Assembly ends with exhortation to care for the poor and powerless

July 1, 2012


PHILADELPHIA — Catholic health care leaders attending the Catholic Health Assembly here were sent off with a powerful closing session on the value of justice: justice as expressed in the Gospels, developed in the Catholic social tradition and lived out in Catholic health care today.

The session was based on a new CHA resource, the video compact disc "Always With Us: Justice and Catholic Health Care," developed under the leadership of Fr. Thomas A. Nairn, OFM, CHA's senior director for ethics. The CD was released in early spring and is free to CHA members.

Portions of the 26-minute video were shown on large screens and interspersed with short, live talks by four of the nine Catholic health leaders featured in the video and with gospel music by members of Mercy Hospital Philadelphia choir.

On-stage presentations focused on specific examples of how Catholic health care providers have overcome obstacles to bring justice to the poor.

Fr. Nairn introduced the session with a short reflection on the many meanings of justice, including secular and philosophical understandings, such as autonomy, rights, fairness and equal opportunity. "In the Catholic social tradition," he said, "justice takes on a deeper meaning. It deals not so much with the claims we make over and against each other, but rather with what we owe each other as children of God and therefore members of the same family. Part of what we owe each other is to see the poor, and to see in the poor the face of Christ," he said, and "to act in solidarity with the poor."  

Righteous action
Rosie Perez, featured first on video and then on stage, described a situation in which a despondent and destitute woman had come with a two-month-old baby to an elementary school in Houston, Texas, seeking help. A mobile health clinic sponsored by CHRISTUS St. Joseph Hospital was at the school, along with staff from WIC, the federally funded nutrition program for women, infants and children.

At the time, Perez was director of community outreach for CHRISTUS St. Joseph (later sold to Hospital Partners of America and renamed St. Joseph Medical Center). She is now vice president of mission services for St. Peter's Health Partners in Albany, N.Y.

Perez said she responded viscerally when the WIC staff told her they could not help the woman because she had no identification. Perez told them in no uncertain terms to phone their supervisor and find a way.

Staff in the mobile unit worked the phones, securing social services, emergency formula, diapers and utility assistance for the woman, and immunizations for the baby, Perez said. Teachers and community members collected clothing, bought groceries for the mother and promised transportation for appointments with social services.

Later the same day, WIC staff members returned with three months' worth of food and formula vouchers.

"This young mother arrived at the unit hopeless. She left with hope and dignity, surrounded by a caring community," and the WIC staff "learned that the rules can be broken to help the most vulnerable," said Perez.

Common good
Ruth Brinkley, next in video and on stage, is president and chief executive of KentuckyOne Health in Louisville, Ky. Illustrating the principle that the individual and the common good are equally important in the Catholic tradition — and that to serve one is to serve the other — Brinkley spoke about a man's decision to fund a mobile health van for care of the poor and homeless.

"He wasn't interested in a building with his name on it, nor was he interested in highly sophisticated programs and services," she said. Once poor himself, "he had a very clear picture of what those in poverty desired most — access to health care provided with dignity and without judgment. He made a conscious decision to invest in the common good," she said.

Fr. Peter Clark SJ, professor of medical ethics at Saint Joseph's University, Philadelphia, spoke about resolution of "a justice issue" that confronted medical staff at Mercy Hospital in Philadelphia after a 35-year-old man from Tanzania, in the United States illegally, came to the emergency department with end-stage renal disease. He needed immediate and ongoing dialysis, but a social worker told physicians the patient was ineligible for federal insurance benefits because of his immigration status. Physicians started dialysis anyway and the Sisters of Mercy paid for the man's ongoing treatment. "Justice isn't easy,"

Fr. Clark said. "Can hospitals survive financially when providing expensive medical treatment to vulnerable patients?" he asked. Cost aside, "we have to find ways to do it, to be witnesses to the Gospel."

Sr. Mary Scullion, RSM, spoke about her work as executive director of Project H.O.M.E., which provides a variety of services to homeless and marginalized people in Philadelphia; and she gave a closing charge to audience members: "May you always have room to make someone else's pain and suffering your own. May you be compelled and inspired by a vision of the health of the entire community, in which each one of us and all of us are able to flourish."

Inspire justice
In an interview, Fr. Nairn said CHA created the video because the association saw a need for a resource that would put justice "in the larger context of justice for the poor," that would "speak not only to the head, but to the heart," and that would address the urgent question of bringing justice "in an age of limitations."

"Most of our health care systems use traditional philosophical understandings of justice," Fr. Nairn said. The video highlights the Catholic understanding of justice, which is rooted in the Gospels, he said.


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.