By SUZANNE HAUGH, Special To The Bulletin | Published October 25, 2007
Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory reminded Catholic physicians and healthcare workers attending the 76th annual Catholic Medical Association conference that they should strive to be “Catholic first” in a profession that often challenges church wisdom.
Long-held classical and biblical ideals of reason and freedom have been “trumped” by modern notions of “self-determination” and “self-creation,” “deeply invad(ing) the medical profession in our culture,” explained Archbishop Gregory in closing remarks to about 300 doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals from the United States, Canada, Chile and Zimbabwe gathered in Atlanta for the conference held Oct. 3-6 at the JW Marriott Hotel in Buckhead.
From the Catholic perspective, “our freedom finds itself in surrender to the objectivity of the values that God has placed within the body and within nature,” he said.
By contrast, he continued, “when we endeavor to make morality subservient to self-determining freedom, we place ourselves on a short road to chaos.”
Archbishop Gregory’s comments on the challenges of being a Catholic physician in a secular society capped the four-day meeting that began on the eve of Oct. 3 with an elective evening of reflection.
The next day participants gathered for fellowship with other Catholic healthcare workers and to hear various topics relating to this year’s theme: “Theology of the Body: The Dignity of Woman.”
“There were a variety of participants, from OB (obstetric) doctors to family practitioners, multi-specialty and more,” said Dr. Kathleen Raviele, a local gynecologist who served as the chairperson for the conference.
At the closing banquet Raviele was installed as the conference’s new president, the first woman in 76 years to serve in that position. The association dates back to 1912 when Cardinal William O’Connell of Boston founded the first Catholic Physicians Guild “to educate physicians in Church doctrine related to the practice of medicine,” according to the CMA Web site.
A survey of conference participants revealed that most attend for the camaraderie with other Catholics in the healthcare field.
“They primarily come for fellowship,” Raviele explained. “It can be a struggle to uphold the teachings of the Catholic faith as you practice medicine.”
The slate of speakers included Atlanta Archbishop-emeritus John F. Donoghue; Archbishop Gregory; Bishop Robert J. Baker, the newly installed bishop of Birmingham, Ala., who holds a doctorate in theology; and Bishop Robert Vasa of Baker, Ore.
The scope of other presentations was vast, addressing the neurobiology and psychology of femininity, fertility awareness, the role of women as caretakers and the ethics of the doctor-nurse relationship, among other areas.
Following opening remarks by CMA president Dr. Robert Saxer and Raviele, Bishop Baker was first to speak with a presentation entitled “Theology of the Body: The Original Unity of Man and Woman.”
The bishop began by providing a brief overview of the philosophical and religious influences on Pope John Paul II who developed the phrase and document “Theology of the Body” to show the connection “between the human body and the Creator in whose image it is made.”
“The Theology of the Body arrived on the scene just in time to rescue the human person and provide clarity about the nature of the person God has created and the way to wholeness and holiness,” Bishop Baker said.
At its core is “self-donative love,” which is “the gift of self on behalf of another person.”
“It is the life-giving love of the Trinity at Creation. It is the love of Jesus Christ, especially at Calvary. It is the love which inspired the martyrs of the church and the great saints of our own time. It is the love which is the heart of the marriage covenant.”
It is not in solitude that a person most “becomes the image of God” but in the “moment of communion,” he noted. “All human beings are meant to be spouses—to live in relationship with others, committed to their God, whether in marriage or being married to Christ and His church; all are meant to be parents, whether physical or spiritual. Parenting, the living of maternity and paternity, is part of each adult human life.”
This communion is most “evident in the one-flesh unity” of nuptial love and expresses the complementarity of a man and woman, “who are made for each other.”
“Pope John Paul II insists on the equal dignity of man and woman through their separate modes of loving,” the bishop explained.
After the fall, however, Adam and Eve felt shame, causing disorder in the nuptial relationship.
“Lust, adultery of the heart, enter in and obscure the significance of the body and the person,” the bishop continued.
