Boston hosts Catholic Medical Assoc. conference

BOSTON -- Reason can lead all people to understand the natural moral law, according to speakers at this year’s 75th annual conference of the Catholic Medical Association Oct. 26-28 at Boston’s Park Plaza Hotel.

The conference, entitled “The Natural Moral Law: God’s Gift to Humanity,” focused on the universal ethical principles in medical practice.

John M. Haas, a bioethicist and president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Pennsylvania, said the Church teaches that contraceptives are intrinsically evil because of natural law. Contraceptives treat fertility as a defect, and it is unreasonable to treat a good as if it is an evil, he said.

“While we are under no obligation to realize all goods of which we are capable, we are obligated never to act against a good as though it were an evil,” he said.

During his talk, “Contraception and the Marital Contract,” Haas illustrated this point with an example. He said if his son asked him to join in a game of basketball and he could not, he could respond in two ways: Haas could yell and berate the boy for asking -- treating the good of their friendship as if it were an evil -- or he could offer the reasonable response of explaining why he could not play and scheduling the activity for a later time.

Gerald P. Corcoran, the CMA’s president-elect and 2006 conference chair, said he was encouraged by Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical “Deus Caritas Est.” The letter, published after the conference’s topic had been chosen, puts a renewed emphasis on the natural law, he said.

The first day of the conference featured three speakers from Catholic, Jewish and Islamic backgrounds who spoke about precepts applicable to medical practice in their respective faiths. These talks emphasized the common medical goals that the three monotheistic religions share, he said.

Corcoran added that this year’s conference exceeded his expectations. Nearly 400 physicians, nurses and medical students from more than 30 states participated in the conference. In addition to lectures, the event featured daily Mass, perpetual adoration, CMA board meetings and the annual White Mass for doctors. The CMA conference was last held in Boston 27 years ago.

Hadley Arkes, a professor of political science at Amherst College, spoke on “Abortion, Natural Moral Law and the Ends of Medicine.” In his talk Arkes said that the arguments often used to justify abortion simply do not hold up when applied to real life situations.

For example, he said, pregnancy may add strain on a mother and family finances, but the strains do not justify the taking of life.

“The same strain on the psyche of the mother and the finances of the family could arise with the addition of an aged parent to the household, and when it comes to straining the psyche of a mother, there might be a better case for removing the 13-year-old that is already the terror of the household rather than the offspring that hasn’t had the chance to show any malevolence yet,” Arkes said.

Psychiatrist Richard Fitzgibbons, director of Comprehensive Counseling Services in Pennsylvania, spoke about programs initiated to respond to the clergy abuse crisis in his talk “The Crisis in the Church and Adolescent Males.” The CMA recently published a task force report entitled “To Protect and to Prevent: The Sexual Abuse of Children and its Prevention.”

The task force found problems with many of the programs being implemented in dioceses through the U.S. in response to the clergy sexual abuse crisis. Most , he said, incorrectly focus on the problem of pedophilia -- an attraction to prepubescent children -- while the vast majority of victims of clergy sexual abuse were teenage boys.

Most problematic are the abuse prevention programs used for instructing children, Fitzgibbons said.

“Many university studies of child empowerment programs show them to be ineffective at preventing the sexual abuse of children. These programs are inconsistent with the science of child development and basically with the Church’s teaching in regard to the moral development of children,” he said. “The humble request of the Catholic Medical Association to the bishops at their October meeting is to please rescind these programs as soon as possible.”

Other speakers and topics included Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk on stem-cell research, Joseph E. Murray on “Moral and Ethical Considerations of Organ Transplantation,” Bishop Robert J. McManus on “The Natural Moral Law: Basis for the Search for Unity of Truth” and Mary Lou Ashur on “Domestic Violence: The Elephant in the Exam Room.”

The first Catholic physicians guild, The Guild of St. Luke, was founded in Boston in 1912. Other local guilds followed throughout the nation and in 1932 they came together to form the National Federation of Catholic Physicians Guilds. Annual conferences began to be held a few years later. The organization adopted its present name in 1997.

From its inception, the association has published the Linacre Quarterly, named after Thomas Linacre, a physician and priest in 16th century England. Linacre regulated the practice of medicine at that time through founding the Royal College of Physicians. In 1957 the CMA began honoring writers of the most inspiring or educational medical articles with the Linacre Award.

This year’s recipient of the award was Lynne Bissonnette-Pitre for her article, “Divine Paternity,” which addressed the responsibility physicians have to care for their patients both physically and spiritually. During her acceptance of the award, Bissonnette-Pitre said she wrote the paper about a patient who had been sexually abused by family members when he was a child.

“In my experience for 27 years as a physician-psychiatrist, I have found that the most wounded, the most seriously maltreated, the sexually abused and injured children, are the ones who are most desperately in need of the salvific healing that comes from the relationship with Christ Jesus and through Christ Jesus with the Eternal Father who is the source of all divine love and the source of all true fatherhood,” she said.

Both longtime participants and first-time attendees said they found the conference enriching.

Eric Norton, a physician from Lyman, S.C., said the conference is “a great source of spiritual enrichment and good medical science.”

Norton has been a doctor for the last 10 years and attending the conferences for just as long. The CMA has supported him in practicing medicine in conformity with Catholic teaching for his whole career, he said.

Ashley Sittig, a second-year medical student at Louisiana State University, said she hopes to take home knowledge about Church teaching on medical ethics as well as a support system.

“It’s a nice, safe place for me to learn and discuss more issues that I know will become relevant concerns that I’ll face in my training, residency and practice,” she said of the conference.