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January 24, 2008 Edition

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Eye on the Capitol
Making Sense Out of Bioethics
Grand Mom

Helping Catholic schools 'light the way'

photo of John Huebscher

Eye on the 

John Huebscher 

Just over 200 years ago, Thomas Jefferson wrote his famous letter citing the need for a "wall of separation" between church and state; and almost 200 years ago, Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton founded the first Catholic free school in the United States.

Much has changed since. The importance of Catholic schools, as a vital ministry of the Church, has not.

Jefferson dreamed of a nation of family farmers and local merchants, each owning their own land or business, working for themselves in close proximity to their families. Most children would learn their values - and their trades - from their parents. Jefferson also hoped government would be small and limited.

image of Catholic Schools Week 2008 logo
Week honoring Catholic schools kicks off January 27

Catholic Schools Week, the annual celebration of Catholic schools and their contribution to their communities and the nation, is set for January 27 through February 2.

For more on Catholic Schools Week, see the special section in this week's print edition.

Related items this week:

• Editorial -- What's special about Catholic schools

The America Jefferson envisioned has not come to pass.

Unfortunate reality

Government's scope has expanded. Few areas of human activity go untouched by law and regulation.

As for home, family, and education, Jefferson's dream of small farms and businesses has long since given way to Alexander Hamilton's vision of a nation built on manufacturers and large commercial concerns. Fathers, and more recently mothers, have left the home to work for someone else.

Children are now educated in schools. They don't learn the family trade, but rather, how to compete in a much broader world. Many parents have less "face time" with their children and have adapted new ways to transmit the values and lessons they want to impart.

Importance of Catholic schools

These trends make Catholic schools even more important. As patterns of living change, institutions must adapt. And they must do so in ways that sustain the parent's ability to form the moral character of their children.

Our Catholic schools have readily done this. They have helped immigrants from different nations speaking different languages merge into our nation's mainstream. Catholic schools have helped parents adapt to working outside the home by offering flexible schedules, childcare, and other ways to involve parents in the lives of their children at school. The schools have broadened their instruction and curriculum to adapt to an evolving economy that became national, then international in scope.

Like our schools, our public policies must also adapt in ways that foster, not frustrate, the parents' role as primary teachers. Thus, in addition to the financial contributions we make to education, we Catholics should also make a civic contribution by advocating for policies that help schools achieve their mission.

Advocating for the future

In the years ahead, we need to ensure that growth of government does not afford an excuse to marginalize religion, but rather fosters a new openness to how religion and society can interact for their mutual benefit. Public policies should enable government support for parents who choose religious schools. At the same time, we need to make sure that government services like transportation are not denied or cut back when governments do their budgeting.

We need to ensure that the demands of work in a global economy do not negate parents' opportunity to form the faith and character of their children. We can do that with policies that structure work so parents can spend time with children.

We also need policies that make it easier for all schools to access the new technologies that connect every school to the global classroom, a necessity in this Internet age.

Catholic Schools Week is a time to celebrate our schools' legacy. Let's also make it a time for resolving to advocate for their future.

John Huebscher is executive director of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference in Madison.

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True compassion in midst of tragedy

photo of Fr. Tadeusz Pacholczyk

Making Sense 
Out of Bioethics 

Fr. Tad 

As the floodwaters were rising in the days after hurricane Katrina, the situation went from bad to worse at Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans.

When the electricity failed, flashlights became necessary to carry out simple tasks. There was no running water. Human sewage streamed through the hospital corridors.

Many patients could not be evacuated, were crying out, and suffered greatly in the stifling heat. Much of the medical staff had already left. The few who remained began to think they might never be rescued.

Heroism or murder?

The conditions were "less than Third World," according to Dr. Anna Maria Pou, who was accused of administering lethal doses of morphine and another sedative to nine patients in the hospital.

