Dr. John Travaline said that becoming a deacon has changed how he thinks about medicine. Courtesy photo

For Health Care Professionals, Opportunities Abound

How being a deacon can influence work in the medical field

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Since my ordination, it has been interesting to note how many times either in formal introductions before a public address or informally with friends introducing me to someone else that one makes a comment about my being a deacon and a physician. It usually goes like this, “This is Dr. Travaline.” Then there is a pause, “I mean, Deacon Travaline.” Another awkward pause: “Doctor Deacon Travaline … or is it Deacon Doctor?”

What seems to underlie this introduction and the subsequent conversation it prompts is an attempt to convey who I am (deacon and physician), though it more typically recounts what I do — for example, take care of patients and serve as an ordained minister. Perhaps this resonates with some of my brother deacons who have had similar experiences when being introduced.

I share this observation by no means to draw attention to myself as a physician and deacon, but rather to raise an awareness of how perhaps many of us view others in a way defined by what one does. And even for us who might appreciate the “doing-being” dialectic and hold that “doing” is subordinated to “being” in terms of defining who one is, it nonetheless does seem difficult to conceptualize who a person is apart from what they do.

‘Doing’ vs. ‘Being’

In this issue of Deacon Digest featuring topics regarding bioethics, it seems fitting to reflect on what it means for me to be a physician and deacon, though it may not seem so at first. After all, bioethics is about doing — choosing the right moral option in specific circumstances, correct? What does ontology have to do with bioethics? What does my “being” — the knowledge I have about the science of medicine, coupled with the experience of practicing the art of medicine, disposed in a particular way to receive the graces of ordination — bring to the ethics of medicine? Everything.

The simple explanation as to why ontology (an understanding of our nature, of our being) has everything to do with bioethics is that “doing” flows from “being.” Ethics is rightly considered and properly understood to be about doing, but also about acting in accord with ethical norms rooted in who the moral actor is.

Bioethics, as viewed by many in the medical field and as taught largely in medical schools, is principle-based. This means that the evaluation of medical/ethical dilemmas are approached by an analysis of relevant ethical principles and the actions they inform. Based on this analysis, ethical options are chosen and good moral actions generally result. However, this principle-based approach, while very useful and important, is incomplete. It is incomplete insofar as emphasis placed on moral action is only part of an assessment of a morally good result. To be complete, there must be consideration of the moral agent or actor — the one “being” who is “doing.”

Recognizing that “doing” flows from “being” necessarily means that we must recognize the importance of virtue and how one becomes virtuous in cultivating a life of virtue, of good living in accord with what is beautiful, good and true. This emphasis on virtue is a model of ethics based more upon the moral agent rather than the actions performed. It concerns more the “who” or the “being” — the moral actor more than what the actor does. In taking into account more the moral agent, it therefore complements a principle-based model so as to more completely inform a particular ethical matter.

Understanding Our Roles

Along with being a permanent deacon, Dr. John Travaline is professor of thoracic medicine and surgery at Temple University in Philadelphia. Courtesy photo

I have long thought and sought to better understand what it means to be a Catholic physician. Is a Catholic physician really different than a non-Catholic or non-Christian physician? Are not all physicians who act or strive to act with utmost ethically good behavior in their practice, whether formed by principle-based and/or virtue models of ethics really indistinguishable? Is not one’s being Catholic or otherwise simply an accidental (in the philosophical sense of the term) to who they are as a physician? I think not. At least, it should not be so. Properly understood, discourse in bioethics must involve the nature of the moral agents acting in the particular matter.

To my view, a Catholic physician ought to be one responding to the ongoing call and promptings of the Holy Spirit to cultivate virtues, especially the virtues of humility and compassion. This cultivation, which occurs through prayer, study and the participation in the richness of the sacraments, happens so as to help one see Jesus in others, to suffer with others, to be present to others, to be defenders of the goodness, truth and beauty of the human person, and in all of this see the fullness of unqualified dignity in the human person. These attributes of the Catholic physician flow from who he or she is and not what they happen to do, though their actions, of course, will accord with who they are.

As for me, I continue to be blessed with so much, but, in particular, the special blessing to have many opportunities to recognize and to touch the woundedness of others, mostly the physical and emotional, but also sometimes their spiritual and social afflictions. In encountering these wounds in others, I find the opportunity to meet Jesus, to meet the crucified and risen Lord.

Recognizing Christ in Another

These opportunities to recognize Jesus in others have become valuable guides in deliberations over ethical dilemmas, so much so that many times the angst that often accompanies medical/ethical quandaries dissipates so as to bring clarity to the matter at hand, making the morally good choice now obvious. Being a physician and a deacon is integral to my practicing medicine and navigating through sometimes tumultuous waters of bioethics. Indeed for each of us, in the specific features and nuances of our respective callings, it is always who we are — and who we strive to be — that informs our behaviors, characterizing what we do.

As deacons we are privileged to reach, teach and preach to so many people. For some of us, many of whom we reach are physicians and others in health care professions (nurses, therapists, aides and other patient care providers); in encountering them, we have an opportunity to remind these folks of the special opportunities they have to see Jesus in others, to remind them that who they are — who they become — in their respective professions is a special blessing. It is an opportunity to recognize Jesus in another, and to serve them accordingly. Considering what we hear in Matthew’s Gospel at the Last Judgment, perhaps we will not have to ask the question, “Lord, when did we see you?” (25:37).

DEACON JOHN M. TRAVALINE, M.D., serves in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

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Go Deeper

What: The Catholic Medical Association’s 88th annual educational conference

When: Sept. 26-28, 2019

Where: Nashville, Tennessee

About: The theme of the conference is “Physician Heal Thyself: Living a Fulfilled Life in Medicine.” Conference speakers will focus on the crisis
of physician and health care worker burnout and the spiritual, physical, financial and mental health consequences.

“We live in a tumultuous world that places increased demands on healthcare professionals,” according to the website of the Catholic Medical Association. “The path to health is a rocky and narrow path that eventually leads us to the foot of the cross. True happiness in any vocation comes from accepting the burden of the cross knowing that true happiness comes at the feet of Jesus Christ.”

Website: Visit cathmed.org for more information.

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