncheon address on St. Thomas More by attorney Charles LiMandri made real and present the martyrdom that may come from following one’s conscience. LiMandri leads the Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund, a religious freedom organization. In an age in which secular authorities are demanding fealty, St. Thomas’ famous line, “I am the King’s good servant—but God’s first,” rings prophetic. His message was echoed by both Cardinal Burke and the CMA’s episcopal advisor, Bishop James D. Conley of the Diocese Lincoln, who had warned of the personal cost of standing firm for human dignity.

Father Roger J. Landry delivered his address, “Bifurcation of Faith and Reason: Unleashing Radical Secularism and Its Impact on Medicine,” to professionals eager to connect the dots between secularism and the contemporary loss of medical ethics. Father Landry framed his remarks with the intellectual works of Saint Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis. “Pope Francis is asking for a missionary metamorphosis of everything we do in the Church” including medicine, he said. The source of present-day secular philosophy which attempts to sever man from God is a “practical atheism, a living etsi Deus non daretur—as if God were not a given.” Rather than an anti-God sentiment, this practical atheism reduces God to irrelevance, a medieval crust to be scraped from modern life.

Moving toward the ominous change in medical ethics, Father Landry quoted from a famous speech by Pope Benedict that touched on new technologies:

Less visible, but no less disquieting, are the possibilities of self manipulation that man has acquired. He has plumbed the depths of being, has deciphered the components of the human being, and is now capable, so to speak, of constructing man himself, who thus no longer comes into the world as a gift of the Creator, but as a product of our action, a product that, therefore, can also be selected according to the exigencies established by ourselves.

I also addressed the group on the topic “International Law and Public Policy Threats to Catholic Medical Practice,” surveying international attacks on conscience protection in treaties, laws, and public opinion.  Many in the media and public services, such as Planned Parenthood, have recast conscience clauses as “refusal clauses,” and advise doctors to leave their professions if they refuse to deliver any legal service.  As a stark illustration of the conflict between secular society and Catholic medical ethics, I highlighted a June 2014 piece at the Huffington Post that questioned “the compatibility between being a Catholic and being a good citizen.”

Another headline illustrating this conflict came from the United Kingdom, where the chairman of the UK Catholic Medical Association stated, “To be a sound Catholic, it is not possible to train as a consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist, but this is not because of discrimination against Catholics. There is a total conflict of culture…a dichotomy of belief between what we as Christians believe is good overall for the individual and what secular society believes.” His advice to doctors was to emigrate.

Despite the sober topics, evenings were convivial. A concert by pianist Eric Genius on Friday evening lightened the atmosphere. Many of the medical professionals agreed that the company of committed Catholic doctors was as important as the educational sessions. Some shared a sense of isolation in their practices, or on faculties, where too few peers understood their pro-life ethics. The conference, said one physician, had refocused her former feelings of not fitting in—now those awkward moments serve as opportunities to evangelize her hospital peers.

Strong spiritual support balanced the gravity of the presentations. Throughout the conference participants had daily Mass, Eucharistic adoration, confessions, and Ignatian Spiritual exercises given by Father Robert McTeigue, SJ, professor of philosophy at Ave Maria University. Father McTeigue also delivered an electrifying speech, “Moral Courage in Medicine,’ that brought 600 doctors and nurses to their feet in cheers.  

Sr. Mary Diana Dreger, OP, MD, is assistant clinical professor of medicine at Vanderbilt University. Her presentation, “The Catholic Physician: A Sign of (Non) Contradiction,” warned her fellow professionals to reject the practice of medicine as merely medical science, a mechanistic view of the human person. Rather, science is a tool for healing, not a tool to serve business or economics or ideology. “Medical profession and profession of faith are not in conflict,” she encouraged CMA members.

Ashley Fernandes, MD, PhD, associate director of the Center for Bioethics and Medical Humanities at the Ohio State University College of Medicine, entertained his audience with energy notwithstanding a serious topic, “Reclaiming Surrendered Ground in Bioethics.” As the speakers before him did, Dr. Fernandes explained that the “New Evangelization” is woven into ethical care for patients. A doctor of conscience is a witness to life placed in the midst of a culture of death.

One of the more moving moments of the conference featured the video presentation given by “just a country doctor,” Joseph Dutkowsky, MD, associate medical director of the Weinberg Family Cerebral Palsy Center at Columbia University. In his speech, “The Face of Modern Eugenics,” Dr. Dutkowski said, “A young woman emailed me with this question: ‘I am expecting: I have discovered that my baby has Down’s syndrome.  I’m scared. What kind of life will he have?’”

Dr. Dutkowsky responded to the mother’s distress call with a heartwarming video of Down’s children, happily engaged in life, all speaking to the camera with excitement, “He will be happy, like me!” 

The issue of “Fertility and Infertility Within a Catholic Moral Vision” was addressed by Patrick Yeung, Jr., MD. An apostle of “cooperative and restorative” medicine, Dr. Yeung pointed out that contemporary perception of the Catholic approach to fertility is framed by what “you can’t do, rather than what we can do to restore fertility.” The statistics of success with various natural fertility systems is far greater than with in vitro fertilization (IVF). However, this truth is unknown by the general public because IVF is a multi-billion dollar industry.

Austin Ruse of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute energized his luncheon audience with a bracing ride through a bright future if Catholics (and other people of faith) work together to create a new culture. “No Finer Time to Be a Faithful Catholic” found a receptive crowd.

The closing banquet’s keynote address was given by author George Weigel, who spoke on “Evangelical Catholicism in the Healing Profession.” Weigel deftly knit together theology and medicine as a remedy for an ailing culture and sent the medical professionals out as missionaries.

The 2014 conference was the CMA’s largest gathering yet. Next year Catholic medical professionals will gather in Philadelphia, October 1-3 for “Healing the Wounded Culture: Bringing the Wholeness of Christ to Humanity.”

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About Mary Jo Anderson 31 Articles
Mary Jo Anderson is a Catholic journalist and speaker whose articles and commentaries on politics, religion, and culture appear in a variety of publications. She is a frequent guest on EWTN's "Abundant Life." She was appointed to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops National Advisory Council (NAC), 2010-2014 and served as member of the NAC Executive Committee in 2011. Follow her on Twitter @maryjoanderson3.