Hamel calls on leaders to carry out ministry of healing, make ethical decisions

June 2024
Ron Hamel shares a laugh with his former colleague Patrick McCruden, chief mission integration officer for SSM Health. As a theologian and ethicist, Hamel has focused on asking and answering complex and difficult questions related to the Catholic health ministry. Once Films

Theologian and ethicist Ron Hamel frequently turns to Jesus' parable of the good Samaritan, in which a man is attacked by robbers who strip and beat him.

A priest and a Levite pass by and don't help. A Samaritan, considered an outcast of Jewish society, does help. He stops, cleans the man's wounds and takes him to an inn to recover.

The parable is an important lesson for those in Catholic health care, says Hamel. He challenges them to answer the questions: Who are the people on the margins of our society? And what do they need from us?

"The key thing we need to focus on is carrying out a ministry of healing," said Hamel. "And the question always is: How do we best do that in the current circumstances, for the people we serve?"

For 40 years of asking and answering such questions and offering guidance to those within the ministry who must decide how to respond, Hamel is this year's recipient of CHA's Lifetime Achievement Award.

Hamel, 78, is considered a mainstay in the field of Catholic health care ethics. He's written or edited eight books, penned dozens of articles and book chapters, served as a college instructor and professor, and mentored or guided many younger ethicists.

Laura Kaiser, president and CEO of SSM Health, said in a statement that Hamel's "passion and dedication to Catholic health care are inspiring.

"Ron has a remarkable way of providing clarity around complex issues through the lens of Catholic moral teaching and ethics," she added.

Kaiser said Hamel provided "wise counsel and valuable insight" as a board member and president from 2015-2022 of SSM Health Ministries, the sponsor of the St. Louis-based system. He was also a member of the SSM Health Board of Directors from 2015-2021.

Patrick McCruden, chief mission integration officer for SSM Health, said Hamel is not only knowledgeable, easygoing and approachable, but also effective.

"There's a lot of people who think that just by being right, that's what makes you good at this," he said. "But it really doesn't. You have to be effective. It's not enough to say 'Oh, this is what the church teaches.' You have to be able to articulate that and get them to a place of acceptance."

In retirement, Hamel continues to serve. He is on the CHRISTUS Health Board Mission Integration and Human Resources Committee and the Quality Committee. He is resource ethicist for the American Association of Nurse Anesthesiology and consults with Catholic health care systems.

Continuing challenges
Changes in technology and culture continue to present new challenges for ethicists. That's something that attracted Hamel to the field more than 40 years ago.

"That's a large part of the fun of it," he said. "Knowing that the way we think about these issues can have some very practical applications and implications for people."

"There was a time when health care ethics was simply 'ethics at the bedside.' Ron played a key role in expanding and transforming that definition." — Fr. Thomas A. Nairn, OFM

Hamel grew up in a blue-collar family in Waterbury, Connecticut, and has a younger brother and sister. He entered the seminary in high school, earned his bachelor's degree in philosophy, and left the seminary when he was around 30. To support himself, he taught ethics and theology at colleges in New York while going to graduate school. He received his master's degree in contemporary/systematic theology and his Ph.D. in Christian theological ethics from Fordham University in New York.

Around this time, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, large debates emerged around the topics of health, bioethics and birth control.

"I just thought those issues were so intriguing," Hamel said. "And I've always been curious about why people do what they do."

He saw teaching as an expression of the ministry he did not pursue in the priesthood, but after about 15 years, he began to burn out. He got a new opportunity when he was asked to join the Park Ridge Center for the Study of Health, Faith and Ethics, a now-defunct think tank in Chicago, as a senior associate. That led to a job as the head of clinical ethics at Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, Illinois, which was associated with the center.

Hamel called those years some of the best of his career. "I was dealing with patients and families and doctors and nurses, and every single case was different and challenging," he said. "I knew that I had made a difference in a family's life or a patient's life or helped the patient to die a better death by the decisions that we made or helped the physician deal with a family."

