The Catholic Church's new medical and bioethical charter goes beyond just health professionals; it encompasses all things related to health. Photo courtesy of Jeff Kramer via Flickr []

Vatican's new health charter goes beyond patient-doctor relations

By  Carol Glatz, Catholic News Service
  • February 20, 2017

VATICAN CITY – When updating the Catholic Church's medical and bioethical charter, experts decided it wasn't enough to aim the guidelines at health care professionals.

The entire "ecosystem" encompassing medical workers, patients, the sick and vulnerable had to be addressed, said the head of the drafting committee.

Everything in the system – laws, social policies, economic situations, war, injustice, drug and insurance companies, social and family networks and the environment – can have an impact on people's right to life and access to basic healthcare, said Camillian Father Augusto Chendi, undersecretary delegate of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development.

The "New Charter for Health Care Workers," released in Italian in early February, was meant to update the charter published by the Pontifical Council for Health Care Ministry in 1994. Father Chendi – an expert in moral theology and bioethics – spent years as a hospital chaplain, then worked at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and later was named undersecretary of the Pontifical Council for Health Care Ministry, which was merged into the new dicastery for human development.

Members of the committee charged with revising and updating the charter wanted to address the many medical advancements and bioethical dilemmas that emerged over the past two decades, such as what determines brain death, the cryopreservation of human eggs and embryos, and advance directives.

St. John Paul II, Popes Benedict XVI and Francis and the doctrinal congregation had released a number of important teachings and responses dealing with many bioethical questions over the years, and those needed to be included in the updated charter, the priest told Catholic News Service.

Pope Francis, with his apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, showed "a global dimension of health and all the problems of justice" linked with access to basic care as well as the impact climate change and pollution have on human health, he said.

Pope Benedict's teachings in Spe Salvi (2007) and Caritas in Veritate (2009) addressed the need for "solidarity, subsidiarity and the common good," Father Chendi said, and how they relate to current injustices in the world of health.

Responses from the doctrinal congregation concerning "the problem of imperfect laws and the role of Catholic politicians" and the obligation of providing artificial nutrition and hydration for patients in a "vegetative state," which may involve the judicial system if contested, also showed how many different "professional figures revolve around the world of health."

The new charter, which is expected to be released this year in English, no longer "faces problems only tied to the relationship" between the doctor, nurse or aide and patient like the first one did, he said.

Rather, it takes on "the relationship the state must undertake with the world of health care" and calls on the rest of society and the private sector to be ethical in its practices, Father Chendi said.

One major example, he said, would be pharmaceutical companies, which must find a balance between reaping legitimate returns on research and development while also making their products accessible to people in need as well as producing drugs for rare diseases, which offer little profit-incentive because the market is so small.

"They are universal values that the public and private (spheres) are called to respond to, according to their specific responsibility; values that pertain to the dignity and life of every person," he said.

In fact, Father Chendi said, the way health care is connected to issues of justice and peace, the work of charitable organizations and solidarity in local development, and the needs and vulnerabilities of migrants, refugees and travellers shows how Pope Francis' decision to merge the four councils specializing in these fields into "a symphonic arrangement" also "effectively corresponds to the new problems emerging in the world of health care."

One area needing much more attention, Father Chendi said, is health education, specifically teaching cleanliness and personal hygiene, especially in impoverished areas and areas vulnerable to the spread of so-called "neglected" tropical diseases.

"There is no pharmaceutical that can replace" better sanitation, food hygiene and personal care practices like frequent hand washing and not sharing utensils, he said.

Since role models are so powerful in influencing people's behaviours, especially when those gestures come from the Pope, Father Chendi said it would have a huge impact on human health if the Pope were to simply wash his hands before sitting down to share something to eat with others.

Such a simple humble gesture "would echo worldwide," he said, and give so many people a critical key to better health.

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