[On January 17, 2011, the first meeting of Catholic doctors took place at St. Paul Inside the Walls. Thus began the initiative to invite physicians to the Evangelization Center on a regular basis in order to respond to their needs as Catholic doctors in our secular culture. The article below contains the substance of Bishop Serratelli’s words of welcome to them.]

“I swear by Apollo Physician and Asclepius and Hygieia and Panaceia and all the gods and goddesses, making them my witnesses, that I will fulfill according to my ability and judgment this oath… and never do harm to anyone.”

So begins the Hippocratic Oath. It is one of the oldest binding documents in history. From the time of Hippocrates, doctors have uttered this solemn oath that bears his name. While praying to Asclepius and the other gods remains in the oath as a poetic reminder of more primitive times, the values of life, privacy and confidentiality that the oath promotes are as normative today as in ancient Greece.

Hippocrates (460 BC-370 BC) was a Greek physician known today as the “Father of Medicine.” He revolutionized the practice of medicine. Hippocrates taught that diseases had a physical and a rational explanation. He refused to attribute illness to superstition. Rather, he based his medical practice on empirical observations and on the study of the human body. The Corpus Hippocraticum contains a wealth of information on biomedical methodology. These writings also offer one of the first reflective codes of professional ethics.

Pope Pius XII once commented on the enduring significance of Hippocrates. The Pope said, “The works of Hippocrates are without doubt the noblest expression of a professional conscience which above all else calls for respect for life and self-sacrifice in relation to sick people and also pays attention to personal factors: self-control, dignity, reserve. He knew how to present moral norms and to integrate them into a broad and harmonious program of study, and he thus gave a present to civilization which was even more magnificent than that made by those who built empires” (Pope Pius XII, Discorso ai Medici, September 19, 1954).

However, times have changed since Pope Pius XII spoke those words. With the legalization of abortion, embryonic stem cell research, the completion of the human genome project and, in some places, doctor-assisted suicide, there is no universal acceptance of the same moral norms governing the practice of medicine. In fact, since the late 1800s, many medical schools in America have abandoned taking the Hippocratic Oath as a part of their graduation ceremonies. Others have substituted a more modern version of the oath.

Today, without an awareness of the ethical dimension of their work, professionals in medicine risk limiting themselves to the scientific and technological aspects of their work. Once this happens, “health care professionals can be strongly tempted…to become manipulators of life, or even agents of death. In the face of this temptation their responsibility today is greatly increased. Its deepest inspiration and strongest support lie in the intrinsic and undeniable ethical dimension of the medical profession” (Evangelium Vitae, 89).

The Church has much to offer all those in the health care profession. Her teachings on medical issues are grounded in the natural law. They are discoverable and understandable by reason and enlightened by divine revelation that purifies and elevates our use of reason. The Church’s teachings, therefore, can give to all in the health care profession the guiding moral values that respect the dignity of the human person and the sacredness of life itself. With her teachings, the Church can offer a wider understanding that lifts medicine beyond a mere science to a healing art that promotes and safeguards God’s gift of life.

Most assuredly, physicians bear a high responsibility for life itself. Doctors provide an invaluable service for life — all aspects of life —  physical, emotional and spiritual. Every day, those in the medical profession face the basic realities of life: birth, growth, sickness, suffering and death. Good doctors care not just for the body, but for the whole person. The more Catholic doctors come to understand the Church’s teachings on medical issues, the more they can benefit the common good.

Ultimately, being a doctor or healthcare worker is more than being engaged in a respected profession. It is responding, day and night, to a most special vocation given by God. It is “from God, the doctor has his wisdom” (Sir 38:2). The health care profession is a call to share in the very work of the Lord himself.

All four gospels give us the portrait of Jesus actively engaged in healing. He spent his public ministry bringing to those who accepted his word wholeness of the mind, body and soul. He continues his work of healing by gifting certain individuals with the talents, abilities and desires to work in medicine. Theirs is a most noble profession, for the human face of medicine is always a reflection of the compassionate face of Christ, the Good Samaritan, who has come that we “might have life and have life in abundance” (Jn 10:10).

Reprinted with permission of The Beacon, newspaper of the Paterson Diocese.