Many who have learned of her actions have called her a hero, believing she was motivated by true compassion. Louisiana's attorney general, however, after consulting with a panel of medical experts, concluded that she perpetrated a multiple homicide.

While the debate continues as to what Dr. Pou did or did not do, compassion and heroism should never be confused with intentionally overdosing patients or loved ones in order to end their lives. The act of directly taking innocent human life is always incompatible with true compassion.

Analyzing the deaths

Upon further examination of the facts of the case, experts have suggested that Dr. Pou was not simply managing the pain of her patients by providing them with a medically indicated dose of morphine.

Dr. Cyril H. Wecht, past president of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, was one of the five experts brought in by the state of Louisiana to analyze the deaths.

He described the situation this way: "The complete hospital records, autopsy protocols, and postmortem toxicological analyses of the nine patients who died were thoroughly reviewed by several highly experienced forensic pathologists, a toxicologist, and other medical experts. We unequivocally concluded that the cause of death in all these cases was acute combined drug toxicity and that the manner of death was homicide."

These same experts also concluded that the possibility of the deaths being due to a tragic medical mistake was statistically unlikely. "Accidental overdoses would need to have occurred nine times between 12 noon and 3:30 p.m., all on one floor, to every patient who was left on the floor," observed Dr. John Young, former president of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences.

After looking into the matter, however, a Louisiana grand jury nevertheless chose not to indict Dr. Pou following a series of closed-door hearings.

Honest look

In looking at this case, it seems that many have hesitated to call a spade a spade. When I participated in a radio interview recently on this topic, a number of listeners were aghast at what Dr. Pou had allegedly done. Two people, however, called into the show to defend her, and I believe their comments were representative of how many people think about cases like this.

"I commend Dr. Pou," one of the callers said, "for her courage and compassion towards those terminal patients who more than likely wouldn't 'survive' the horrid conditions they were in anyway due to an 'act of God,' not man. By looking at her patient's condition and the circumstances around her, she did what needed to be done, keeping her patients comfortable and easing their suffering. I pray that if I were ever in their shoes, I would have a doctor as conscientious and compassionate as Dr. Pou."

To understand the moral argument in this case, however, it is important to grasp the distinction between killing and allowing to die. It is also important to understand the real meaning of the word compassion.

Real meaning of compassion

"Compassion" has a Latin origin meaning "to suffer together with another." To be compassionate, in the proper sense of the term, means to take another's pain and suffering upon ourselves, onto our own shoulders, so that we suffer with them in some way. We seek to be present to them, and accompany them in their trials and tribulations as best as we are able.

True compassion as the flood waters were rising would not mean pulling a massive dose out of the vial, looking the person in the face, in their weakness and fear, and thrusting a needle deep into their skin or into their IV tube to cause the light in their eyes to falter and go out. That is not mercy or compassion, and to call it such is a lie.

Mercy and compassion would rather seek to care for each patient in the face of difficulties, trying to move them to a higher floor if the waters were rising, and if that were impossible for some reason, then to sit attentively at their bedside, holding their hand and making them as comfortable as possible.

True compassion would mean praying with them, perhaps crying with them at times, but above all remaining in solidarity with them as they prepare for what might be their last moments of life on earth.

'First, do no harm'

When natural disaster strikes, we do not abandon those in our care, or ignore them, or betray them by taking their lives in the name of a false and violent compassion. Human beings are not like horses or other animals, needing to be shot when they break a leg or suffer a misfortune.

The reason for this is that our pain and suffering have a redemptive purpose and a deeper meaning for each of us, as well as for those around us. Showing true compassion towards those who suffer ends up transforming both us and them in deep and ennobling ways.

For doctors and health care workers who have been entrusted with powerful tools over life and death, this truth is central to their identity. More than 2,000 years ago, the renowned physician Hippocrates stressed this when he said: Primum non nocere (First, do no harm).