But “the redemption of the body” allows a person to embrace “the truth of his masculinity or femininity” and reclaim “his heritage from the beginning, the heritage of his heart, which is deeper than the sinfulness inherited.”
Quoting the pope, he added, “‘Man must feel called to rediscover … to realize the nuptial meaning of the body. He must feel called to express in this way the interior freedom of the gift, that is of that spiritual state and that spiritual power which are derived from mastery of the lust of the flesh.’”
“The words of Christ, set in the whole reality of creation and redemption, reactivate that deeper heritage and give it real power in human life.”
The church and the grace supplied by its sacraments become “the locus,” or setting, for this redemption.
The bishop then spoke on the dignity of women and the “feminine genius,” citing the pope’s1988 letter to women titled “Mulieris Dignitatem.” Achieving “full respect” for women must come from “an effective and intelligent campaign” that concentrates on all aspects of a woman’s life and puts aside “historical conditioning” relying on reason, “which is able to understand the law of God written in the heart of every human being.”
The bishop further explained, “More than anything else, the word of God enables us to grasp clearly the ultimate ‘anthropological basis’ of the dignity of women, making it evident as part of God’s plan for humanity.”
He echoed the pope’s recognition of Mary as the “highest expression of the ‘feminine genius,’” offering the pope’s explanation that she was “in all her being a gift for her Son” and “a gift for the sons and daughters of the whole human race, awakening profound trust in those who seek her guidance along the transcendent destiny.”
The bishop reminded those gathered of the pope’s last days, saying how fitting that the great mind that “lived a life of ‘well-integrated holiness’” and bestowed to this generation the “magnum opus” of the Theology of the Body did ultimately also “encourage all of us to meet our final day with courage and with hope.”
“This man’s life and writings combine to leave us a legacy which enables us, women and men, to meet the world of our day, so oriented to materialism, with a hope that these bodies of ours, in all their physicality and frailty, have a real hope of redemption.”
He concluded by encouraging those present to continue to study and expand upon the “wealth of insights” of the Theology of the Body document. “When one plumbs the depth of the mysteries of God, one never exhausts the treasure found there.”
Many sessions that followed the bishop’s presentation focused on the care and state of today’s women, touching also on how history has affected the role of women.
“The hearts and minds of many women have been wounded by the sexual revolution,” Raviele said. “We’ve been able to look at what led up to the sexual revolution and its effects: There are so many more children born out of wedlock … and more single women raising children, none of which is healthy for the family or society at large.”
Sessions also explored medical breakthroughs and provided forums for presenting issues that reached beyond women’s health. Dr. Mark Stegman, a Pennsylvania obstetrician-gynecologist and senior fellow with the Westchester Institute for Ethics and the Human Person, described how he helps infertile couples ethically and with regard to church teaching seek conception without resorting to in-vitro fertilization, which the Catholic Church opposes.
Johnnette Benkovic, host of EWTN’s “Abundant Life” and author of “The New Age Counterfeit,” explained the dangers of what are fast becoming mainstream New Age practices, such as Reiki healing.
Archbishop Donoghue spoke on the virtues of Mary and how they relate to the lives of Catholic physicians and other healthcare workers. In his presentation he shared that the most detailed account of Mary, possibly from “first-hand knowledge,” comes from Gospel writer Luke, also the patron saint of physicians. Using the metaphor of a “beautifully adorned chest,” he unpacked three of Mary’s many jeweled virtues.
“Out of all these treasures, I have tried to pick three special facts of her life, close to the needs of your own lives: her trust in the higher power—her readiness to listen for God’s word, and let it transform her life; her faith, as it unfolded from her own life, and changed the lives of those around her; and finally, Mary’s sense of self-sacrifice—her willingness to be joined to the suffering of her Son, her compassion for the trials and sorrows of His life.”
Archbishop Donoghue called the task of healthcare workers “great” with “immense” challenges. “If you open your heart to Mary, you will be changed—and you will find the strength you need.”
Following the vigil Mass on Saturday, Archbishop Gregory gave the keynote address at the conference’s closing banquet. His focus was not to discuss specific present-day issues such as birth control, abortion or stem-cell research, but to look at “the deeper issues that undergird these particular concerns … typically modern understandings of reason and freedom.”
