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The Sick: On Illness and the Risks of a Perfectly Healthy Society | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | Ignatius Insight | March 10, 2009

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Just keeping us alive is taking more and more of the GNP, while our doctors no longer take the Hippocratic Oath as it was written. This cost is related to keeping the lawyers alive also. We allow no mistakes. When they happen, we sue. A risk-free society is expensive.

Plato had long ago remarked that a society full of students of law and medicine was already a "sick" society. We need lawyers because we are un-virtuous. We need doctors because we are un-virtuous. Sure, even the virtuous get sick and need lawyers for contracts. Government used to be conceived as a network of relationships that largely permitted us, encouraged us, to take care of ourselves. Now, more and more, it conceives its function as taking care of us whether we want it or not. It demands praise for it. And it sets the norms for what we mean by good health and good living.

All of this concern with sickness is related to what it is to be healthy. Plato has a character that spends his whole life taking care of himself with exercise, diets, and potions. He does not pass a single day concerned with anything but himself.

The eating of food and the drinking liquids has become the location of public morality. It is difficult to dine with anyone anymore. The question always comes up of whether or not we should eat this or that food sitting in front of us. The question always has a moral overtone. Should we eat it? Does it have the right additives put in or taken out? We actually pay to buy, say, beer that has what it takes to make good beer taken out of it. "Lite" does not refer to the beer but to the mind that buys it.

You will be quietly eating a pork chop that it is already so excessively lean that it has no flavor. The health fascists got to it first. The man next to you will lean over to tell you that pork contains something or other that will turn your insides over. The dietary laws of Hindus, Jews, and Arabs have encroached on those who thought they were free of such laws. Only now the laws are promoted by the government and the health profession.

I read the other day that it will soon be against the law to be obese. The "Fat Man" is no longer a jolly character, but an insult to himself and the race, like the smoker, to be outlawed from our presence. The old secret sins are now on nightly television, while we have to hide in the closet to eat chocolates and fried foods.


The end of a doctor as doctor is the health of the particular person he is treating. The doctor, strictly speaking, is only needed when the normal person is sick. When we are not sick, the doctor is quite unnecessary, though we are expected to know and follow the regimes said to produce good health—"plenty of sleep, fresh air, and exercise," as the old saying used to go.

We no doubt place a high value on not being sick. Nothing wrong with that. The "good" of sickness is that the pain we experience indicates to us and to the doctor what is wrong. "Where does it hurt?" If we never felt pain when something is wrong, we would die off rather quickly as we would not attend to the problem.

However, the notion that sickness can be salvific is almost unheard of. Yet this may be its most profound meaning. It is obvious that we do not want to be sick. On the other hand, concern with good health seems excessive in a way. And, as we learn about the virtue of courage, which deals with our pains, excessive complaints about our pains can also be a sign of disorder.

One of the rules of St. Ignatius is that we are supposed to give as much "edification" in sickness as in health. The more profound problem is that we do not know what to do with being well, not that we do know how to be sick. The old Latin adage, mens sana in corpore sano means that our nature, if we can even be said to have a nature, points to health of both mind and body.

Both mind and body are to function for the purpose of mind and body as they belong together. (Probably the best book on this topic is Leon Kass, Towards a More Human Biology). Clearly, when the body is sick, the mind is instrumental in its condition, both to deal with it while suffering and, if possible, to restore it to health with aid of doctors and others.


But what I want to write about here are two recent talks given recently by Benedict XVI. One was on the occasion of the World Day of the Sick, February 11, the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes; the other was at the Angelus on February 8. [1]

If there is any one refrain that undergirds all Catholic thinking about life and sickness, it is that which Benedict repeated in his talk on the World Day of the Sick. "It is necessary to assert vigorously the absolute and supreme dignity of every human life. The teaching that the Church ceaselessly proclaims does not change with the passing of time: human life is beautiful and should be lived to the full, even when it is weak and enveloped in the mystery of suffering." These are memorable words. We do not cease to be human if and when we suffer. Our dignity does not change with passing time. What was true yesterday about human life is true today.

The modern notion that a child detected with "defects" should be aborted rather than allowed to be born thus goes directly against this principle. Yet this "procedure" is a common occurrence. It does not lose its heinousness for all that. We are told that caring for someone "defective," as we define it, is too burdensome for us. It "interferes" with our chosen lives, our vocations, our "careers," or some such reason. Therefore, we use a principle of proportionalism to rid ourselves of the suffering human being. This elimination is a "greater good."

