Pope Francis on conscientious objection by health care practitioners

La Croix misrepresents papal statement

Sean Murphy*

Pope FrancisAn article in La Croix International, “Pope reminds health workers to put patients first” includes a subtitle, “Conscientious objectors told that human dignity demands exceptions sometimes be made.” (La Croix International, 20 May, 2019)

The subtitle reflects speculation by critics unidentified by the article’s anonymous author(s) that the Pope’s comments were aimed at “pro-lifers who may object to performing an abortion, even though the mother may, for various reasons, risk serious and even life-threatening physical or psychological trauma should she try to conceive.”

La Croix appears to be alone among news agencies in putting this “spin” upon the Pope’s address (Compare reports by Crux, Vatican News, ANSA, and the Catholic Herald, for example).

“[T]o put patients first” accurately conveys one of Pope Francis’ messages to the Italian Catholic Association of Health Care Workers.

“Conscientious objectors told that human dignity demands exceptions sometimes be made” does not.

Nothing in the text of the of the Pope’s address remotely suggests that human dignity sometimes requires health care workers to set aside their conscientious convictions and their objections and do what they believe to be wrong.

Pope Francis said nothing of the kind.  But that is precisely the kind of demand made by activists and even state authorities in a number of countries, even (as in Canada) to the extent of forcing unwilling practitioners to be parties to killing their patients or helping them commit suicide.

The misrepresentation exemplified in the La Croix article supports such attacks on freedom of conscience (and religion) and exacerbates the problems faced by healthcare practitioners attempting to resist them.

What Pope Francis actually had to say warrants attention by anyone who wants to understand the exercise of freedom of conscience by health care practitioners.

He noted that “any medical practice or intervention on the human being must first be carefully assessed if it actually respects human life and dignity (“di ogni pratica medica o intervento sull’essere umano si deve prima valutare con attenzione se rispetti effettivamente la vita e la dignità umana.”) .

When health care practitioners refuse to provide procedures or services, it is typically because they have made that assessment,and consider the interventions contrary to the good of the human person and subversive of the integrity and dignity of human life: in brief, harmful to the patient.

Conscientious objection in such circumstances, the Pope said, does not just reflect the need to preserve one’s personal integrity, but “also represents a sign for the healthcare environment in which we find ourselves, as well as for the patients themselves and their families” ( “ma rappresenta anche un segno per l’ambiente sanitario nel quale ci si trova, oltre che nei confronti dei pazienti stessi e delle loro famiglie. “)

In many situations, this “sign” may well be a sign of contradiction to the dominant ethos, likely to trigger violent emotional reactions and repression by state or professional authorities. Hence, for purely pragmatic reasons, it behooves objecting practitioners to be careful in expressing themselves. Beyond this, Pope Francis offers advice that reflects the actual practice of practitioners who responsibly exercise freedom of conscience:

La scelta dell’obiezione, tuttavia, quando necessaria, va compiuta con rispetto, perché non diventi motivo di disprezzo o di orgoglio ciò che deve essere fatto con umiltà, per non generare in chi vi osserva un uguale disprezzo, che impedirebbe di comprendere le vere motivazioni che ci spingono. È bene invece cercare sempre il dialogo, soprattutto con coloro che hanno posizioni diverse, mettendosi in ascolto del loro punto di vista e cercando di trasmettere il vostro, non come chi sale in cattedra, ma come chi cerca il vero bene delle persone. Farsi compagni di viaggio di chi ci sta accanto, in particolare degli ultimi, dei più dimenticati, degli esclusi: questo è il miglior modo per comprendere a fondo e con verità le diverse situazioni e il bene morale che vi è implicato.

The choice of the objection, however, when necessary, must be made with respect, so that what must be done with humility, so as not to generate an equal contempt, which would prevent the understanding of the true motivations that drive us. Instead, it is good to always seek dialogue, especially with those who have different positions, listening to their point of view and trying to transmit yours, not as someone who goes up in the chair, but as someone who seeks the true good of people. Be the traveling companions of those around us, especially the last, the most forgotten, the excluded: this is the best way to fully understand the different situations and the moral good that is involved.

Source: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, Discorso del Santo Padre Francesco all’ Assocziazone Cattolica Operatori Sanitari (ACOS).  Sala Clementina, Venerdì, 17 maggio 2019.

Photo by Nacho Arteaga on Unsplash

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