Catholic News Service
People wait to be seen at the LaKu LaPe clinic run by the Missionaries of Charity Brothers in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, March 12. Local clinics like LaKu LaPe fill a vital role in Haiti's strained health care system, where and estimated 30 hospitals serves the country's 10 million people.
Catholic News Service
People wait to be seen at the LaKu LaPe clinic run by the Missionaries of Charity Brothers in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, March 12. Local clinics like LaKu LaPe fill a vital role in Haiti's strained health care system, where and estimated 30 hospitals serves the country's 10 million people.
VATICAN CITY — In their mission to serve all people, Catholic health care facilities also must be vigilant in maintaining their Christian identity and protecting the life and dignity of the human person, said the head of the Pontifical Council for Health Care Ministry.

"It's fundamental that Catholic health centers maintain their proper identity without compromise, welcoming everyone without, however, ceding to harmful forms of secularization or relativism," said Archbishop Zygmunt Zimowski, council president.

The archbishop opened the council's Nov. 15-17 international conference, which focused on "The Hospital, Setting for Evangelization: a Human and Spiritual Mission."

Adhering to the Gospel is "almost impossible to undertake and maintain faithfully" if people don't see their work as "an authentic vocation" and if people's lives are "devoid of faith in humanity and charity-love," he told the nearly 600 participants from around the world.

While Catholic health workers are expected to be at the forefront in medical and scientific developments and therapies, they must also "humanize" such progress, protect patients from being turned into "mere objects," and respect all human life from its conception to its natural end, he said.

Catholics who are inspired by their faith "have to be proponents and pioneers of an ethical formation that will accompany their professional studies," said Msgr. Jean-Marie Mupendawatu, the council's secretary.

Health care workers can't ignore ethical problems they encounter on the job thinking such dilemmas are a concern only for ethicists and moral theologians, he told journalists Nov. 13.

Experts in ethics and morality aren't making abstract pronouncements "from an ivory tower" nor are they regarding "the necessary and exciting progress of science and technology" with suspicion and distrust, he said.

Morality and medicine, ethics and science have to work together in partnership and translate into ethical and moral practice in the workplace, he said.

In a talk Nov. 15, South African Cardinal Wilfrid Napier of Durban told conference participants that "bishops need to speak up in support of health care workers" and to support them spiritually.

Catholic "workers are under tremendous pressure to conform to political whims" that go against church teaching and their facilities run the risk of forfeiting public funding when they refuse to cooperate with unethical policies, he said.

Bishops and the religious orders that run Catholic facilities need to be "the caregivers of the caregivers," helping them face the risks and withstand the pressures by bolstering their faith, he said.

Offering people in the health field spiritual and pastoral support "dignifies their work, grounds their work in God and inspires workers to see their work as a service to Christ and to the least of his brothers and sisters," Cardinal Napier said.

U.S. Father David G. Murray, who worked at the Pontifical Council for Health Care Ministry for 12 years, has begun a project with the Rome Diocese to help Catholics apply the Gospel in the field of health care.

The Christian Association for Health Care, which can be set up in any facility -- public, private or Christian -- by Catholics who work there, aims to gather Catholic employees and help ensure their identity shines through in action, he told Catholic News Service Nov. 10.

"There is a lack of communion among the different health professionals" in each facility, said Father Murray, who also works with the Idente Missionaries of Christ the Redeemer.

Professional barriers need to be broken down so Catholic administrators, doctors, nurses, assistants, volunteers, janitors, security and so on can unite to manifest the Gospel, he said.

"You can't testify the Christian spirit unless there's a genuine Christian spirit" manifest in the unity of people coming together as one family, he said.

By coming together, the Catholic staff can lobby administrators on policies and practices, which could include simple measures to protect patient dignity during an exam or even working for recognition of the right to conscientious objection for more grave matters, he said.

"We feel it's useless to talk about the Christian spirit if you don't fix something that's wrong in the health system. People will never believe that you are actually doing the will of God if you don't take care of these details" of concretely protecting and respecting human life and dignity, he said.

Association members also would come together for prayer and education aimed at developing "a deeper understanding of the human being" and its unity of body, mind and soul, he said. Such a strategy is even more necessary as dioceses or religious orders sell their facilities or turn control over to secular administrators, Father Murray said.

In these instances "we can concentrate on the spirit of the Catholics who are at the facilities," he said, "empowering them spiritually, humanly and doctrinally so that they can be the church in the health field."

Bishop Robert J. McManus of Worcester, Mass., who is a member of the U.S. bishops' Committee on Doctrine and chairs its subcommittee on health care issues, attended the Vatican health care conference.

He said that in the United States, the Catholic identity of Catholic hospitals "is rooted in and overseen by" the bishops' document, "Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services."

"That document really presents the Catholic framework and identity which should characterize the hospital that calls itself Catholic," he told CNS Nov. 15.

As the number of religious men and women who worked at and ran Catholic facilities in the United States decreased, the need grew to articulate clearly the elements that constitute a Catholic insitution, he said.

"When the sisters and the brothers were there, the Catholic identity was very much enforced by their presence," said Bishop McManus. As they began leaving, the bishops saw the need for guidelines to ensure "the identity would not wither away with the absence of the religious."

The directives reaffirm ethical standards taught by the church and offer guidance on specific moral issues, especially concerning respect for life and human dignity, and ministering to people's physical and spiritual needs.