By Richard Meek

The Catholic Commentator

Challenges faced by medical professionals in today’s constantly evolving health care arena are many, but perhaps the most prevalent is burnout, with emotional exhaustion, chronic stress and even a diminished view of personal accomplishment not far behind. 

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Arland Nichols addresses his constituents during the opening address of the Converging Roads: Catholic Social Doctrine in Medicine Conference held at the Bishop Tracy Center on Nov. 2. Sponsors of the daylong conference included the Office of Marriage and Family Life of the Diocese of Baton Rouge, Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center, Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady University and the St. John Paul Foundation, located in Houston.  Photo by Richard Meek | The Catholic Commentator  


However, one only needs to turn to Catholic social doctrine for the salve to cure what ails modern medicine.  

That was the message delivered by Arland Nichols during his opening address at the Converging Roads: Catholic Social Doctrine in Medicine Conference on Nov. 2 at the Tracy Center. The daylong conference, which attracted approximately 80 doctors, nurses, chaplains and other medical professionals, was presented by the Office of Marriage and Family Life of the Diocese of Baton Rouge, Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center, Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady University and the St. John Paul II Foundation, located in Houston.  

“I want to make sure you have a comprehensive understanding of Catholic social doctrine and perhaps seeing Catholic social doctrine as an antidote,” said Nichols, president and founder of the St. John Paul II Foundation.   

“The reality of burnout is very real,” he added. “It is a true challenge to practice medicine today.”  

Nichols, who is working on his Ph.D. in bioethics from Regina Apostolorum in Rome, said a disturbing trend of compartmentalization in medicine has resulted in physicians increasingly seen as providers rather than healers. Some doctors have a feeling like they are vending machines  

“Dr. Google walks in my office and I am just supposed to vend out what is requested,” Nichols said of the attitude of many physicians.”  

He added “Dr. Google” has created what amounts to amateur experts who consistently challenge the opinion of a medical professional because of what was read online.  

Also contributing to physician burnout are professionals being tethered to electronic medical records, challenges with the Affordable Care Act and reimbursement structures that have heightened the difficulty of doctors getting paid.  

“How do we bring the life, the purpose back to medicine?” he asked his colleagues, quickly adding Catholic social doctrine “might have something to say about this reality.”  

He broke down the principles of Catholic social doctrine as the dignity of the human person, the common good, the universal destination of goods, solidarity, dignity of work, marriage and family and the role of community and social values and religious liberty.  

Regarding the dignity of the person, he fell in line with Catholic teaching in stressing that every human life is sacred and must be respected.  

“It is the foundation for the very rights we claim as our own, the right to life, religious liberty, etc.,” he explained. “It cannot be taken away.”  

He said by choosing the good, “we become the best of men, the best of women.” 

He said the common good is woven throughout Catholic social doctrine and includes the importance of food, housing, the role of work, access to culture, religious liberty and basic health care.  

Attaining the common good is admittedly difficult but requires the common effort to seek the good of others “as if their good is our own good,” Nichols said. “The poor are entrusted to each one of us.”  

In the medical context, he said solidarity is manifested by seeing the patient not just as a disease and added that the entire medical team is called to the physical, emotional, social and spiritual good of the patient.  

“You just don’t Band-Aid the wounds; instead you care for the whole person,” Nichols said.  

He pointed out the basis for a Catholic approach is to reject certain interventions that ultimately causes physical or spiritual or social harm.  

“As medical professionals, you must first remember that  your patients come from families,” Nichols said. “They are not isolated, autonomous individuals. This always impacts the way we treat, the way we engage, the way we approach patients.”  

In the best of times, he explained, medicine relies on a covenant of trust between patients, their loved ones and the medical team, but in these days of getting patients in and out quickly, ungainly paperwork, and reimbursement challenges, those relationships are increasingly fractured.  

“For this reason, we need to redouble our efforts recognizing that a moral obligation helps both patients and doctors enter into a relationship of trust,” Nichols said.  

Citing the unique vocation of Catholic medical professionals, he said they have a greater responsibility to consider the ultimate end, the flourishing of a person in their care and to employ ethical norms.  

“You, in a sense because of your Catholic commitment, have a greater responsibility to love every patient, to offer them the very compassion of Christ and to accompany patients in their suffering.  

“An encounter with a Catholic professional should be an encounter with the good Samatarian, even better an encounter with Christ himself.” 

Dr. John Meinert, an associate professor at FMOLU where he also teaches moral theology and Catholic social thought, said Catholic bioethics and social thought are severely polarized in issues and methodology. He said those on the progressive side of politics take social thought seriously and spend a considerable amount of time focused on issues such as immigration, racism, poverty, etc., while those who are more traditionalists on abortion, contraception, euthanasia.  

“We belong to a church who teaches all of these things,” he said. “I think the contradiction is externally produced by ideology, not from the Gospel itself, which is why we see these tensions so strong in America, which is an extremely polarized society.”  

He acknowledged faith can be difficult to integrate into one’s practice but that medical professionals should reflect God and that reflects God’s goodness.  

“You’ve been baptized; act like it,” he said.