In the spirit of “On Being a Catholic Physician,” we medical students of the Society of Saints Cosmas and Damian (SSCD) at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine want to share our beliefs on an important question: exactly why is faith important for us in our discernment and formation?
We have reflected on why faith matters to us on our journey of becoming physicians and more specifically, why faith matters in our becoming Catholic physicians.
Calling oneself a “Catholic” in the world today seems to mean different things to different people. For some, being a Catholic means following a few rules or traditions at different times of the year—not eating meat on Fridays of Lent or coming to Mass on Easter and Christmas. To others, the Church may be more similar to a cultural heritage—the nuns may have taught you something at your Catholic school growing up, but the particulars may not have stuck. Perhaps you received First Communion and were confirmed, but your family stopped going to Church after that, and you slowly fell away. Or, you may have found the Church simply irrelevant—what does a church that is thousands of years old have to say that is relevant to the world today or to my life in science and medicine? Is it even possible to be a student of science and a person of faith?
Most of us have asked these questions and struggled to find answers that meant something, answers that challenged us to change the way we live our lives.
The SSCD, made up of the Catholic students at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, encourages proposing these difficult questions because we believe they are worth asking.
At the center of the Church and the Catholic faith is the belief that all human beings, men and women, are made in the image and likeness of God. Man was created to know God, to love Him, and to praise Him; however, through the introduction of original sin, man became separated from God, and death became a natural part of the human condition. This love story between God and man was embodied in the Jewish people of the Old Testament and in the covenants God established with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David. In this common history, Catholics are the brothers and sisters of the Jewish people. But history tells us that these covenants were not sufficient, and man continued to turn away from the Lord. Eventually, a covenant would be established that would fulfill every previous covenant and prophecy and yet accomplish what had not been previously achieved: reestablishing full communion between God and man.
The Catholic Church and all Christian denominations assert the historicity of God’s plan for man, unfolding through the Incarnation of Jesus of Nazareth, fully God and fully man, born of the Virgin Mary, who was later crucified on a cross, buried, and resurrected from the dead, as told by the Gospel writers. After Jesus’s resurrection, hundreds of people saw Him alive, in the flesh, and heard His words as He demonstrated both His saving power over life and death and His ultimate good and perfect love for us. He prepared His Apostles for the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost as well as the institution of the Church as His body actively working in the world after His ascension. The Church spread like wild fire throughout the East and West, consistently proclaiming the “Good News” of Jesus to the world even to this present day.
Now, for those not familiar with Christianity or those who choose to reject these events, this is quite a story. For others, and even for some Catholics, this may feel like old news, irrelevant news.
Lewis (1952, 55) once wrote in Mere Christianity that Jesus of Nazareth was either God made man or a lunatic, but he could not be just a moral teacher. The Gospel, or “Good News” of Jesus Christ, requires a decision, one made after much consideration, because acceptance of the Gospel requires every- thing—a choice to live not for oneself, but for the Lord, and in service to others, both our friends and our enemies. As members of the Church as the Body of Christ, we are uniquely called to have a personal relationship with Jesus, to be baptized and receive the Sacraments, and to live no longer for ourselves, but for the Lord. And the reward? Pure joy, meaning, deep peace, and eternal communion with the God who loves without ceasing!
So, Why Is This Faith Particularly Relevant to Medical Students, Physicians, and Other Healthcare Professionals?
Most of us entered medicine because we believed in something bigger than ourselves. For many, this “something bigger” is lived out in the service of others through the science of medicine. For a Christian, it is aligning this service with the teachings of Christ and His Good Physician model.
As medical students in the SSCD, we want to help others through the sharing and application of medical knowledge and research in the biomedical sciences. We believe that the extreme challenges of this fascinating and intellectually demanding career path will be most emotionally and spiritually reward- ing by allowing our faith to lead us. It is said that if you want to make God laugh, you should tell Him your plans. This essentially means that life does not
always go the way we all plan for it to go. This is especially true when it comes to medical school, choosing residency programs, navigating relation- ships within and beyond medicine, keeping crazy hours, and understanding our greater purpose in this process. Trying to keep all of these things in life balanced can be fraught with many pitfalls. Here, in the midst of our weaknesses and failures, is where faith really steps in for us in the SSCD.