The truly compassionate doctor will strive to use his tools and medicines to attend to the medical needs of his patients, humbly recognizing that those tools may not be able to stave off death in every case. He may have to step aside as the shadow of death draws near and the mortal existence of the person he has been tending to comes to its natural close.

Above all, the compassionate physician can never violate his inner being and identity by becoming one who directly kills others, especially those who, in their most needful and fragile moments, find themselves entrusted to his care.

Fr. Tadeusz Pacholczyk earned his doctorate in neuroscience from Yale and did post-doctoral work at Harvard. He is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Mass., and serves as the director of education at the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia, Pa.

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Changing channels while knitting
What's good and bad about television today - and nostalgia for the past

photo of Audrey Mettel Fixmer

Grand Mom 

Mettel Fixmer 

Have I become a stodgy old lady? Why am I so annoyed by TV?

Ever since I took up knitting again I have increased my hours of television viewing. I notice how so many of the shows annoy me that I often grab the remote and switch channels or "mute" it several times in an hour.

Out of the loop?

They don't call it the "boob tube" for nothing. I am irritated that every woman under 60 wears low-cut, tight fitting tops, regardless of the role she is playing. If this is the way the average American woman dresses, then I am certainly out of the loop.

I never see any women in real life who flaunt those "assets." Come to think of it, the check-out girls in the grocery stores are bundled up to stay warm, and my only female associates are the older women I play bridge with or see at daily Mass. Anyway, I don't like it.

Annoying screamers

Then there are the "screamers." I grew up (okay, old) thinking screaming was a distress call. When did it become a sound of happiness? I enjoy watching the Today show every morning, but when the crew heads outside and the crazy throng welcomes them with screams, I reach for the remote.

Despite the good intentions of Extreme Makeover Home Show, I am annoyed when the recipients scream their lungs out as they "move that bus" and continue to scream for each gaudy room and back yard they see.

I can't watch Deal or No Deal, not only because of the screaming, but also because of the phony hype they build into it. The premise, it seems to me, is all about greed rather than need.

Good television

Lest I sound like an old sourpuss, let me hasten to add that I do appreciate good television. More and more I am finding myself turning to public television.

The new Masterpiece Theatre series on Jane Austen's works on Sunday nights is well worth watching. Saturday nights have some wonderful British dramas and the series on the American Jew brought back fond memories of the lovable character, Molly Goldberg, with her down home humor and chicken soup wisdom.

Being an antique myself, I enjoy Monday night's Antique Road Show because, I suppose, it shows real people with cherished heirlooms finding out more about their history and worth.

And when did I become interested in history? Certainly not in high school where I thought it was all about memorizing meaningless dates. In college I had a history class that clearly showed me the cause and effect aspect of history. As an English major I came to understand more about history by studying the fiction of many eras.

Today I have come to love history because I lived through so much of it that I can relate to. A great advantage of growing old!

Television pioneers

A recent series on public television called Pioneers of Television is a real trip down memory lane. We were not among the first to own a TV by any means. We had five children by the time we got our first TV in the late 50s.

My husband was a true ham himself, and I remember his reenacting the Sid Caesar shows for our friends the Opatz's on our frequent visits because they didn't have a set.

The Sid Caesar show was all about the star playing a variety of characters in different sketches. Imogene Coca was his sidekick. These were comics who performed "live" before the cameras. On Pioneers they show Carol Burnett watching those skits from the wings to learn the tricks she later mastered herself.

Pioneers of Television also describes how Laugh-In was able to get by with some risqué humor because of the fast "bites," a trick that also annoys me today.

I learned also that Nat King Cole, the first African American to try to get his own show, could not get a sponsor because of his race. At least we have come a long way in that regard.

One comment on that show made me prick up my ears. Someone observed that "the remote control changed the timing of the world." I don't know about you, but I couldn't watch TV without my remote ready at my command.

And meanwhile I produce some neat sweaters for my great-grandkids.

"Grandmom" likes hearing from other senior citizens who enjoy aging -- contact information.

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