January 25, 2008

Ethicist says science and Christian hope are compatible

By Sean Gallagher

The relationship of Kathy Hirsch and Dr. Hans Geisler was based in part on Geisler’s medical expertise.

But it was also rooted in each others’ hope in Christ.

Dr. Gary Wright, an ethicist and an anesthesiologist at St. Vincent Hospital in Indianapolis and a consultant in palliative care, said in a recent interview with The Criterion that bringing hope in science and hope in Christ together “creates a deep bond between patient and doctor” and is indicative of the doctor’s recognition of the limits of his profession.

“When a physician has that humility, it is greatly appreciated,” Wright said.

In his encyclical letter “Spe Salvi” (“Saved by Hope”), Pope Benedict XVI acknowledged that many thinkers over the past 400 years have sought to separate these two hopes and even put them in opposition to one another.

In contrast, the pope argued that the two actually need each other.

“Reason … needs faith if it is to be completely itself: reason and faith need one another in order to fulfill their true nature and their mission” (#23).

Wright has found in research that some people have what might be termed an irrational hope in scientific progress.

In one study, he sought to learn the motivations for people with a terminal disease to enter into a clinical investigation of a medicine.

The patients were told in advance that the reason for the study was for the “sole reason for scientific discovery” in order to determine “the toxic or lethal dose” of the drug in question.

But even in the face of such a goal, Wright learned that nearly all of the patients were still motivated to participate in the investigation because they thought they would be cured.

“This was insightful to me and helped me in kind of framing this issue [of hope in scientific progress],” Wright said. “What is faith in light of a serious medical illness or a life-threatening illness? How do we define hope in the framework of a Christian or a Catholic view of the tradition of faith?”

Without Christian hope to give meaning to suffering, the dignity of those with chronic, debilitating diseases can easily be ignored in today’s society, according to Wright.

“You have political and economic forces right now that are driving a social Darwinism … that says that these

individuals who are dying these slow, painful deaths are not a value to society,” Wright said. “[It’s saying] that there is a high cost to dying and … that there are some individuals who have an obligation to die and get out of the way.”

Wright said that viewing those who suffer in this way through the lens of Christian hope makes the situation look altogether different.

“We, with Christian hope and faith, believe that we are redeemed and that we are going to go to a better place when our physical lives are over,” Wright said. “So even the suffering itself is self-limited by the duration of our illness.

“And I think that those individuals who have that kind of sense and framework don’t request foreshortening of their physical suffering to any degree like those that don’t have that faith or that hope because, to them, the suffering has absolutely no meaning.”

At the same time, Wright said that end-of-life palliative care fits within the perspective offered by Christian hope.

“I believe that it’s consistent with a Catholic mission as a hospital to incorporate good palliative measures and, at the same time, fostering as much hope as you possibly can in individuals.” †


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