Catholic Healthcare Should Remain Publicly Catholic
BY ANNE NOLTE, MD
As doctors, we desire the best health outcomes for our patients. I am a family doctor with an area of concentration in women’s health and fertility, practicing at the Gianna Center in New York City. My practice is largely focused on women’s health, gynecology, and infertility. As a result, the health outcome that I most desire for my patients is for them to not just be free from diseases and illnesses, but also to truly flourish in every aspect of their lives. I want them to have healthy relationships, free from abuse and manipulation, in which their dignity as women is respected by romantic partners. I want their relationships to be life-giving and for them to enjoy the health benefits of the long-term, monogamous relationship called marriage. I want them to get off of the merry-go-round of superficial, spirit-crushing relationships that are the hallmark of the “hook-up” culture, and which I have no doubt contribute to the epidemic of depression and suicidal ideation to which the media has recently, rightly, drawn attention.
As Catholics, we ask, “how do we evangelize the post-modern, secular humanist culture? As doctors, we ask, “how do I help to facilitate the best health outcomes for my patients?” When we founded the National Gianna Center in 2009, we did so with the conviction that the answers to these two questions are inseparably intermingled, that coming to know God was essential for any person to truly flourish, and that without a relationship with Him, something will always be lacking. We refused to accept the false dichotomy that religion and medicine should be separated. If God is our creator, then keeping His wisdom for human flourishing as the guiding principles for all that we do, including the medical care that we offer to our patients, will inevitably lead to the best health outcomes for them. The tricky part has always been how to put these concepts into practice in the world of medicine.
We developed our model for a national network of faithfully Catholic medical centers, named after St. Gianna Beretta Molla, based on what we observed about the patients we serve who have already achieved the health outcomes we desired — from the young women committed to sexual abstinence before marriage who, avoiding all of the temptations of the “hook-up” culture, remain free of its pitfalls, to the married couples whose relationships actually become stronger and deeper when faced with hardships like an unexpected pregnancy, infertility, or adverse prenatal diagnosis. What was it about these women and men, who no matter what hardship they faced, never gave up on the choice for virtue, and as a result, enjoyed the physical, emotional, relational and spiritual health that we desired for all of our patients?
A common pattern emerged in their stories: At some point in their lives, they had an experience that awakened in them the conviction that God is real, is present in a hidden way in their lives, and desires an intimate and personal relationship with them. As a result of this experience, they began to seek to know this hidden God more deeply, through two means, prayer and education, or what we call “formation.” This led to a deepening desire to live according to a set of virtuous principles and over time, with the practice of virtue, they became strong in their decisions to live according to the principles which ultimately protect their health and their hearts.
We recognized that as health care providers, we cannot make this happen — it occurs only through the power of God’s gratuitous grace. But, we theorized, we can create a space in which the process can start, and we can support this process as it happens. We believe, and have preliminarily demonstrated, that the following four “core services” can be delivered as part of a medical-educational model and can accomplish meaningful change in human behavior that leads to better health outcomes:
• Creating a space for an individual to experience God as real through small group lectio divina
• Formation and education programs that support growth in virtue
• Access to effective methods of natural family planning (NFP), delivered by well-formed teachers and health care providers who are able to not just provide education about the biology of NFP but who, as a result of their own formation, can truly accompany couples as they use the methods;
• Access to reproductive health that is in line with Catholic ethics when reproductive health problems, like infertility and adverse prenatal diagnoses, arise.
At the same time that we founded the first Gianna Center for Women to deliver the natural family planning and medical services, we formed the John Paul II Center for Women to create and deliver the formation and education programs which complete our model. The John Paul II Center for Women is a nonprofit dedicated to promoting the Church’s teachings regarding the dignity of women, the meaning of human sexuality and human relationships, the beauty of natural family planning alternatives, the need for authentically Catholic reproductive health care alternatives, and the importance of Catholic medical ethics. Through our commitment to these “core services,” we lay the foundation for women and families to flourish and to obtain the health outcomes we have described.
Gianna medical centers serve all patients, Catholic and non-Catholic alike. Our goal is for every patient to leave her medical visit feeling empowered by the high quality, ethically-sound medical care that she has received, feeling that her concerns have been acknowledged, and feeling in a deep and profound way, that she has been cared for and loved as a person. Having experienced something so different from every other medical experience she has ever had, we hope she will leave wondering what makes us different and will recognize that what makes us different is that we are Catholic. In this way, even without saying a word, Gianna evangelizes the community, one patient at a time.
These individuals and families then evangelize the community around them, thereby extending the impact of the Gianna mission. These women and families live in the world. They accompany their friends and co-workers, and their influence starts the process of conversion for others. As others begin to walk down the path toward a relationship with God, the John Paul II and Gianna Centers stand ready to support them on the journey.
Dr. Nolte serves as the President of the New York Guild of the Catholic Medical Association, Chair of the Pro-life Commission of the Archdiocese of New York, and the Main Representative to the United Nations for the World Federation of Catholic Medical Associations.
This article originally appeared in The Pulse of Catholic Medicine, a publication of the Catholic Medical Association.