In a talk to Catholic health care professionals at the University of St. Thomas in Houston recently, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver wrestled with the spectre of secularized bioethics in the United States and the consequent betrayal of American medicine’s becoming – in the words of Herbert Ratner – “no longer…the dedicated servant of the individual patient, but the dutiful instrument of the State.”
Recalling, for example, the ancient Hippocratic Oath sworn by physicians 2,500 years ago, specifically rejecting medical aid for abortion and physician-assisted suicide, the oath dramatically affirmed that health care was a vocation undertaken under the authority of God, who alone both gives and withdraws human life – as the great Athenian philosopher Socrates eloquently insisted when he was tempted to terminate his own life in order to cheat the State from executing him. Tragically, the original Hippocratic Oath was rewritten in the mid-1960s, to conform with revisionist Biblical theology viewed as more acceptable to a new world order comfortable with relativistic norms without anchors.
The situation has become so disturbing for Catholics of conscience, Archbishop Chaput argues, that “in a nation built largely by people of faith, with a long history of religious liberty,” Catholics are now engaged in a “battle we should never have been compelled to fight.” The operative question he cites is this: “What kind of a society would need to coerce religious believers into doing things that undermine their religious convictions – especially when those same believers provide vital services to the public?”
Here Archbishop Chaput references Massachusetts law, which requires Catholic hospitals to administer drugs [to rape victims] even if they might act to cause an abortion. “Moreover, when a candidate for the U.S. Senate was asked about this Massachusetts law in the context of the Constitutional protection of religious freedom, she boldly replied: “You can have religious freedom, but you probably shouldn’t work in the emergency room.” Implicit in this remark, he notes, “is a bias worthy of a 19th century Nativist bigot.”
Archbishop Chaput here recalls the seminal arguments of Father John Courtney Murray, who foresaw “a growing secularist spirit in America’s leadership classes” that identified civil society exclusively with the State and thereby corrupted both – a spirit that recognized no law higher than civil law. And he judged that kind of thinking as profoundly dangerous.
What is happening here in this area is unquestionably precisely the opposite, the Archbishop added, of what America’s Founding Fathers intended and worked so hard to implement.
No universal health-care plan, it follows, can be ethically acceptable if it allows, even indirectly, the termination of the unborn, or discrimination against the elderly, the infirm, the disabled.
The conclusion is, in the Archbishop’s words: “There’s no more room in American life for easy or tepid faith.” A weak or uninformed health care professional betrays his or her noble vocation.
Incidentally, at about the same time that Archbishop Chaput was speaking in Texas about the alarming state of secularized bioethics here in America, statistics relating to abortions in Europe during 2008 were being published by the European Institute of Family Policies (IPF). During 2008, no fewer than 2,863,649 infants were terminated within the European Continent. In Brussels, the President of IPF observed that an abortion took place last year throughout Europe every 11 seconds.
As Catholics, we must be acutely aware not only that Gospel values require that we embrace and practice the corporal works of mercy, but also that our very status as Americans demands nothing less. We have inherited a moral vision from our Founding Fathers, a vision for action ensured by guarantees of religious freedom written into the very Constitution of our nation. For us, that action is both energized and realized in the law of love, as Pope Benedict insists in his great encyclical, Deus Caritas Est.
Such is the fundamental reason why America’s Catholics are involved in, indeed, are called to involvement in, health care institutions, hospitals and palliative care facilities. We do not have an option, given our faith commitment.
Msgr. David Q. Liptak is Executive Editor of The Catholic Transcript and censor librorum for the Archdiocese of Hartford.