Tag Archives: Conference of Catholic Bishops

It’s Mainly Medical, Not Moral

I’m told that this was a real sign, no longer in use, at a hospital in Buckinghamshire, England. I couldn’t resist adding it here– it’s so painfully appropriate to our current situation in the US.

You’re probably sick of hearing about the war over insurance coverage for contraception under the Affordable Care Act, but I think I have a few useful points to make that haven’t been brought up elsewhere.

For those of you who live elsewhere, let me catch you up on this only-in-America craziness.  The Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as the health care reform law, mandates that contraception must be covered by insurers without co-pays (direct costs at the time of service) to the patient, and that employee health plans must provide this coverage.  While there is an exception for employees of churches and other places of worship, hospitals, universities, and other institutions owned by religious sects are included in this mandate.  A number of right-wing forces have complained that this tramples upon religious freedom.  After being thoroughly raked over the coals, the President and his advisors worked out a compromise: the religious groups would not have to pay for the coverage, and it would be provided directly by the insurance companies, so that those who object could keep their sense of purity.  Insurers have agreed to this because providing contraception saves them money (and is expected to save money for the entire health-care system as well as for individual families).  The war is still raging as I write this, with the self-styled guardians of freedom insisting that the government is still overstepping its bounds.

On the front lines of this trumped-up battle, we find none other than the Conference of Catholic Bishops, the same fine folks who protected us from the evil, dangerous practice of Reiki by banning it in all Catholic hospitals and other institutions.  (See my post “Attack of the Bishops.”)  Need I state the obvious?  These ideas are being promulgated largely by partnerless elderly men.  These are not people who have any need to prevent pregnancy or any understanding of what that issue is like for those who do, including the 98% of Catholic women who use birth control at some point in their lives.  This outrage is compounded by the fact that Viagra is covered and the bishops have no problem with that.

A letter I wrote about this recently was published in the Albuquerque Journal on Sunday 2/12/12, before the President backpedaled, and before Rep. Darrell Issa convened a panel of ALL MALE religious leaders, Catholic and otherwise, to testify before Congress.  Issa and his Religious Right cohorts have managed to make it crystal clear that their agenda has little or nothing to do with religious freedom, and is really about a) attacking the president and killing the Affordable Care Act any way they can, and b) controlling women.  They’ve abundantly shown that they want to get rid of not only abortion but all forms of contraception.  And while wailing about the government infringing upon their freedom, they’ve shown that they have no problem with curtailing the freedom of others– especially if those others happen to have pairs of X chromosomes.

Here’s my letter:

“In all the indignation-filled rants I’ve heard about the Obama administration requiring religious institutions to include contraception in employees’ health insurance coverage, there has been one glaring omission:  No one has mentioned the fact that quite often, hormonal contraceptives (the Pill, patches, or implants) are used for medical reasons that have nothing to do with birth control.    Many women take the Pill, etc. for conditions like polycystic ovary syndrome or severely painful periods.  Many of those women are not even sexually active, or not sexually active with men.  I’ve seen this quite a bit with my own patients.  Whatever one thinks about contraception, it’s hard to imagine even the staunchest Catholic objecting to legitimate medical treatment for such conditions.

“I’d just as soon see women use natural alternatives, but in many cases hormonal birth control really changes their lives for the better.  The costs of these medications can be quite substantial, however, and that can put them out of reach for students and low-paid workers.  The costs of the conditions they treat can be substantial, too, as when a woman must miss work because of debilitating pain.  We would not ask an employee to forgo painkillers for arthritis or inhalers for asthma.  How is this different?

“The President may have lost some votes with this decision, but there are quite a few of us who are relieved to see him standing up for women and for what makes medical sense.  Try as I might, I can’t see this as primarily an issue of religious freedom or of morality.  Women who object to contraceptives are still free not to use them.  Morality means doing the best we can for everyone in our society, and that includes medical care, which includes birth control.”

I didn’t want to get all confessional in the newspaper, and I wanted to focus on a single point for impact, without bringing in other aspects of the situation, but I have a personal story that I think sheds particular light on the complexity of this issue and the reasons a total ban by religious “authorities” is not only ludicrous but cruel.