The only human being who really has a "right" to live, in this view, is the "perfect" one. Thus we live in a world in which the "perfect" war against the normal and those who need help. The perfect exist to enjoy themselves, not to help those less fortunate. The essential principles of Christianity, on the other hand, are: "It is never right to do wrong" and "Love thy neighbor," even if he is our own child. We do not create what it is to be a human being.

Our redemption through suffering is itself sufficient to teach us that part of the human condition is what we do with suffering in ourselves and in others. We seek to cure it, not eliminate the one who suffers. Suffering has a purpose that allows others to be human, to care for one another. It allows us to see that suffering indicates what is wrong and to respond to sin not with another sin but with good.


In his Angelus of February 8, the Pope pointed out that, "The experience of healing the sick occupied a large part of Christ's public mission and invites us once again to reflect on the meaning and value of illness, in every human situation." Why, in other words, did Christ concern Himself so much with the sick? Was "healing" sickness the primary issue, though certainly it was one issue? Was Christ a kind of advanced medical program?

As I noted above, the effort devoted to healing represents a huge portion of our Gross National Product. While we often think of the cost of medicine and medical care, we seldom think of "the meaning and value of illness." No doubt, one of the purposes of illness is that we find its cause and how to rid ourselves of the sickness. This is what a doctor is about in our particular case. It is what the profession of medicine is about in terms of accumulated medical wisdom and practical expertise in understanding human health and sickness (see Sokolowski, "The Art and Science of Medicine," Christian Faith & Human Understanding).

"Despite the fact that illness is part of the human experience," Benedict continues, "we do not succeed in becoming accustomed to it." Obviously, if illness is most painful and serious, we cannot, if we are sick, help but concentrate on it as our immediate concern. We find ourselves talking of our own illness, not of other issues. But human sickness, in all its forms, has something else to teach us about ourselves, something, as it were, philosophic.

The Pope puts it succinctly: "We are made for life, for a full life." Aristotle said much the same thing. This fact of being made for life and a full life is as true of the healthiest among us as well as for the weakest and sickest. It is not just that, when we are sick, we want not to be sick. We understand that, however sick, this illness is not how we ought to be. We ought to be well. Sickness indicates that, at present, we are not what we ought to be in our natural being. The effort not to be sick implies that we need to know what is to be done when we are not sick.

Of course, when we are well, we also know that we shall die. Even the healthiest grow old and die in one way or another. The Psalmist says that we are given "seventy years, eighty if we are strong." We know relatives or friends who live to ninety, even a hundred. But a point arrives when it is clear that the race to which we individually belong does die one by one and, in this condition, should die. As Cicero says, there is an end to our lives that we should be content with, prepared for.

Yet, we know from revelation that, in the Garden, we were not intended to die in the condition in which we were initially formed. Death, while natural to a finite being, was not to be our lot as members of this actual human race. So death was also a punishment. But, as Benedict points out in Spe Salvi, if we try to extend our lives in this world to hundreds of years, as many scientists work to do, life becomes rather a prison which prevents us from becoming what we are supposed to become.


"Our 'internal instinct' rightly makes us think of God as fullness of life—indeed, as eternal and perfect Life," Benedict tells us. Even though we say that we might like this lofty end to be our end, we immediately reject the means whereby its achievement is provided, a means that is not as such medical. Evil causes us to doubt. Suffering makes us wonder if this can be God's will for us. Hope makes us understand that we are indeed made for eternal life.

Again, in the Scriptures, we see that many are healed. Demons are tossed out. The Kingdom of God is preached. "Jesus leaves no room for doubt: God—whose Face he himself revealed—is the God of life, who frees us from every evil." Even evil clearly must include both sickness and death. These are obvious issues. Their presence is often given as a reason to reject God, not to affirm Him. The restoration of our "full spiritual and physical integrity" is bound up with the nearness of the Kingdom of God.

Here, Benedict does something surprising. He gives his opinion on the meaning of Christ's many healings and cures. He has no doubt that they happened mostly as reported. If we think about it, however, everyone whom even Christ cured, not to mention those associated with miracles after His time until today, eventually got sick again and died. Christ's cures did not have the effect of the resurrection of His own body.

No one else has yet risen again, though, as Ratzinger pointed out in his Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life, some theologians would have it so. Everyone who was cured still had to die and did die. It is even possible to speculate that a few of those whom Christ cured eventually lost their souls because of their own free rejection of Him in another circumstance.