During Hamel's time at the hospital, he made connections at CHA and joined the organization in 1998 as its senior ethicist. By the time of his retirement in 2014, he had written about 60 articles and columns for CHA's journal, Health Progress.

Shaping thought, future ethicists
"There was a time when health care ethics was simply 'ethics at the bedside.' Ron played a key role in expanding and transforming that definition," Fr. Thomas A. Nairn, OFM, who worked alongside Hamel at CHA as senior director of ethics, said in Hamel's award nomination. "He was very strong in encouraging us to consider how we respond to the poor in our midst, for example. Health care ethics and ethics itself used to be seen as restrictive — things you can't do. Ron allowed leaders in health systems to see ethics is a help, not a hindrance. It lets people see we are what we claim to be."

When Hamel retired, Fr. Nairn wrote an article in Health Progress summarizing Hamel's contributions to Catholic health care ethics during his tenure at CHA. He divided Hamel's work into three realms: individual, societal and institutional.

Fr. Nairn wrote that Hamel challenged Catholic health care to see how developments in genomics could serve humanity, addressed the topic of emergency contraception after sexual assault, and emphasized that justice should be "at the heart of the healing ministry." Hamel encouraged organizations to practice "organizational integrity"— the idea of talking the talk and walking the walk — and discussed the theological principle of cooperation and the future of Catholic health care ethics, Fr. Nairn wrote.

Hamel spent decades writing about and offering counsel on Catholic health care ethics. "The key thing we need to focus on is carrying out a ministry of healing," he says. Once Films



During his time at CHA, Hamel realized many of his mentors in the field had either retired or passed away. He performed two surveys to get an idea of the average age and experience of Catholic health care ethicists in the field. As he suspected, there were gaps. He recruited and influenced younger ethicists by inviting them to colloquiums and being available to answer questions.

Michael Panicola considers Hamel a mentor. Panicola met Hamel at the CHA assembly in New Orleans in 1998. At the time, he was pursuing his Ph.D. and in his first week as an ethicist at SSM Health.

Panicola remembers feeling a little awestruck meeting Hamel and other ethics leaders.

"We hit it off professionally, and then we became friends pretty quickly," said Panicola. "He's an amazing listener. He's observing, but what I also like about him is there's not this kind of like, 'Hey, I'm older. I'm more experienced. I don't have anything to learn from you.' It's a mutual relationship in that regard where he's learning and growing as much as we are."

Panicola eventually became a vice president of ethics at SSM Health, and the two collaborated on several articles. They celebrate holidays together, and Panicola's three grown children consider Hamel, who never married, as a third grandfather.

Panicola noted that the soft-spoken Hamel can get "fiery," especially if he suspects a ministry is being disingenuous.

Speaking with courage
Rachelle Barina, chief mission officer for Springfield, Illinois-based Hospital Sisters Health System, also considers Hamel a mentor. "He's not always challenging every issue. But when it's necessary to care for people who are in vulnerable spots, he's willing to speak with courage," said Barina, a 2024 Tomorrow's Leaders honoree. She cited, for example, that Hamel and Panicola took on the topic of emergency contraception after sexual assault and came to the conclusion that it was ethically justifiable and that victims of sexual assault should have access to emergency contraceptive medications. Their position was not without considerable debate in some sectors.

To stay grounded, Hamel meditates daily and enjoys nature, hiking and traveling. He volunteers at a food pantry and is looking for other ways to serve.

He thinks the future challenges of Catholic health care are surmountable. The needs that the founding congregations saw still exist, he said, but the way they're addressed is evolving. He thinks people shouldn't only come to hospitals to be healed or cured; hospitals need to go into the community.

"It's a question of seeing need, stopping, appreciating the need, and doing what needs to be done to address the need," said Hamel.

"That's what the good Samaritan did."


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