When I was about 25, I developed severe cervical dysplasia, well on the way toward cancer.  This was treated with cryosurgery to remove the diseased cells, which was a standard treatment back then; no one realized at the time that cryosurgery would only mask the problem, which would resurface later on.  My primary care doctor told me I should have a hysterectomy, which showed a remarkable ignorance on his part, it seemed to me, as the precancerous cells were not invasive and might never be.  I had not yet had a child, and was determined to be able to do so.  After I healed from the cryosurgery, I did get pregnant, and my daughter was born when I was 27.  Over the next couple of years I became allergic to or unable to tolerate most forms of birth control, and so, with my husband and my very small daughter in agreement (Lenore’s opinion was “We have enough babies around”), I had a tubal ligation.  Which was covered by insurance, by the way, because my husband is one of those awful, greedy public employees, a teacher that is, and he gets all those totally undeserved benefits.

That was not the end of the medical story.  I had a number of years of clear Pap smears, then skipped a year, because it didn’t seem critical to have one at that point.  The next Pap showed carcinoma in situ.  The tissue underneath the layer affected by the cryosurgery had been stealthily developing toward cancer the whole time, and it had simply taken that long to show up on the surface.  By that time, most of my cervix consisted of abnormal cells, and I was noticeably ill.  To deal with this, my OB-GYN did a cone biopsy to remove all that– they use the word “biopsy,” since it does have a diagnostic aspect, but it’s a far larger matter than the word suggests.

The hospital personnel wanted to do a pregnancy test.  I explained that I’d had my tubes tied.  They impressed on me repeatedly that after this procedure my cervix could not support a pregnancy, and that I needed to be OK with that.  I reassured them again, and the surgery was done.  The pathologist found that there were still diseased cells around the edges of the cone, so a few months later I went through the whole thing again, nearly bleeding to death afterward, and ending up with even less of a cervix.  I emerged from the process weakened but cancer-free.

I often thought about what would happen if a woman in this condition did get pregnant.  Surely it has happened many times.  An embryo would start to grow, everything going fine, and at some point it would lose its moorings in its mother’s womb and essentially fall to its death.  I wondered how far developed the poor creature would be when that happened.  It seems horribly sad, doesn’t it?  The child would be doomed from the start.  The mother would suffer both mentally and physically for nothing.  And all of that could be prevented with the use of reliable contraception, or with my chosen option, sterilization.  If it could not be prevented for some reason, it seems very clear to me that abortion would be a far kinder choice than allowing the baby to keep growing until its inevitable demise, possibly till it could begin to feel something, and certainly exposing the mother to greater risks and discomforts.

I have always wondered how very observant Catholics would find their way through this dilemma, since there would be no way to avoid pain and tragedy, only to minimize it.*  The Church’s official stance, I suppose, would be simply “Don’t have sex.”  Ever again, or at least not until menopause, so that such a tragic pregnancy could never get started.

And of course there are also medical situations where pregnancy would be life-threatening or seriously health-threatening for the mother.  These women need their contraception to be as effective as possible, and depriving them of it verges on criminality, I would say.  Birth control advocates tend to mean hormonal drugs when they speak of “effective” contraception, and that has been the focus of much of the fighting.  I certainly think women should have access to these medications, but I don’t want to come across as a wholehearted fan of the Pill and its cousins.  The Pill, patch, and implant can be problematic for many women, and they can have dangerous side effects, especially as women age.

A friend of mine who cannot use these drugs was put in a ludicrous position by our local Presbyterian Health Plan, on purely ideological rather than medical grounds.  Having been unable to tolerate the type of IUD that releases hormones into the body, she and her doctor decided that she should try the old-fashioned, non-hormonal IUD.  Presbyterian refused to cover that, saying that it’s an abortifacient rather than a contraceptive, and therefore not morally acceptable.**  They were happy to cover the hormonal IUD, which they insisted my friend should use despite the fact that it was already proven to be unsuitable and harmful for her.  The patient’s medical needs meant absolutely nothing.  Let me repeat that, because this is how our system works, and we need to be clear about it:  The patient’s medical needs meant absolutely nothing.  Her own beliefs and moral convictions also meant absolutely nothing.  Fortunately, although she was a college student doing low-paid restaurant work, this young woman was able to get the money together to pay for the IUD herself.

