Conference Agenda

10A: Catholic Doctors and Medical Ethics
Friday, 10/Sept/2021:
3:00pm - 4:15pm

Session Chair: Dr. Tinne Claes, KU Leuven


Catholic Doctors and Medical Ethics

Chair(s): Claes, Tinne (KU Leuven, Belgium)

This panel focuses on Catholic approaches to medical ethics. The papers together show different expressions of what it meant to act as a Catholic doctor. Since the 19th century, Catholic normative texts outlined doctors’ behavior as a transnational intellectual genre practiced by both theologians and doctors. In the 20th century, Catholic medical ethics also became articulated in other ways. The Belgian gynecologist Marcel Renaer expressed his Catholic views on reproduction through popularizing texts. At the same time, “Catholic” clinical guidelines emerged. The (ethically sensitive) regulation of IVF in American and Belgian Catholic hospitals offers a case in point.


Presentations of the Symposium


Changing Conceptions of the Catholic Doctor: Medical Ethics and Catholic Morality in Francophone and Anglophone Normative Literature, c. 1840-1960

Maehle, Andreas Holger1, Lancaster, Cheryl1, Gijbels, Jolien2, Vander Hulst, Reinout2
1Durham University, 2KU Leuven

In the recent historiography of Anglo-American medical ethics in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, secular and professional aspects tend to be foregrounded (e.g. Robert Baker 2013; A.-H. Maehle 2021). By contrast, this paper will focus on intersections of medical ethics and religious commitments by charting conceptions of the Catholic doctor in French and English-language normative texts from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century. Behavioural norms for doctors were increasingly emphasised in writings on pastoral medicine, especially regarding obstetrics and advice on sexual hygiene. The Ten Commandments and the Sacraments formed the initial ethical framework, and doctors subscribing to a Catholic way of practising stressed that there was no necessary conflict between Christian religion and modern scientific medicine. For these doctors, moral theology provided authoritative guidance, in addition to the law. From the 1890s, Catholic medical deontology emerged as a genre in its own right, in writing and in teaching, reflecting a distinct identity of Catholic doctors in medical faculties and in their own professional societies in France, Belgium and Britain. Simultaneously, the spectrum of instructions for conduct conforming to Catholic morality broadened. While traditional issues of reproductive ethics such as medical abortion and emergency baptism remained central concerns, eugenic sterilisation and euthanasia posed new challenges for Catholic medical practitioners. More generally, the Catholic doctor was now expected to take on a social role that went beyond the care of his individual patients, especially in questions of population politics.


Marcel Renaer: a personalist Catholic physician

Langhendries, Maarten
KU Leuven

This paper focusses on the dialogue between Catholic personalist theology and medical practitioners at the Catholic University of Leuven. After the Second World War, under the influence of the doctrine of social personalism, some Catholic physicians started to put the wishes and desires of the patient more in the center of medical practice. At the KU Leuven, especially Marcel Renaer was highly influential in propagating these new medical ideas, specifically in the fields of gynecology and obstetrics. In the ‘1950s and ‘60s, he tried to incorporate the philosophy of the Leuven based Universitasgroup into a new form of Catholic healthcare, in which a Catholic doctor had to serve first and foremost the interests of his patients instead of those of the Catholic Church, and take into account more the mental, social, and familial complexity of every individual. This new attitude was most visible in Renaer’s views on contraception and family planning. He held the believe every patient should be able to plan his or her family life, which resulted in a large amount of courses, lectures and publications in which he defended the use of contraception. To put his ideas into clinical practice, he founded the chair for Medical Ethics. He was also the first head of the commission for medical ethics at the Leuven Faculty of Medicine. My paper will use the figure of Renaer to shed light on the changing Catholic conceptions of the ethics of doctor-patient relationships in the postwar period.


Diverging Paths: Approaches to IVF in Catholic Hospitals in the USA and Belgium

Martucci, Jessica1, Stahl, Ronit2, Vandendriessche, Joris3
1Columbia University, 2University of California, Berkeley, 3KU Leuven

This paper compares Catholic hospital policies in two countries – the USA and Belgium – regarding the ethically contested treatment area of In-Vitro Fertilization (IVF). As a medical therapy for infertility, IVF raised complex ethical concerns on the nature of reproduction for many in the Catholic Church. By studying comparatively how this issue was confronted in two different national and sociopolitical postwar contexts, this paper analyzes the varied implementation of Catholic ideas about reproductive medicine in healthcare settings. In the U.S., we show how the centralizing implementation of the Ethical and Religious Directives (ERDs) came to serve as a binding policy document in the latter half of the twentieth century. The ERDs have limited ethical decision-making by clinicians on the ground in healthcare settings around the country, supplanting medical authority with the authority of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. In Belgium, to the contrary, we show how Catholic doctors debated the issue in (local) ethical committees, agreeing on IVF being ethically permissible in (Catholic) hospitals if certain conditions were met (e.g. the psychological stability of the couple). In these debates, the disadvantage of creating ‘superfluous’ human embryos during IVF was weighed against the benefits of improving Christian relations by (technically) enabling reproduction within a personalist framework. In the final part of the paper, we will draw out points of similarity and difference between these two very different models of ethical decision-making in religious healthcare institutions.