Doctors are servants, not owners, of life, pope says

Junno Arocho Esteves
Jun 24, 2019

ROME – Catholic doctors have a mission to show God’s compassionate love to those who are suffering and to defend life at all stages, Pope Francis said.

While progress has been made in treating patients, medical professionals always must “remember that healing means respecting the gift of life from the beginning to the end,” the pope said June 22 during a meeting with members of the International Federation of Catholic Medical Associations.

“We are not the owners: Life is entrusted to us and doctors are its servants,” he said. “Your mission is at the same time a witness of humanity, a privileged way of making people see, of making them feel that God our father takes care of every single person, without distinction.”

Members of the association were in Rome to celebrate the organization’s consecration to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Noting that the first Christian communities presented Jesus as a physician, the pope said that Christ’s primary mission was to be close to the sick and the suffering, especially those “who were despised and marginalized” because of their conditions.

“In this way, Jesus breaks the judgment of condemnation that often labeled the sick person as a sinner,” he explained. “With this compassionate closeness, he manifests God the father’s infinite love for his most needy children.”

Jesus, he continued, would approach those suffering from illness and care for them “with sincere love” and heal not only their bodies, but also their hearts through the forgiveness of sins.

Christ would also share “a personal relationship that was rich, not mechanical, not at a distance” with those oppressed by both physical and spiritual illness, the pope added.

“You are called to encourage, to console, to raise, to give hope,” the pope told the physicians. “We cannot be cured and cure without hope; in this we are all in need and grateful to God, who gives us hope.”

The style of Catholic doctors, he said, must be one that “combines professionalism with the capacity for collaboration and ethical rigor” that benefits suffering patients.

“By continually renewing yourselves,” the pope said, “by drawing on the sources of the word of God and the sacraments, you will be able to carry out your mission well, and the Spirit will give you the gift of discernment to deal with delicate and complex situations, and to speak the right words in the right way and with the right silence at the right time.”

Pope Francis is pictured on the monitor of a video camera as he leads an audience with members of the International Federation of Catholic Medical Associations in the Sala Regia at the Vatican June 22, 2019. (Credit: CNS photo/Vatican Media.)


Address of His Holiness Pope Francis to The World Federation of Catholic Medical Associations (FIAMC)

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

I am pleased to welcome you and I greet all of you, beginning with your President, Dr. John Lee, whom I thank for his kind words.

As Catholic physicians, you are committed to an ongoing spiritual, moral and bioethical formation that enables you to bring the values and principles of the Gospel to your practice of medicine, from the doctor-patient relationship to missionary activity aimed at improving health conditions among peoples living on the peripheries of our world. Your work is a particular form of human solidarity and Christian witness, and is enriched by the spirit of faith. It is important that your Associations be concerned to make medical students and young physicians aware of these principles by involving them in your various activities.

Your Catholic identity poses no obstacle to your cooperation with those who, whether from a different religious perspective or with no specific creed, acknowledge the dignity and grandeur of the human person as the criterion of their activity. The Church is committed to life, and to ensuring that nothing opposed to life be imposed on any person, however frail or defenceless, underdeveloped or challenged, he or she may be. To be a Catholic physician thus means being a health care professional who finds in personal faith and communion with the Church a source of inspiration to grow constantly in Christian living and professional expertise, in tireless devotion to others and in the desire to learn and understand the laws of nature in order to serve life ever more effectively (cf. Paul VI, Encyclical Humanae vitae, 24).

Everyone is aware of the fidelity and consistency with which the Associations of your Federation have, down the years, maintained their Catholic identity and followed the Church’s teaching and the directives of her Magisterium in the medical-moral field. This criterion of recognition and action has fostered your cooperation in the Church’s mission of promoting and defending human life from conception to its natural end, out of concern for the quality of life, respect for the weakest, the humanization of medicine and its full socialization.

This fidelity frequently entails hardships and difficulties that, in certain situations, call for great courage. I encourage you to persevere with serenity and conviction along this path, receiving the magisterial interventions in the areas of medicine with an awareness of their moral implications. For the fields of medicine and health care have not been immune to the advance of the technocratic cultural paradigm, the worship of unlimited human power and a practical relativism, wherein everything is considered irrelevant unless necessary for one’s personal interests (cf. Laudato Si’, 122).

In this context, you are called upon to affirm the centrality of the patient as a person, together with his or her dignity and inalienable rights, especially the right to life. The tendency to view the sick as machines to be repaired, without respect for moral principles, and to exploit the weakest by discarding what does not respond to the ideology of efficiency and profit, has to be resisted. The defence of the personal dimension of the patient is essential for the humanization of medicine, also in terms of “human ecology”. Make every effort, in your respective countries and on the international level, to speak out in specialized environments but also in debates about legislation dealing with sensitive ethical problems such as the termination of pregnancy, end-of-life issues and genetic medicine. Take care also to defend the freedom of conscience of physicians and of healthcare workers. It is not acceptable that your role should be reduced to that of a simple executor of the will of the patient or the requirements of the health-care system in which you work.

In your forthcoming Congress, to be held a few days from now in Zagreb, you will reflect upon the theme: “Sanctity of Life and the Medical Profession, from Humanae vitae to Laudato Si’”. This too is evidence of your participation in the Church’s life and mission. This participation – as the Second Vatican Council made clear – “is so necessary within the Church communities that without it the apostolate of the pastors will frequently be unable to obtain its full effect” (Apostolicam actuositatem, 10). Be ever more aware that today it is necessary and urgent that the activity of the Catholic physician be unmistakably evident on the level of both personal and group witness.

In this regard, it is desirable that the activities of Associations of Catholic doctors be interdisciplinary and involve other ecclesial realities. In particular, consider how to coordinate your efforts with those of priests, men and women religious, and all engaged in pastoral care of the sick. Join them in being close to people who suffer; they are in great need of your help. Be ministers not only of care but also of fraternal charity, helping those with whom you come in contact by your knowledge, your great humanity and your evangelical compassion.

Dear brothers and sisters, so many people look to you and your work. Your words, your actions, your advice and your decisions have an echo far beyond the strictly professional sector and become, if consistent, a witness of lived faith. Your profession thus rises to the dignity of a true apostolate. I encourage you to carry forward the efforts of your Associations with joy and generosity, in cooperation with all those individuals and institutions that share a love for life and endeavour to serve it in its dignity and sanctity. May the Virgin Mary, Salus Infirmorum, sustain your efforts, which I accompany with my blessing. And please, pray also for me. Thank you.