And that is what we face when religion, and only some people’s religion at that, is allowed to determine our medical care.  If the bills currently being proposed by certain members of Congress were to become law, any employer could refuse to cover any type of treatment for any reason.  I don’t think that will come to pass, but stranger things have happened, and we need to stay on top of this situation.  I can only hope that American women will continue to get more and more engaged and will work to hold the ground we’ve gained– and that men have gained along with us– over the past few decades.

I promise to get back to more spiritual matters in my next post.

*Despite 12 years of Catholic school and being good friends with a nun, I still can’t answer this.  Odd situations like this never came up in the typical anti-abortion rhetoric.  And by the way, I don’t remember Catholics railing against birth control back in the ’70s the way it’s happening now.  Maybe I just didn’t notice.

**The common scientific view is that pregnancy begins with implantation, not with conception.  The IUD prevents implantation.

For some other current perspectives:







Filed under health and healing, human rights, politics

Attack of the Bishops

Originally posted August 5, 2009 at Gaia.com

Last March, the Committee on Doctrine of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops released a report condemning Reiki and directing that it should no longer be used in Catholic hospitals or institutions.  Many people in the Reiki community and the rest of the world of healing practitioners were shocked.  A number of them wrote eloquent and well-reasoned responses.  Unfortunately, reason does not seem to have had much effect thus far.  I’m going to quote from the bishops’ presentation here and explain why it made no sense.  I am attempting to feel love and empathy toward the bishops, who I’m sure think they’re properly doing their job as they see it, but as you’ll probably notice, I’m still in a major snit about this.

Why would a group of bishops feel that they needed to weigh in on a medical issue like this, which is obviously not part of their area of expertise?  Their answer:  “From time to time questions have been raised about various alternative therapies that are often available in the United States.  Bishops are sometimes asked, ‘What is the Church’s position on such therapies?’  The USCCB Committee on Doctrine has prepared this resource in order to assist bishops in their responses.”

And why do I care about this?  I’m a Doctor of Oriental Medicine, and the Ki, or Qi, that the bishops don’t believe exists is the center of my practice and my life.  I’ve taught Reiki, and I have many years of experience doing it and other forms of what we loosely term “energy medicine.”  I had 12 years of Catholic school, and while I’m as lapsed as a Catholic can possibly get, I have a certain respect for some of the people who are sincerely working within the Church, and do not wish to see them harmed by this kind of ignorance.

And if the bishops can dictate what medical treatments can be done, I might as well talk about theology.

“The Church recognizes two kinds of healing: healing by divine grace and healing that utilizes the powers of nature.”

“As for the first, we can point to the ministry of Christ, who performed many physical healings and who commissioned his disciples to carry on that work.” Exactly. A number of Reiki practitioners who identify themselves as Christians (some of whom are clergy themselves) have pointed this out.  “In fidelity to this commission, from the time of the Apostles the Church has interceded on behalf of the sick through the invocation of the name of the Lord Jesus, asking for healing through the power of the Holy Spirit, whether in the form of the sacramental laying on of hands and anointing with oil or of simple prayers for healing, which often include an appeal to the saints for their aid.” In a footnote, the bishops add:  “Some forms of Reiki teach of a need to appeal for the assistance of angelic beings or ‘Reiki spirit guides.’  This introduces the further danger of exposure to malevolent forces or powers.” Amazing– I was taught, as a small Catholic child, to ask for help from my guardian angel, but now apparently this is a horrible and non-Catholic thing to do.  And it’s fine to appeal to saints, who are dead human beings, for help, but to ask for the help of spirit guides, who are often also dead human beings, is dangerous.  Now, I’ll give the bishops a point for this one; it certainly is possible to find oneself in contact with beings who are unsavory and not working for our good.  However, the attunements and procedures of Reiki are intended to create some protection against such an event.

