Archbishop William Goh: Seeing Our Medical Profession As A Vocation

Physicians share a very important aspect of God’s work which is to give and sustain life.

As collaborators with the ‘Author of Life’, doctors must ensure that respect for the sacredness of life is upheld at all times.

For this is the basis of the Hippocratic Oath which physicians pledge - to defend and protect life. Are you consciously aware that you share in God’s work of healing and giving life?

As a Catholic doctor, how faithful are you to the Hippocratic Oath and most of all to God who has chosen and entrusted you with this Ministry of Healing - to mediate His love, compassion and most of all to uphold and protect the sanctity of life?

SCRIPTURE READINGS: ECCL 35:12-14.16-19; 2 TIM 4:6-8.16-18; LK 18:9-14

One of the noblest vocations in life is to be a medical doctor. Why are doctors so highly respected in society?

 It is because physicians share a very important aspect of God’s work, which is to give and sustain life. For there can be no greater value than life itself. No one wants to die. Everyone wants to live.

Physicians are thus chosen and entrusted by God with this responsibility of Life itself; as they have to deal with it in every aspect – from beginning to end i.e. in birth, growth, illnesses, diseases, suffering, dying and finally death.

As collaborators with the ‘Author of Life’, doctors must ensure that respect for the sacredness of life is upheld at all times. For this is the basis of the Hippocratic Oath which physicians pledge - to defend and protect life. Pope Pius XII commented on the enduring significance of Hippocrates. He said:

The works of Hippocrates are without doubt the noblest expression of a professional conscience which above all else calls for respect for life and self-sacrifice in relation to sick people and also pays attention to personal factors: self-control, dignity, reserve. He knew how to present moral norms and to integrate them into a broad and harmonious program of study, and he thus gave a present to civilization which was even more magnificent than that made by those who built empires” (Pope Pius XII, Discorso ai Medici, September 19, 1954).

As doctors, are you consciously aware that you share in God’s work of healing and giving life? The most important task of Catholic doctors is to ensure that the right to life is upheld by promoting and defending the sanctity of life, from conception till death. Yet, it is not easy to be a physician today. There are many challenges that a physician has to face in this modern world because the way medicine is practiced is influenced by other factors. Besides the challenges, doctors have to contend with many temptations.

Firstly, the temptation to material rewards and fame. In a society that is as affluent as ours, there is a real and subtle tendency to succumb to the lure of material rewards, money and fame. Patients are no longer seen as persons but as a means to make money. As a result, this can lead to over-charging and neglect of the poor.

However the first reading tells us that God “shows no respect of personages to the detriment of a poor man, he listens to the plea of the injured party. He does not ignore the orphan’s supplication, nor the widow as she pours out her story.” Hence, being God’s Healing Ministers, physicians are to care especially for the poor and not only those who can afford medical treatment.

In tandem, neither should medical service or research be undertaken for the purpose of fame and recognition. As all life is sacred, there can be no discrimination in care, with regards to social status, religion, nationality, race or politics.

Secondly, there is the moral dilemma. Pride in science and technology has led many to moral relativism and self-reliance. Man has become arrogant and has no respect for the sacredness of the human person or for God.

As a result, the focus on the scientific and technological aspects of man’s work has resulted in a one-sided emphasis, particularly in the area of bioethics, where because of secularization; the vision is often utilitarian and materialistic. In other words, the end justifies the means. There is no intrinsic value in the embryo or the human person and so it can be used and destroyed, unlike the Catholic Church’s belief in the intrinsic dignity of the human person, including the embryo.

Since nature is changing according to secularists, technology is used to tamper with evolution such as the employment of IVF, pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), embryonic stem cells, cloning and synthetic life. Such moral relativism cannot but eventually lead to nihilism, as no objective truth can be found since there is no right or wrong. In the light of such challenges, the Church warns us that when this happens:

“health care professionals can be strongly tempted…to become manipulators of life, or even agents of death. In the face of this temptation their responsibility today is greatly increased. Its deepest inspiration and strongest support lie in the intrinsic and undeniable ethical dimension of the medical profession” (Evangelium Vitae, 89).

Indeed, the Hippocratic Oath is no longer abided to and even modified to “suit the times”. Moral norms for governing medicine have become ambiguous as abortion is legalized, research is done on embryonic stem cells and euthanasia sanctioned in some countries. With pressure to conform to the demands of society, Catholic doctors need to be steadfast like St Paul in relying on the grace of God as he says:

“The first time I had to present my defense, there was not a single witness to support me. Every one of them deserted me - may they not be held accountable for it. But the Lord stood by me and gave me power, so that through me the whole message might be proclaimed for all the pagans to hear; and so I was rescued from the lion's mouth.”

Catholic Physicians must continue to defend life and ethical principles.

Thirdly, there is de-humanization of the role of doctors. Medicine is seen as a business enterprise rather than a relationship of care since it has to do with payment and compensation. Physicians are seen as “suppliers and contractors” and patients as “clients”.

In addition, healing has taken on a new cloak of fiercely publicized “immortality” with an unhealthy emphasis on aesthetic medicine. Medicine is no longer primarily practiced to promote life but to pander to vanity. In order to stay relevant or attractive, doctors are pressurized to be competitive and to go along with the change and demands of society.

With the above challenges in the changing face of medicine, how then can Catholic doctors be faithful to the Hippocratic Oath, and most of all to God who has chosen and entrusted them with this Ministry of Healing - to mediate His love, compassion and most of all to uphold and protect the sanctity of life?

Jesus told His townsfolk at Nazareth, “You will surely say unto me this proverb, ‘Physician, heal thyself’’; whatsoever we have heard done in Capernaum, do also here in thy country.” So before we can heal others, we need to heal ourselves as medical professionals. What does this entail?

