BY: FR. MICHAEL D. PLACE, STD
Fr. Place is president and chief executive officer, Catholic Health
Association, St. Louis.
The 11th Annual World Day of the Sick, which took place in Washington, DC,
in February, provided me and many others in the ministry with a unique opportunity
to meet representatives of Catholic health care from around the globe (particularly
the Americas) to discuss the challenges that face our ministry. Despite those
challenges, I believe the participants came out of our meetings and discussions
with a renewed sense of purpose and mission, energized by the very act of coming
"Solidarity," the theme of the conference became a watchword for our discussions
of the future of Catholic health care in the Americas. It is critical, as we
reflect on what we learned from each other at the World Day of the Sick, to
keep that theme in mind, knowing, as we face the obstacles lying ahead, that
we in the ministry are engaged in our efforts together. It is in this context
that I offer the following reflections on the events associated with the World
Day of the Sick. In a sense, these are personal notes and musings.
On February 9, the bishops present for the World Day of the Sick, representing
11 countries in the Americas, gathered for an episcopal dialogue on the challenges
facing health care in their countries. As summarized by Bishop William Murphy
of the Diocese of Rockville Centre, NY, who facilitated the dialogue, the participants
discussed five "realities that challenge"—in one way or another—the ministry
in the Americas:
- Social realities such as AIDS, abortion, and teen pregnancy
- The high cost of prescription drugs
- The breakdown in ethics and a sense of truth.
The bishops noted that, as Catholic health care continues to formulate its
relationship to the surrounding society, its people and governments, it must
also formulate effective responses to these challenges. To do so, they suggested,
the ministry needs a new "pastoral of health care" in the context of a new evangelization.
Working together in solidarity, the ministry must make a shift from the theological
to the practical in order to face up to these realities.
The bishops also cited other challenges: a need to educate our health care
workers, our people, and the society at large; a need to renew our medical and
ethical commitments in a quickly changing world; and, above all, as our world
grows smaller and nations grow increasingly interdependent, a need for the ministry
to function as part of a renewed "Church in America" that truly serves and heals
Though Bishop Murphy's summary reflected the "church" talk of the participants,
the mood in the room was not as abstract as the vocabulary might suggest. One
could feel the passion of the bishops' concern—particularly concerning the needs
of the poor. It also was clear that a chasm exists between the experience of
poor people in Canada and the United States and that of many of the poor in
Central and South America. It was unfortunate that the meeting's format did
not provide an opportunity to discuss these differences and how they might be
addressed by the family of faith.
The following day, a study day open to the public, the morning panel discussion
turned again to the topic of globalization and health care in the Americas.
"Globalization" is a word that we hear quite often these days, perhaps so often
that we do not really think about what it means or how it affects us and our
communities. However, as the leaders of Catholic health care from all over the
world gathered in Washington, globalization was very much on their minds.
Bishop Wilton Gregory of the Diocese of Belleville, IL, the president of the
U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, remarked that the very fact that so many
people from the far reaches of the globe could come together so easily was itself
one aspect of our newly globalized world. But globalization increasingly affects
more than just our ways of communicating and traveling, he noted. How, for instance,
does the increasing interdependence of the world's nations affect the arena
of health care? And how can we, as a ministry grounded in Catholic faith and
values, respond to the challenges of globalization in health care in a way that
furthers the healing mission of the church?
The bishops noted again that, in the Western Hemisphere, the quality of health
care and the methods of delivering it vary widely among nations, ranging from
the nationalized system in Canada to the free-market insurer system in the United
States, and including some countries that have hybrid systems and some others
that have no real health care system at all.
It struck me, as I listened to this discussion, that we often hear that the
United States has the best health care in the world. But how often do we wonder
how our influence is affecting the modernization and delivery of care in other
nations? Many nations with fewer resources than ours are struggling to provide
health care for their citizens. Like the United States, some are increasingly
warming to an approach that treats health care as a commodity, just another
in a long line of industrial products. While we celebrate the tremendous opportunities
our society and its system of health care can offer to other nations—our technological
innovations, for example, have certainly helped save thousands of lives and
eased the suffering of countless individuals—we tend to overlook the fact that
we are also exporting an approach to health care that treats it as a commodity.
This is an approach that our sisters and brothers find troubling.
In Ecclesia in America, the Holy Father called on the hemispheric church
"to cooperate with every legitimate means in reducing the negative effects of
globalization, such as the domination of the powerful over the weak."* Thus
it would seem that the Catholic health ministry in the United States bears a
special responsibility to ensure that, along with our technology, new medical
knowledge, and innovation, we do not as a nation also export values that are
contrary to our mission. The bishops pointed out that, as a Catholic ministry,
we have a particular advantage when it comes to globalization. The church, after
all, is the original "globalized" community, and we can take advantage of our
ecclesial structures in the exchange of new ideas and technologies in health
care among nations. Although there have been some efforts in this regard, they
remain quite ad hoc. In hallway conversations, the question was raised: Should
we become more intentional in this regard?
Bioethics and Advocacy
In this context, the afternoon discussions turned to the bioethical issues
confronting Catholic health care in the Americas. When this discussion was situated
in the context of the great disparities noted earlier, it became clear that
many of the ethical issues we consider commonplace in the United States and
Canada are, for many others in the Americas, a luxury far from everyday experience.
This realization led me to wonder about our responsibilities as a ministry in
the United States with regard to globalization with its positive and negative
A question also was raised about our advocacy efforts. Here in the United
States we stand for what we believe. We have worked at the state and federal
level to resist the commodification of health care and to ensure access to health
care for all within the United States. But what are our advocacy responsibilities
with regard to the Americas? What role can and must we play in preserving the
values we proclaim in a globalized system of health care?
One of the wonderful things about the way the World Day of the Sick was structured
was the way that the heart of gathering, the solemn closing of Eucharist and
celebration of the sacrament of the sick, followed all these complex discussions.
The faces of the 500 young and old, in wheelchairs or using walkers and canes,
who testified to their faith and found consolation and hope in the laying on
of hands and the anointing with oil—these faces reminded us that, as important
as those discussions were, they would be (in the words of St. Paul) nothing
more than "a noisy gong, a clanging symbol," unless we remembered not just what
we need to do but also those for whom we are doing it. Catholic health care,
all over the Americas and around the world, exists tý bring the Lord to the
sick—to people such as those who came to the basilica of the National Shrine
of the Immaculate Conception seeking the church's healing ministry. The Mass
allowed us to reaffirm our solidarity with the sick and renew our pledge to
work on their behalf, from the tireless efforts of the nurses and other caregivers
in our hospitals and clinics, to our advocacy efforts on behalf of those whose
voices are often not heard, or even worse, ignored.
It is true that, in every nation in the Americas, Catholic health care must
continually struggle with the question of its own identity in an increasingly
secular world. The World Day of the Sick celebrated our resolve not to let that
struggle interfere with our mission and duty to affirm Catholic, human values
within the health care systems of all societies. Globalization in Catholic health
care challenges us in the United States to see our mission and ministry in a
broader context. It challenges us to affirm our solidarity with Catholic health
care in every nation in continuing the healing ministry of the church. It challenges
us, as Bishop John Ricard of the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee, FL, said
at the World Day of the Sick, to be a "positive example of globalization, promoting
an authentic culture of solidarity, life, and the ethic of service."
Copyright © 2003 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
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