“As for the second, the Church has never considered a plea for divine healing, which comes as a gift from God, to exclude recourse to natural means of healing through the practice of medicine.  Alongside her sacrament of healing and various prayers for healing, the Church has a long history of caring for the sick through the use of natural means.  The most obvious sign of this is the great number of Catholic hospitals that are found throughout our country.“

“The two kinds of healing are not mutually exclusive.  Because it is possible to be healed by divine power does not mean that we should not use natural means at our disposal.  It is not our decision whether or not God will heal someone by supernatural means.”

“As the Catechism of the Catholic Church points out, the Holy Spirit sometimes gives to certain human beings ‘a special charism of healing so as to make manifest the power of the grace of the risen Lord.’  This power of healing is not at human disposal, however,  for ‘even the most intense prayers do not always obtain the healing of all illnesses.’  Recourse to natural means of healing therefore remains entirely appropriate, as these are at human disposal.  In fact, Christian charity demands that we not neglect natural means of healing people who are ill.”

What is the distinction, exactly, between “natural” and “supernatural” healing?  I would say, along with most workers in the vineyards of energy medicine, that the power to heal is innate to human beings, as to all living things.  This working of the Source of all is natural in every sense, yet many people would identify it with God.  What the bishops refer to as divine power is not something that exists somewhere “out there,” separate from the world that we normally experience.  The dichotomy between “natural” and “divine” is ultimately not very meaningful in the context of healing (or anywhere else), but the bishops, spiritual leaders though they are, seem to believe that the material world exists apart from spiritual reality.

“As we shall see below, however, distinctions between self, world, and God tend to collapse in Reiki thought.  Some Reiki teachers explain that one eventually reaches the realization that the self and the ‘universal life energy’ are one, ‘that we are universal life force and that everything is energy, including ourselves’ (Libby Barnett and Maggie Chambers with Susan Davidson, Reiki Energy Medicine:  Bringing Healing Touch into Home, Hospital, and Hospice[Rochester, Vt.:  Healing Arts Press, 1996], p. 48; see also p. 102).” I’m having a lot of trouble understanding why this is a problem, especially since the most venerated Christian mystics, such as Saint Teresa of Avila, have spoken of their experience of oneness with God.  I was under the impression that official Catholicism considered this a state greatly to be desired, but the bishops seem quite uncomfortable with the idea.  At any rate, physics has made it clear that everything is indeed energy, and everything is interconnected and interpenetrating.  Sorry, bishops.

“Although Reiki proponents seem to agree that Reiki does not represent a religion of its own, but a technique that may be utilized by people from many religious traditions, it does have several aspects of a religion.  Reiki is frequently described as a ‘spiritual’ kind of healing asopposed to the common medical procedures of healing using physical means.  Much of the literature on Reiki is filled with references to God, the Goddess, the ‘divine healing power,’ and the ‘divine mind.’  The life force energy is described as being directed by God, the ‘Higher Intelligence,’ or the ‘divine consciousness.’  Likewise, the various ‘attunements’ which the Reiki practitioner receives from a Reiki Master are accomplished through ‘sacred ceremonies’ that involve the manifestation and contemplation of certain ‘sacred symbols’ (which have traditionally been kept secret by Reiki Masters).  Furthermore Reiki is frequently described as a ‘way of living,’ with a list of five ‘Reiki Precepts’ stipulating proper ethical conduct.”

The Reiki symbols have never been presented to me as “sacred.”  While I would say that everything is sacred in some sense, I would find the idea of these symbols having a religious meaning or being venerated in themselves rather bizarre.  It’s possible that some teachers present the symbols this way, but that hasn’t been true of anyone I’m familiar with.  Likewise, the attunements have not been spoken of as “sacred ceremonies” in my experience.  It’s true that the symbols used to be kept secret, but they have been so generally published and disseminated that by now they are a very open secret indeed.