He traveled back in time to the days of Aristotle who, along with “ancient metaphysicians and physicians,” looked in awe at “the orderliness of the world.” They were not motivated to master creation but to understand nature “through causality.”
A similar approach to creation is found in the Bible, where God “sets human beings within the context of an ordered harmony and gives (them) stewardship over creation,” the archbishop explained.
“This respectful and contemplative quality of reason in regard to creation continues throughout the Catholic tradition. Thomas Aquinas takes for granted the beauty and harmony of God’s creation and makes it the foundation for one of his arguments for God’s existence.”
But this understanding of reason, or what in 1968 Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger—now Pope Benedict XVI—called “the intelligibility of creation,” began to shift placing nature “into the realm of doubt” with more modern philosophers.
“Knowledge is power.” This simple phrase from philosopher Francis Bacon, followed by the work of Descartes, began the slide into viewing nature not as an entity to be contemplated but one to be controlled or mastered, the archbishop said.
“If we can do it, if it makes life more immediately comfortable, we should do it; this became a conviction of many moderns,” the archbishop said, explaining the repercussions of this new approach. “I would suggest that much of the church’s discomfort with the array of issues I mentioned above flows from its deeper discomfort with this fundamental attitude.”
The archbishop continued by saying that he believes the church does not want to abandon “modern scientific consciousness” but to situate it “within the wider context of the classical and Biblical view.”
“It wants a reason that is, first, respectful of the God-given beauty and objectivity of natural forms and only then willing to analyze, manipulate, or master them. This would ensure that the moral and spiritual context is always in place as scientists and physicians go about their work.”
He remarked on the “supposed war” between religion and science, saying that some modern scientists and thinkers may view religion as “a baser form of reason from which (science) was attempting to extricate itself.”
“Authentic science develops out of and returns to authentic theology. And theology is properly cautioned by science lest it devolve into uncritical superstition.”
The archbishop then took up the typical modern notion of freedom that emphasizes choice and self-determination. And again he shared on the centuries-held concept of freedom from classical philosophy and the Bible, explaining that “freedom is not primarily choice but rather the conditioning of desire so as to make the achievement of the good first possible and then effortless.”
To illustrate this concept of freedom, the archbishop gave the example of learning to speak English, which is not accomplished by private, subjective choices, but by the “steady submission” to teachers, mentors and examples given on the syntax and grammar, vocabulary and vocalization of the language.
“By submitting to the good, as they laid it out to us, we became free.”
Basketball legend Michael Jordan endured years of training to achieve what seemed to become his effortless playing ability. “He accepted the objectivity of the game’s structure and disciplines. And through that long apprenticeship, he became free.”
Starting in the late Middle Ages, the archbishop said, freedom began to be defined as a “choice on the basis of no constraint either interior or exterior,” or the predecessor to the more modern approach of “the freedom of indifference.”
“Now on this interpretation of freedom, the objectively true and good are not to be welcomed, since they, necessarily, restrict the range of one’s individual choice. They are a limitation on one’s capacity for self-definition. And the supreme problem is none other than the supreme truth and goodness … God.”
Anti-religious overtones chime within society when, as the archbishop noted, religion “begins to make clear and objective claims in regard to the goods that ought to be grounding our freedom.”
While St. Ignatius of Loyola valued freedom, he realized the Christian’s calling, as depicted also through St. Paul’s discipleship.
“Our freedom does not belong to us, precisely because it came as a gift from God,” the archbishop said. “Therefore, it must, even as it remains freedom, be surrendered to God’s purposes.”
If not, “paramount values” become “self-determination” and “self-creation.”
“A basic conviction of the church is that life belongs to God, not to us. We are to respect it in its objective value and not manipulate it according to our purposes.”
Finally, he reminded conference participants of their mission.
“You are physicians, yes of course; but you are Catholic first. Establishing that priority makes all the difference.”
Beginning in mid-November, conference talks will be available for purchase through the association’s Web site: www.cathmed.org.