This is what Benedict says: "I maintain that these cures are signs: they are not complete in themselves but guide us towards Christ's message, they guide us towards God and make us understand that man's truest and deepest illness in the absence of God, who is the source of truth and love." As I say, this is quite a surprising and unexpected passage. We would expect the Pope to say that the meaning of these cures of Christ indicated clearly His divinity. Their purpose was to call to attention to what He was. And no doubt, this was one of their purposes at the time.

But the Pope, though he would not deny this purpose, goes in a different direction. He says that Christ's cures rather indicate our "truest and deepest illness." This "illness" is not properly speaking an "illness" at all, in the sense of a disease caused by bugs or some such. This "illness" is the "absence of God" in our own souls. Now, God is only absent if we ourselves cause this absence to be operative in our souls.

We can voluntarily replace the God revealing Himself in our minds and in revelation by our own gods, ones formulated by our own principles, including political ones. Our freedom in principle extends this far. God is the "source of truth and love," but our new self-defined gods kill babies and call it a "right." We have legislators and politicians signing onto this principle every day. Moloch is not merely an ancient idolatry.

The "true" healing of our "deepest illness" cannot then be some physical cure, or even a miracle that would attest to Christ's power as God-man. There are famous instances in the New Testament itself in which Christ performs what is obviously a miracle—recall the cure of the man with the withered hand. After witnessing this, the Pharisees walk away to think up plots of how to kill Him. This will to reject the supernatural truth even before a miracle in the natural order is the "illness" at the base of all the disorder in the world.

"Our reconciliation with God can give us true healing, true life, because a life without love and without truth would not be life. The Kingdom of God is precisely the presence of truth and love and thus is healing in the depths of our being." True "healing" and "true life" then ultimately have to do with our relation to God. All that surrounds our sicknesses and illnesses, including death, has something to do with this, the First Commandment. If we get that wrong, we will get everything to do with our health wrong, including our public policies.


What about the Second Commandment? Already in his encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, Benedict stressed the insufficiency of public policy in answering the real and personal needs of everyone, especially the sick. Preaching and cures go together. The sacraments are central here. The Pope touches on "the health-care assistance that Christian communities promotes with fraternal charity."

Many proposed current laws and regulations are designed to force Catholics to participate in acts that are objectively immoral on the condition of their acting in this field even in their own institutions. It is not inconceivable that, in many countries, including our own, Catholics will be forced out of the health-care world as we know it. Yet, "it is true: very many Christians around the world—priests, religious and lay people—have lent and continue to lend their hands, eyes and hearts to Christ, true physical of bodies and souls!"

But the integrity of the Second Commandment is dependent on the First. This is why a health-care industry that does not respect the dignity of the human person in all its dimensions tends towards, as it is tending towards, being an exercise, not in health care, but in eugenic and political policy designed not to cure but to control.

Benedict, in the end, is right. The connection between the cures of Christ and acknowledging what He is cannot be ignored. We do not understand human life unless we understand "full life," an understanding that includes each person's transcendent destiny, be he sick or healthy.

The "deepest illness," even in hospitals and government departments concerned with human life and health, perhaps especially in these, is the "absence of God." Nothing more than this absence threatens our actual human lives, the health of which alone a doctor is commissioned to deal with us for our good, not for his, nor for that of "society."


[1] Both of these are found in L'Osservatore Romano, English, February 11, 2009.

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Columns, Essays, and Book Excerpts:

Putting Things In Order | Father James V. Schall, S.J., on Eighty Years of Living, Thinking, and Believing
Why Do We Exist? | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Pope John Paul II and the Christ-centered Anthropology of Gaudium et Spes | Douglas Bushman
The Question of Suffering, the Response of the Cross | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
"The Dignity of the Person Must Be Recognized..." | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
"Always More Than Is Seen": Benedict XVI on the Meaning of Man | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
The Illusion of Freedom Separated from Moral Virtue | Raymond L. Dennehy
The Dignity of the Human Person: Pope John Paul II's Teaching on Divinization in the Trinitarian Encyclicals | Carl E. Olson
What Is Catholic Social Teaching? | Mark Brumley
The Cross and The Holocaust | Regis Martin | From the Prologue to Suffering of Love: Christ's Descent into the Hell of Human Hopelessness

Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.

He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture, and literature including Another Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning, The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006), The Sum Total of Human Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), and The Regensburg Lecture (St. Augustine's Press, 2007). His most recent book from Ignatius Press is The Order of Things (Ignatius Press, 2007). His new book, The Mind That Is Catholic: Philosophical and Political Essays, is now available from The Catholic University Press. Read more of his essays on his website.

Visit the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies, and news in the Church!


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