ABC's of Ethical Health Care; Pope's Passover

The Good Samaritan as a Model

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By Catherine Smibert

ROME, FEB. 24, 2005 ( Just prior to the annual assembly of the Pontifical Academy for Life, one of its members gave bioethics students a glimpse of the issues the academy would deal with.

Auxiliary Bishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney, a former director of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and the Family, in Melbourne, had already been giving an intensive course at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University, before we met after a lecture last Thursday.

The theme of his lecture had been close to many people’s hearts, «Justice in the Allocation of Health-care Services.»

The 44-year-old bishop contended that the disparities in health-care resources at times involve fundamental issues such as the gap between rich and poor nations.

«A great many issues at the moment in health-care ethics and in issues of life and death, ultimately turn on resources,» he said.

He told the class about how some jurisdictions were on the brink of recommending more public funding for the distribution of contraceptives than for hip replacements, based on surveys of peoples’ «needs.» Similarly, in vitro fertilization ranked higher in «funding needs» than normal obstetric care.

The bishop critiqued this approach to the problem along with others such as the «accountancy solution» (investing in the young and taking away from the old).

He said a key question he raises with people is: «In the face of a huge, economic mind-set which is, more and more, driving decision making in health care and in life and death issues, do we as Catholics have an alternative wisdom to offer from our tradition?»

Taking a page from the Gospel, Bishop Fisher pointed to the example of the Good Samaritan.

We need, he said, to take hold of the Samaritan’s «willingness to put people’s needs first and to really stretch ourselves to address their needs rather than always making decisions according to what seems the most economically rational or efficient way of dealing with the situation.

«There’s a wisdom there that speaks to our contemporary situation with things like abortion, IVF, heath resources in hospitals and so on.»

Bishop Fisher hastened to add: «The Good Samaritan story is just one little bit of the Gospel and we have to take the whole of the Scriptures and Tradition together. They teach us that, of course, we have to be concerned for the common good, not just for one person’s needs right now in front of us.

«So, of course, you can’t just be driven by a Good Samaritan ethic in health care, but have to consider things such as costs, public opinion and culture.

«But, what is very clear in the Good Samaritan story is that what has to be first and foremost is a love for the human person — the Good Samaritan sees someone who doesn’t belong to his tribe or religion but is another human being in desperate need and that comes first.»

«We have to keep the human person in the center, that’s what really matters,» says the Australian prelate, «that person in crying need and how we’re going to help them best.»

When I asked just how we could respond to the tide of anti-life paradigms, Bishop Fisher brought up Jesus’ golden rule.

«I think each of us should ask ourselves a question along the lines of doing unto others as we’d have them do unto us,» he said. “That is, if I was a very poor person in my country who had great health care needs, would I be satisfied with way things are in my country? If I can honestly say yes to that, then I can be proud of the health system where I am.»

Bishop Fisher stressed that «ordinary people could be much better informed about how their taxes are being spent, where their health resources go and who the winners and losers are in their particular countries. This should in turn affect their voting patterns, their own lobbying and efforts to make a more merciful and just society.»

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Lesson in Pain

John Paul II’s illness has special meaning in this Year of the Eucharist, and especially in Lent, says Cardinal James Stafford, major penitentiary of the Church.

«We have a unique context of the re-emphasis upon the Eucharist and that unique context is the illness of the Holy Father,» the cardinal said in a recent Vatican Radio interview. «The Holy Father is going through a Passover of suffering, which is illness.»

Cardinal Stafford says that because of this illness, the Pope can identify more deeply with Jesus in the Eucharist.

«He is giving his life and his weakened body, and asking Jesus to take it and unite it with His suffering as a redemptive offering to the Father, Victim, Priest that we find in the Blessed Sacrament,» the cardinal said.

We are, in turn, called to do the same, he added.

«My sense,» said the cardinal, «is that the Holy Father in this unique moment is calling us to a deeper, more penetrating understanding of the Eucharist as he himself is experiencing the Pasch of illness which has certainly led him into a more intimate communion with the Body of Christ.»

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Fanfare for the Family

A new document entitled «A Confidential Letter from One Family to Another …» has been making the rounds of Roman parishes in recent weeks.

It is a way that the Vicariate of Rome’s Pastoral Family Center is communicating its presence to the community while stimulating renewed commitment to family life.

The letter begins by recognizing the amount of happiness — and tiredness — that having a family can be to a couple.

It talks of newlyweds who believe that they will never be alone again — and then rediscover loneliness when their spouses have to work long hours to meet household expenses (Rome is an expensive place!).

The Family Center moves on to discuss the solitude that families may feel, once they realize that helpful friends and neighbors have started to drift away.

Here is where, the document says, «couples begin to be so overwhelmed by their lifestyle that they forget their reasons for ever getting married in the first place and why they chose to give life to their children.»

At this point, the vicariate tries to remind the couples that they joined their lives in order to be happy.

To some, the concept of finding happiness in coupledom and the family unit is getting to be a thing of the past, the document states. However, it points out that God has shown and promised us that the way for the family is through true love — something very real.

«You don’t need to be afraid!» the document exhorts. «Together we can produce a more pro-family environment by asking those administrators who create our social and economic conditions to give us more time to be together.

«We should ask them to organize the city according to the real measurements of a family — expressly considering the children, the elderly and those who don’t have the capacity to defend themselves.

«We must think positively and contest all sad, lost and false models of the family that are exhibited so often in the media.»

Toward the end of the letter, one reads that the path to family happiness requires hard work — but anything is possible with optimism and conviction: «The future is ours, happiness is ours!»

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Catherine Smibert can be reached at

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