Fr. O'Rourke was one of the nation's most accomplished ethicists

April 15, 2012

Friends, colleagues recall his faithfulness, courage and humility


Fr. Kevin D. O'Rouke, OP, died March 28 at age 85. He served the ministry as a health care ethicist for four decades, emerging as one of the nation's foremost thinkers in bioethics.

During his career, he authored or coauthored nearly a dozen books on health care ethics, headed a theological institute, consulted on some of the nation's most complex ethical cases around end-of-life decision making, founded a health care ethics center and authored dozens of articles on bioethical issues.

Ministry colleagues recall Fr. O'Rourke as a brilliant theologian with a passion for serving others. "He attended to questions in Catholic health care with theological sophistication and intellectual rigor yet never lacked for pastoral sensitivity," said M. Therese Lysaught, an associate professor in the department of theology at Milwaukee's Marquette University. She said Fr. O'Rourke's work "was grounded in a real charity of spirit and person (and) shaped by his life of prayer and his deep, tangible, living faith."

A lifetime serving the church
Fr. O'Rouke was born David O'Rourke in Park Ridge, Ill., March 4, 1927. After graduating from high school and completing a brief stint in the U.S. Navy during World War II, he attended the University of Notre Dame. In 1947, he entered the Dominican Order of Preachers — he was ordained a priest in 1954 and took the name Kevin.

In the 1950s, he earned licentiates in philosophy and sacred theology and a doctorate in canon law and later earned a master of sacred theology and an honorary doctorate in humanities.

Early in his career, Fr. O'Rourke taught moral theology and canon law at the Aquinas Institute of Theology. He then served as a dean before becoming the institute's president (at the time the institute was located in Dubuque, Iowa; it now is in St. Louis). From 1973 to 1979, he served as a medical-moral ethicist for CHA (then called the Catholic Hospital Association), focusing at first on issues related to potential fallout from the Supreme Court decision in the Roe vs. Wade case. Ministry facilities were concerned that the government might mandate that they provide abortion, and Fr. O'Rourke helped them prepare to defend against such a contingency (an event that did not occur).

Fr. O'Rourke next founded the Center for Health Care Ethics at Saint Louis University and was its director from 1979 to 1999, concurrently serving as professor of health care ethics in the department of internal medicine in Saint Louis University's Health Sciences Center.

While at the ethics center, he provided consultation and support to families involved in high-profile cases concerning patients whose profound brain damage and persistent vegetative state necessitated a feeding tube for nutrition and hydration, including the families of Karen Ann Quinlan, Nancy Beth Cruzan, Christine Busalacchi and Steven Becker. In each case, Fr. O'Rourke argued using Catholic social teaching that "any and all medical interventions proposed to sustain life in the face of a fatal pathology must be evaluated in light of their potential to allow the person some reasonable capacity to pursue the purposes of human life." This summary of his argument is from Sr. Jean deBlois, CSJ, writing in the March-April 2007 Health Progress, an issue that paid tribute to Fr. O'Rourke and his body of work in Catholic health care ethics. Sr. deBlois now is a professor of moral theology and director of the master of arts in mission program at Aquinas Institute.

From 2000 until his death, he served at the Neiswanger Institute for Bioethics and Health Policy at the Stritch School of Medicine at Loyola University Chicago. There, Fr. O'Rourke was a professor of bioethics and a lecturer.

Patient-centered theology
"It's hard to overstate his contribution to the Catholic health ministry," said Lysaught. "He was without a doubt one of the leading figures in Catholic health care ethics in the U.S. after the Second Vatican Council. From the early 1970s forward, he was a constant voice of Thomistic practical wisdom grounded in real experience in health care as well as a deep and thorough understanding of the Catholic tradition as a whole."

Fr. Charles Bouchard, OP, is provincial of the Dominican Providence of St. Albert in Chicago. He said that Fr. O'Rourke had a sharp theological mind and was passionate about seeking the truth.

Added Sr. deBlois: "Kevin was a Dominican through and through. He gave himself wholeheartedly to the pursuit of truth through study and scholarship."

Fr. O'Rourke's work focused on how people are impacted by health care decisions, be they patients, family members, clinicians or others. He also considered the impact of health care decisions on society. He recognized that the ultimate point of moral law is love and that people should be viewed as being in the image and likeness of God, said Cathleen Kaveny, the John P. Murphy Foundation professor of law and professor of theology at Notre Dame.

Sr. Pat Talone, RSM, CHA vice president of mission services, added that Fr. O'Rourke was successful as a clinical ethicist because he showed such a deep regard for clinicians. She said, "I had the privilege to observe him at grand rounds. While he never shied away from giving his ethical viewpoint, he consistently sought out and tested the professional opinion of those persons closest to the patient because he knew that was vital to a true ethical analysis."

Ron Hamel is a CHA senior director of ethics. He said that Fr. O'Rourke's ethical thinking was practical and realistic — he never lost sight of the people involved in ethics issues.

This was evident in how he worked with families with loved ones in vegetative states. He consulted with these families; he was present with them, prayed with them and kept in contact with many of them even after their loved one had died. The value of his ministry was evident in how he supported "patients and families at the most challenging times of their lives," said Sr. Carol Keehan, DC, CHA president and chief executive officer. "His approach to Catholic medical moral teaching always reflected the Good Shepherd."

Hamel noted that since Fr. O'Rourke took a firm position in support of families making hard choices, some of whom faced the added stress of public attention in high-profile cases, some people with opposing positions vilified him publicly, even attacking his character. "I never heard him badmouth any of them," said Hamel. "He was very humble."

"He never shrunk from the hard questions," added Fr. Bouchard.

A legacy
Fr. Bouchard said Fr. O'Rourke's insightfulness enabled him to foresee changes coming for the ministry with the declining numbers of women and men religious. Sr. deBlois said he used his expertise in canon law to help many religious congregations as they brought their ministries together into systems, and he wrote prolifically on issues concerning Catholic identity and sponsorship.

Still, Sr. deBlois said she thinks Fr. O'Rourke's legacy "will be much more about the kind of person he was, rather than the great work he did.

"Kevin was a good, holy, prayerful and deeply spiritual man who loved his God, his church, his wonderful family and his many friends. While he was extraordinarily good at what he did, I do believe he would happily have given up any and all of the work he loved so well if the good of his community, family and friends required it."

He also was well-loved by those he taught and mentored, said Sr. deBlois.

Among that group is Michael Panicola, corporate vice president of ethics and social responsibility for St. Louis-based SSM Health Care. When Panicola was a student seeking school and career advice, Fr. O'Rourke provided counsel, and then mentored Panicola during his postgraduate schooling and into his career. "He was really smart, but also really easy to talk to. He was a real person, quick to laugh, and he never took himself too seriously," Panicola said.

Visit Health Progress online to access the March-April 2007 issue paying tribute to Fr. O'Rourke. It contains articles expounding upon his contributions to ethics in the ministry, as well as a biography listing his achievements and a bibliography of his writings.


Copyright © 2012 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2012 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.