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Freedom of Conscience and Freedom to Serve the Sick Print E-mail

February 1, 2012 | The Long Island Catholic Vol. 50, No. 38  | BISHOP WILLIAM MURPHY

Like many of you in this liturgical year when the Sunday Gospels are from the Gospel of Mark, I am using Mark for my morning meditation. The morning I am writing this I prayed over Mark 3, specifically vv 10-18. Early in his mission, Mark tells us that Jesus attracted crowds, “He cured many and, as a result, those who had diseases were pressing upon him to touch him.” He then went up a mountain to pray and from there called his first apostles who had already witnessed him curing the diseased. These “He appointed as apostles to be with Him and He sent them to preach and to have authority to drive out demons.”

From the very beginning of His ministry Jesus showed Himself to be a healer, a healer of diseases, a healer of hearts and souls, a healer who always shared His healing power with all those whom He commissioned as apostles. Those apostles and the whole Church after them have always seen healing as one of the hallmarks of Jesus’ mission. In imitation of Him and in faithfulness to His command, the apostles, Peter, James, John, Paul and Barnabas, all are depicted as healing the sick, caring for the suffering and ministering to those in need. Jesus’ example was not lost on them. Neither has it been lost on the Church led by their successors, the bishops, and all those who with them shared the ministry of Jesus the Divine Healer.

In history this led over time to so many initiatives of serving the sick and healing the afflicted by the Church and her committed disciples. In Rome you can see some of the original buildings of the Holy Spirit Hospital which is now more than 1,000 years old. Along the Tiber a few hundred years later, the Church founded the first “Lying-In Hospital,” first for unmarried pregnant women and then for all women who came there because of the quality of the care. Fast forward to the 19th and 20th centuries in our own country and one finds that religious, especially women religious, made health care and hospitals one of the two great apostolic works that have marked the commitment of the Church to the poor, the sick and the needy. This is one of the glories of the Church in the United States. 

In our own diocese, the Congregation of the Infant Jesus, the “Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor,” founded our Mercy Medical Center, the Franciscan Sisters of Mary founded St. Francis Hospital and the Daughters of Wisdom founded St. Charles and, later, Good Samaritan.

Thanks to the leadership of my predecessor, Bishop John McGann, the diocese organized these hospitals into Catholic Health Services of Long Island which now numbers six hospitals, nursing homes, hospice care and home care as well as a center for young people with special needs. I am told that roughly one in four persons entering a hospital on Long Island enters one of our hospitals which now include St. Catherine’s in Smithtown and St. Joseph in Bethpage.

Hospitals are difficult to maintain. There are many risks. Many are leaving health care because of costs, new regulations and a host of challenges. In imitation of Jesus, the Divine Healer, and seeking to continue the fidelity of the first apostles, the bishops of our diocese want to maintain and strengthen our commitment to healing the sick and caring for the needy through quality health care. I am personally very grateful to the leadership of our hospitals and very grateful to the extraordinary doctors, nurses, professional caregivers and support staff that make these hospitals and affiliated care institutions places where the Church is concretely present and people of all faiths or no faith at all, find the care they need.

Unfortunately, health care is another area that is running into unnecessary and unjustifiable risks today. The new regulations on health care proposed by the Department of Health and Human Services of our federal government have been approved and promulgated by the President. Among them are regulations requiring virtually all employers, hospitals and health care agencies among them, to provide their employees with insurance to cover “free” contraceptives, sterilizations and abortifacient drugs as part of their “health care.”

Putting aside for the moment the truth that pregnancy is not a disease, what we are being told is that we have a one-year “grace period” to bring our hospitals in line with the new regulations or suffer heavy fines and penalties. That one-year period is extended not out of respect for our First Amendment right to freedom of conscience and adherence to the teachings of our Church. The “grace period” is simply giving us time to get ready to violate our consciences and provide what is contrary to Catholic teaching and our whole tradition of imitating Jesus, the Divine Healer.

Mark’s Gospel clearly teaches me that, as a successor of the apostles, I must be with my people in a communal effort to heal the sick just as Jesus did. Our institutions and those working in them have the right to freedom of conscience and the right to exercise their professional skills without having their consciences or the teachings of the Church violated by government decree.

This too is part of our plea that the President re-consider what he has published and re-institute respect for freedom of conscience and freedom of religion for all Catholic institutions, including our hospitals, and for those who practice medicine in them for all the sick, all the needy, all the poor. We need your help. We Catholics must stand as one. We must invite all our friends of every faith and no faith to defend these First Amendment principles so that the freedom God has given us and our founding documents guaranteed for us might continue to mark our lives and our service in our country for the common good of all.


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