As we search for balance, meaning, and purpose in our own lives, we are constantly challenged by the questions of our world and society and how faith may play a role in addressing them:
Is there such a thing as objective truth, and if so, can we even know it?
Are human beings different from other animals or merely the materialistic end product of natural processes?
When does life begin, and is it ever appropriate to purposely end a suffering life?
How can our faith help us better understand our patient’s journey through illness to recovery or death, respecting his or her own choice of faith, atheism, or agnosticism?
How can we nurture our faith as a driver of our love and vocation in the healing art of medicine and as a servant to others?
The Catholic Church proposes remarkable answers to these questions, and we have found many of these answers to be worthwhile and intellectually satisfying, though still challenging. The members of the SSCD want to be a part of this conversation because we believe these questions matter. While we might come to our own differing conclusions, we see great value in respectful dialogue with any- one willing to converse with an open mind. This dialogue is particularly important in the area of bioethics, where topics such as abortion, end-of- life issues, and stem-cell research involve not just biomedical research but also important philosophical and ideological principles.
In practicing as Catholic physicians, we will encounter people of all faith backgrounds. We are called to the vocation of medicine, a holy calling, in order to serve our fellow human beings, to reduce human suffering, and to magnify dignity. As we endeavor to pursue those goals, we will encounter people of many faiths, agnostics, and atheists. Our universal Catholic faith, embraced to its fullest extent, calls on us to bring Christ’s eyes and ears to each and every person in the most loving way possible for that human being. Our faith, the truth of the
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person who is Jesus Christ, and his life path and teachings found in the Gospel—these are the tem- plate for how to achieve this calling.
In thinking about our beautiful interactions with patients of so many faith backgrounds, we would like to leave you with one thought put forth by then Cardinal Ratzinger as he was interviewed by Peter Seawald for the book Salt of the Earth. Seawald, himself a nonbeliever, asked Ratzinger how many paths there were to God, expecting perhaps for Rat- zinger to say “one” or “a few.” Ratzinger, now known to us as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, replied brilliantly, “As many as there are people” (Ratzinger and Seewald 1997, 32).
We embrace this sentiment wholeheartedly as we continue to learn from and minister to our secular campus at the Vanderbilt University. Through open on-campus encounters between people of various beliefs at our SSCD-sponsored events, we believe that the Catholic faith opens our eyes to the unique path to which God calls each student, physician, nurse, and patient. We pray that with his insight we can walk with each other to bring healing of mind, body, and spirit not only to our patients but to ourselves, our community, and our world.
Lewis, C. S. 1952. Mere Christianity. New York: Harper- Collins. p. 55
Ratzinger, Joseph, and Peter Seewald. 1997. Salt of the Earth: The Church at the End of the Millennium. San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press. p. 32.
Kelly M. Schuering grew up in St. Louis before graduating from Duke University with degrees in public policy and global health. She is currently a fourth year medical student at Vanderbilt University where she is a co-president of the Society of Saints Cosmas and Damian. She is matching into internal medicine and hopes to work providing primary care for medically and socially complex patients in the future.
Kathleen Anthony is a fourth-year medical student at Vanderbilt University, where she is a leader of the Society of Saints Cosmas and Damian. She is interested in underserved primary care and Catholic Soxcial Teaching, which was formed by her undergraduate studies at Notre Dame.
Logan LeBlanc is an Internal Medicine resident at Louisiana State University Health and Science Center. She received her undergraduate degree in chemistry from Louisiana State University and graduated from Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in 2018. Her professional interests include biomedical ethics, particularly those sur- rounding end-of-life care, and she hopes to one day complete a fellowship in Palliative Care.
Brittany Gatta grew up in Iowa and received her BS from Iowa State University. She attended Vanderbilt University Medical School from 2012-2016, during which time she served as a president for the Society of Saints Cosmas and Damian. She is currently a resident in internal medicine at Duke University Hospital and plans to be a fellow in hospice and palliative medicine next year.
Kelly M. Schuering, BA1, Kathleen Anthony, BS1, Logan LeBlanc, MD1, and Brittany Gatta, MD1
The Linacre Quarterly 2019, Vol. 86(1) 13-15 Catholic Medical Association 2019