“Nevertheless, there are some Reiki practitioners, primarily nurses, who attempt to approach Reiki simply as a natural means of healing.  Viewed as natural means of healing, however, Reiki becomes subject to the standards of natural science.  It is true that there may be means of natural healing that have not yet been understood or recognized by science.  The basic criteria for judging whether or not one should entrust oneself to any particular natural means of healing, however, remain those of science.” Yes, and that’s fine– the science on Reiki looks good from what I’ve seen of it.

“Judged according to these standards, Reiki lacks scientific credibility.  It has not been accepted by the scientific and medical communities as an effective therapy.” If Reiki has not been accepted by the “medical community,” how can it be that those nurses are using it in hospital settings?  Are nurses and hospital administrators not part of the medical community?

“Reputable scientific studies attesting to the efficacy of Reiki are lacking, as is a plausible scientific explanation as to how it could possibly be efficacious.” This is simply not true.  There is a body of research on Reiki, as well as similar types of healing, that supports its effectiveness.  Some of this research was described in responses to the bishops from the American Holistic Nurses Association and practitioner William Lee Rand.  I am not going to attempt to recap it myself; please check the applicable websites.

“The explanation of the efficacy of Reiki depends entirely on a particular view of the world as permeated by this “universal life energy” (Reiki) that is subject to manipulation by human thought and will.”

“Reiki practitioners claim that their training allows one to channel the ‘universal life energy’ that is present in all things.  This ‘universal life energy,’  however, is unknown to natural science.”

Apparently the bishops are completely unfamiliar with Qi Gong, Therapeutic Touch or the like, or even with acupuncture.  They must never have read about the work of Valerie Hunt, Rosalynn Bruyere, or others who have participated in measurements of the human energy field.

“Some people have attempted to identify Reiki with the divine healing known to Christians.  They are mistaken.  The radical difference can be immediately seen in the fact that for the Reiki practitioner the healing power is at human disposal.  Some teachers want to avoid this implication and argue that it is not the Reiki practitioner personally who effects the healing, but the Reiki energy directed by the divine consciousness.  Nevertheless, the fact remains that for Christians the access to divine healing is by prayer to Christ as Lord and Savior….” Apparently non-Christians have no access to divine healing whatsoever; the only access available requires a not only prayer to Christ but a specific viewpoint about Him.  And God is such a limited being that the Divine does not work through anything except this one kind of prayer.

“… while the essence of Reiki is not a prayer but a technique that is passed down from the ‘Reiki Master’ to the pupil, a technique that once mastered will reliably produce the anticipated results.  Some practitioners attempt to Christianize Reiki by adding a prayer to Christ, but this does not affect the essential nature of Reiki.  For these reasons, Reiki and other similar therapeutic techniques cannot be identified with what Christians call healing by divine grace.”

“Reiki Masters offer courses of training with various levels of advancement, services for which the teachers require significant financial remuneration.  The pupil has the expectation and the Reiki Master gives the assurance that one’s investment of time and money will allow one to master a technique that will predictably produce results.“ I don’t know that anyone teaches that Reiki will give predictable results.  The Reiki classes to which I’ve been exposed have emphasized the idea that the body and the energy transmitted will do whatever is most needed by the person being treated, which may not be what either the patient or the practitioner consciously expects at a given time.  The practitioner is not the source of Reiki, nor the commander of it.  We are taught to get out of the way and let the healing happen on its own.

This issue is difficult to think about clearly, however.  While healers do not and cannot truly control healing, and while trying to be in control usually makes our work less effective, we also know that intention (including prayer) has great power.  I intend to write about this in a separate article.

“The difference between what Christians recognize as healing by divine grace and Reiki therapy is also evident in the basic terms used by Reiki proponents to describe what happens in Reiki therapy, particularly that of ‘universal life energy.’  Neither the Scriptures nor the Christian tradition as a whole speak of the natural world as based on ‘universal life energy’ that is subject to manipulation by the natural human power of thought and will.” A reading of such “apocryphal” writings as the Gospel of Thomas would give quite a different perspective on early Christian tradition, but the bishops wouldn’t pay any more attention to those than they would to me.