Firstly, we need to grow in the humility of the tax collector. We need to be on guard when we become proud of ourselves and our achievements like the Pharisees. Instead of becoming arrogant with our knowledge and skills, we need to recognize that we are merely stewards.

When we know our place in creation, we become aware of our nothingness and are grateful to God for the gifts that He has blessed us with. Let us not forget that the motto of medicine is "Not pride of knowledge but humility of wisdom!"

Secondly, Catholic doctors must strengthen their faith, both in their personal relationship with God and educate themselves with regard to the doctrines and moral teachings of the Church. A regular prayer-life is most important as you are faced with many demands and decisions concerning life and treatment options which require both strength and discernment, which can be imparted to you by the Holy Spirit in prayer.

Catholic doctors must be formed in their conscience according to the mind of the Church, especially on medical issues based on natural law. Catholic physicians guided by reason and enlightened by divine revelation must safeguard the moral values that respect the dignity of the human person and the sanctity of human life. They must therefore update themselves on the latest teachings on bioethics and read the papal encyclicals like Veritatis Splendor, Humane Vitae, Evangelium Vitae and papal teaching on The Theology of the Body.

Catholic doctors need to practice fortitude in the face of ethical challenges. In this way, they can be mindful not to partake in research or practices that are deemed morally wrong by the Church.

Thirdly, it is a timely reminder therefore that a good doctor is more than someone with professional knowledge, skills and armed with the latest evidence-based medicine. Science cannot replace the human person. A good doctor is truly good when besides his skills, he has a heart of compassion and empathy for his patients and is able to allay the fears and their anxieties. Perhaps, this is one of the greatest challenges facing the Catholic physician today with the fragmentation of health care and erosion of the doctor-patient relationship. The human person is made up not only of body but also of mind and spirit. Doctors are called to care holistically not just for the body but for the whole person.

Hence, Catholic doctors must look to Jesus in ministering to the sick, praying for the gift of love and compassion which is the essence of the Heart of the Good Shepherd. For the first reading reminds us that God is compassionate especially to the poor and broken-hearted:

“The just call and the Lord hears and rescues them in all their distress. The poor man called; the Lord has heard him. The Lord is close to the broken-hearted; those whose spirit is crushed he will save. The Lord ransoms the souls of his servants. Those who hide in him shall not be condemned.”

Doctors must provide holistic healing to their patients. Hence, doctors need professional development not only in knowledge and skills but also in people skills e.g. listening empathetically, breaking bad news to patients and their loved ones and being sensitive to their anxieties and fear. You only have to look to Jesus as a role model, for He was the True Doctor. He attended not only to the physically sick but also to the emotionally wounded and the psychologically afflicted. Jesus extended healing to the spiritual dimension of the person - healing not just the mind but also the spirit.

Healing is therefore an integral restoration of mind, body and soul. Through the Holy Spirit, God bestows the gift of healing to physicians, priests and those involved in the health and healing ministry. We are called to share in the work of the Good Shepherd. Only by recognizing that health care is more than a business enterprise, can we avoid falling into a state of atrophy with respect to the practice of medicine.

At the end of the day, Catholic doctors must emulate the Divine Physician in ministering. Care, compassion, charity and excellence are central to our vocation of healing those who are in crisis and are ill.

Fourthly, Catholic physicians must recover their profession as a vocation. Being a doctor is more than just a job but truly a special vocation in response to God’s call, since it is a direct sharing in the healing ministry of our Lord. For vocation pre-supposes service with meaning and purpose, and not a job to make money or to achieve fame but a conviction of giving life to all. When the essence of this is internalized, this would be an antidote for pride and greed and would confer both professional and spiritual satisfaction. Otherwise, the stress and demands may cause one to be easily disheartened and to give up.

In addition, when seen as a vocation, physicians would want to mentor and teach the next generation of doctors so that correct values will be inculcated. In particular, values of compassion, honesty and integrity.

As the challenges facing all of you are not easy, Catholic doctors must come together to support each other in faith, prayer, life, education, mentoring and mission. This is where the Catholic Medical Guild can help and equip Catholic doctors to live their vocation to the fullest, by providing opportunities for education, discussion, mentoring and prayer. As St Paul says in Romans 15:1 “we who are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak and not to please ourselves.”

Particular attention should be targeted in forming the consciences of the younger doctors (medical students and residents-in-training) in the teachings of the Church, to help them discern difficult decisions and to impress upon them the vocation that they are entrusted with. Do not feel daunted by the ethical challenges and dilemmas in medicine. Let us not be afraid for the Lord will vindicate us as He vindicated St Paul. Like St Paul we pray, “The Lord will rescue me from all evil attempts on me, and bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom. To him be glory for ever and ever. Amen."

Finally, as life-givers and because Medicine is a vocation, we are invited to join Jesus and offer our lives as a libation for others. St Paul wrote, “My life is already being poured away as a libation, and the time has come for me to be gone.” Indeed, may our lives be lived not just for this life but for Eternal Life after our work is done. You must be connected to Jesus and follow your formed conscience without fear.

Live your Christian vocation with integrity as physicians; always acting in the best interest of your patients, mediating compassion and love, after the heart of the Good Shepherd. Then like St Paul you can say:

I have fought the good fight to the end; I have run the race to the finish; I have kept the faith; all there is to come now is the crown of righteousness reserved for me, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give to me on that Day; and not only to me but to all those who have longed for his Appearing.”

God bless and guide you.

Archbishop William Goh,
Archbishop of Singapore

Editor’s Note: Sermon given at the Annual Mass of the Singapore Catholic Medical Guild

Recent News

1 year 29 weeks ago
1 year 31 weeks ago
3 years 45 weeks ago