Religion of Healing

The Center for Catholic Studies and Biomedical Ethics

Dr. Paul Wojda, a professor of theology and Catholic Studies and director of the Master of Arts degree program in Catholic Studies, has research interests in biomedical ethics. He has served as chair of Archbishop Harry Flynn’s biomedical ethics commission, as a consultant to Catholic healthcare providers and on hospital ethics committees.

Modern medicine has its origins in pagan antiquity, primarily in Greece, but like much else in Western culture its subsequent development was to bear the indelible imprint of Christian belief and practice. It could hardly have been otherwise, for as the medical historian Ludwig Edelstein once wrote, when Christianity burst upon the ancient world, it did so as a “religion of healing.” Even a cursory reading of the New Testament amply illustrates Edelstein’s observation. Jesus’ proclamation of the coming of God’s kingdom is made palpable in his acts of physical healing. At his touch the lame walk, the blind see, the deaf hear, and the dead rise to life. It is the gift of healing that Jesus imparts to his closest disciples, at first to their great surprise, though it is not long before this charism takes institutional shape in the form of the very first “hospitals.”

Underlying the early Church’s outreach to the sick and dying is the doctrine of the imago Dei: the insistence that all human beings, including those left weak and vulnerable by disease, are created in the image and likeness of God. In that age of enormous social inequality, ravaged by recurrent plagues and lacking the publicly funded social-service networks with which we are so familiar today, this radical idea of human dignity and the practices it sustained were undeniably powerful witnesses to Christ’s message. Indeed, sociologist Rodney Stark credits this organized concern for the sick and the healing it brought as one of the main drives fueling the remarkable rise and expansion of Christianity in its first three centuries.

The rapid development of scientific medicine in the 19th and 20th centuries did not so much obscure Christian influence on modern medicine as provide the occasion for the extension of the Church’s healing mission. Unlike some newer ecclesial movements, such as Jehovah’s Witness and Christian Science, the Catholic Church embraced –and continues to embrace –all scientific and medical advances aimed at the cure of disease and the relief of human suffering, provided such advances do not in any way contradict the fundamental dignity of the human person. It is not always clear, of course, whether promising medical innovations are truly consistent with human dignity. In the 1950s, for example, many Catholic theologians expressed deep reservations about the morality of live- donor organ replacement (for example, kidney transplants) for it seemed to require a deliberate attack on one individual’s health (the donor) for the sake of another (the recipient), and thus contradict what proper love of self and neighbor required. However, after some careful thought, including a return to an insight of St. Thomas Aquinas on the nature of charity, organ donation was soon accepted as an action capable of disclosing not only genuine human love but also divine caritas, or “gift love.”

The pace of medical advance has increased significantly over the past half-century, with no sign of abating. Accordingly, as the power and invasiveness of techniques designed to extend life and cure disease continue to grow, so too does public concern over the proper allocation, use and regulation of such techniques. Much if not most of this concern – the sort of questions being asked and the laws and policies being formulated – is being shaped by what has come to be called the “bioethics” movement. In its infancy (some four decades ago), this movement was deeply informed by Christian and especially Catholic voices but is now robustly secular in its orientation and approach. Despite this secular- ization, the Catholic Church continues to play an important and visible role through both its official teaching and theological reflection by helping to articulate the questions as well as the principles necessary for a truly human response to these many “biotech” challenges. Public debates about human embryonic stem-cell research, artificial reproductive technologies, the “tube- feeding” of patients in irreversibly brain-damaged states and the uses of genetic testing and gene- therapy are but a few of the better known instances in which the Church has been visibly engaged in the world of contemporary bioethics.

Given the long, rich and currently complicated relationship between the Church, medicine and contemporary bioethics, it is appropriate that the Center for Catholic Studies has taken a leadership role in examining these topics and will continue to do so in the future. The center has sponsored faculty seminars on the relationship between science and theology and has cosponsored public lectures on bioethical issues with the McLaurin Institute and the Program for Human Rights and Healthcare (both at the University of Minnesota). Beginning in spring 2008, it proposes to dedicate a three-year cycle of lectures and faculty summer seminars to the theme of “The Church and the Biomedical Revolution,” examining the contributions of both the Catholic and Orthodox Churches to contemporary bioethics. In addition, the department has supported faculty development projects and courses in the area of medicine and medical ethics, including the cross- listed undergraduate course, Christian Faith and the Medical Profession (which includes a variety of activities for students “in the field,” such as “shadowing” doctors on their rounds), and the graduate course, The Church and the Biomedical Revolution.

My work in bioethics extends beyond teaching and consultation on the well-known clinical questions and includes questions at the intersection of medicine, culture and theology. For example, my critical essay on the widely traveled exhibit of plastinated cadavers, Gunther von Hagens’ Body Worlds, will be published in fall 2008. Through my studies and work with various groups, I continue to be deeply interested in this complex and growing field. I am grateful for the opportunities to bring my background in theology and Catholic Studies to the discussions, so they may remain rooted in Jesus’ and the Church’s vision of the dignity of the human person.