“In fact, this world-view has its origins in eastern religions…” Ki/Qi is simply a fact, and observations of it in ancient times did not depend upon religion.  “…and has a certain monist and pantheistic character, in that distinctions among self, world, and God tend to fall away.” Again, why is this presented as an objection?  Were we not taught that God is everywhere?  Isn’t this dissolution of the distinction between God and self the essential experience of mystical Christianity?  Ah, but here is that dichotomy between the “orthodox” Christians and the “heretics.”  Any suggestion that individual humans can experience union with God, without the mediation of the Church hierarchy, must be squelched immediately.

In their conclusion, the bishops state:  “For a Catholic to believe in Reiki therapy presents insoluble problems.” It is so very tiresome to hear references to energy healing couched in terms of belief. There is no requirement to believe or disbelieve.  Reiki works, and is a fact.  One does not speak of believing in aspirin or erythromycin; one simply uses them as appropriate.

“To use Reiki one would have to accept at least in an implicit way central elements of the worldview that undergirds Reiki theory, elements that belong neither to Christian faith nor to natural science.” This is another highly questionable statement, since a case can be made that to do healing is to perform a quintessentially Christian act, and since Reiki is as subject to natural science as any other human endeavor.

“Without justification either from Christian faith or natural science, however, a Catholic who puts his or her trust in Reiki would be operating in the realm of superstition, the no-man’s-land that is neither faith nor science.  Superstition corrupts one’s worship of God by turning one’s religious feeling and practice in a false direction.” The bishops’ definition of “superstition” appears to be anything that does not fit their specific dogma.

“While sometimes people fall into superstition through ignorance, it is the responsibility of all who teach in the name of the Church to eliminate such ignorance as much as possible.” And some of us are taking responsibility to try to eliminate ignorance from the Church itself, but this appears to be a gargantuan and probably impossible task.

But here is the punch line, or shall I say the punch to the gut:  “Since Reiki therapy is not compatible with either Christian teaching or scientific evidence, it would be inappropriate for Catholic institutions, such as Catholic health care facilities and retreat centers, or persons representing the Church, such as Catholic chaplains, to promote or to provide support for Reiki therapy.” This is where we leave the realm of theological speculation, where real harm is being done to real people, including those involved with a program of free clinics for seniors for which I volunteer.  A Reiki practitioner who worked with us had to leave the program.  Fortunately, since I am seen as an acupuncturist and the powers that be have no idea what else I do, I have not been molested.  But knowing that patients all over the country are being denied treatment that could make a huge difference for them is intensely painful to me.

I am also utterly astonished, and deeply offended, to see the entire basis of my profession ridiculed by people who have made no serious effort to learn about it.  The bishops have no experience or training as healers themselves, yet they feel qualified to proclaim that those of us who work every day in this field are benighted idiots, that we are merely deluding ourselves and our patients, that we are caught in the grip of “superstition.”  How do they think nurses are trained– do they believe that nurses not only have no concept of science or intellectual rigor, but that they are so stupid that they can’t even tell when their treatments are useless?  Do they think that we would all keep doing Reiki year after year, and teaching it to others, because we simply imagined that it helped people?  Do they think that patients, as well, have no idea whether a treatment is benefiting them?

Ah, but I forget– individuals know nothing, understand nothing, and can perceive nothing, except by the grace of those who have put themselves at the head of the Church, the one and only arbiter of truth.

I cannot imagine voluntarily giving authority over my own beliefs, thoughts, and activities to such people, but there are thoughtful, serious, intelligent human beings who do work within the Catholic Church and other Christian denominations, and quite a few of them do Reiki.  The bishops referred to websites created by some of these practitioners, largely in order to ridicule them.  It did not appear to me that they actually read the contents.  I did, and I found these writings valuable, although in many ways they are not consonant my own point of view.  I encourage you to take a look:


Obedience to God or to Man?


For the American Holistic Nurses Association, including their response to the bishops, see http://www.ahna.org

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