Catholic health care workers are facing a worldwide erosion of spiritual and moral standards in their profession, according to the leader of a Vatican-affiliated organization for Catholic nurses.
"In the United States, the biggest problem that Catholic nurses are facing is the ability to use their conscience," said Marylee Meehan, president of the International Catholic Committee of Nurses and Medical-Social Assistants, or CICIAMS.
The International Catholic Committee of Nurses and Medical-Social Assistants is a Dublin-based umbrella organization that unites national associations of Catholic nurses, midwives and health assistants from 26 active nations on five continents.
The international scope of the nurses' organization allows it to see trends in ethical and moral realms.
In Rome to speak at a Vatican seminar on world health issues, Meehan told CNA that pro-life issues are at the top of U.S. health workers' concerns.
Many young nurses and health assistants are "timid" about breaching the subject, especially in regard to abortions. Veterans fear that if they speak out, or refuse to take part in certain procedures they will be fired.
"It's a problem, when you want to apply for a job and you will not provide abortions, they will not accept you," said Meehan about some U.S. hospitals.
She explained that an applicant to a maternity unit can be screened out with direct questions about their position on the issue. Those with the courage to call themselves pro-life at a job interview could be blocked from serious consideration.
Meehan seeks to provide support for these men and women through their national associations to give them voice and a place to share their stories. It is necessary, she said, because "somebody made abortion legal, but that didn't make it moral."
On an international level, the association is witnessing an "implosion" where "new cultural trends" are eroding the spiritual side of health care, she said in her address at the seminar. The "circle of Catholic health institutions" is not immune to these cultural changes, she said.
She cited the recent stripping of the "Catholic" status of St. Joseph's Hospital in Phoenix, Arizona for providing an abortion in "clear violations of the U.S. Bishops' Ethical and Medical Directives" as an example of an action "contrary to the teaching of the Catholic Church."
In addition to abortion and euthanasia, the committee is seeing concerns related to "children's condoms," in-vitro fertilization, AIDS transmission and the concept of bearing children as a "right." There are also questions about adequate medical attention for the elderly.
Amid the many issues that assail the nurse's conscience today, "it takes extreme courage to be a Catholic living the Catholic life in their professional environment," said Meehan.
The concern of American nurses is apparent from the most recent member statistics. The National Association of Catholic Nurses in the U.S. saw its membership triple in 2010, said Meehan.
She said the increase was also due to the fact that the Catholic association is recognized by employers who require staff to hold membership in a national association. The NACN is a valid option for anyone, even non-Catholics, she said.
Although European memberships have been on the decline in recent decades, some places such as Ireland remain strong. Mission nations like India, which now has more than 10,000 members, have shown solid growth. Mexico also has a strong association.
The Catholic nurses association seeks to provide a forum for collaboration and communion among all of them. It holds a world congress every four years to bring member-associations together. The next will be in Croatia in 2013.
It also serves in an intermediary with the Vatican and provides them a collective voice at the United Nations or the World Health Organization.
National associations are united by more than just their membership, said Meehan. "When you talk about Catholic health professionals, it means that they are united by an understanding and the protection of the sanctity of life. Catholic nurses are doing it for God and we're conscious of doing it for God."
To those people who see Catholicism as "anti-everything," Meehan hopes the good things Catholics are doing in health care worldwide will knock down barriers.
"Ears will be opened" when people hear about the good works of Catholic nurses, said Meehan. "And then, when we have to talk about issues they don't want to hear, they'll start listening."