Church teaching 'consonant' with practicing medicine, says Dominican

Catholic physicians today find themselves contradicting "much that has made its way into the medical profession and yet is destroying the profession of medicine," said a Dominican sister who is a physician.

Dominican Sr. Mary Diana Dreger, who is board certified in internal medicine, made the comments in an address to the 600 participants attending the 83rd annual Catholic Medical Association education conference in Orlando. She spoke Sept. 27 about "The Catholic Physician: A Sign of (Non) Contradiction."

"The reference of 'a sign of contradiction' is to the divine physician," Dreger said. "When Jesus was presented by Mary and Joseph in the temple, Simeon said, 'This child is meant for the fall and rise of many in Israel and for a sign of contradiction.'"

Contradiction is "to speak against," she explained.

"Today as Catholic physicians, we find ourselves speaking against, contradicting much that surrounds us, much that has made its way into the medical profession and yet is destroying the profession of medicine," Dreger said.

She described three common models of the practice of medicine: the technological imperative by which if it can be done, it will be done; the business model by which the health care provider is obligated to respond to the interests of the client or consumer  minimizing care while maximizing profits; and the legal model in which the state licenses and so the state decides.

"Catholic physicians must reject these inaccurate models of medicine," Dreger said. "It is neither law nor business nor science which accurately represents the essence of medicine. The moral behavior of Catholic physicians is perfectly consonant with the practice of good medicine."

A person who is "broken, ill, suffering" wants "wholeness, healing and compassion," she said. "Medicine is about doing good for another person  a moral endeavor. A physician wants the good of another and the patient trusts the physician will do good." She discussed a number of areas she said are contrary to the practice of good medicine, such as abortion; birth control methods, including the intrauterine device, the patch and the pill; artificial reproduction; pediatric sexual behaviors; and advanced directives for the sick and/or elderly.

"The new evangelization is calling us to something more  our moral teachings do not contradict the truth of the human person  there is no better place than the exam room to make this known," Dreger continued. "The likeliness of turning hearts back to God is most likely to happen to the person who sees in us the God who loves her. You are to be in the world, the model of the divine physician. We are called to make Jesus known in our personal encounters with our patients."

The Dominican sister recalled what led her to religious life -- and eventually to the medical profession. She was interested in medicine even in junior high school in the New York borough of Queens, but she planned to get married and have a big family. She graduated from the State University of New York at Stony Brook with a secondary education degree in science.

During her six years as a high school teacher, she went on to get a master's degree in mathematics. After attending a catechetical program at St. Joseph Seminary in Yonkers in the New York Archdiocese, she recalled, she was driving home when she prayed, asking God: "What do you want me to do with my life? Do you want me only for yourself?"

But no answer came, she said. It was while she was at a program in Arlington, Virginia, sponsored by five religious communities, that she discovered the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia Congregation of Nashville, Tennessee. The community had everything she wanted in religious life. She visited the community, entering in Aug. 17, 1989. She taught biology, chemistry, anatomy and physiology at St. Cecilia Academy, and took her final vows in 1996.

A month or two later, the mother superior told her: "I'm thinking of sending you to medical school.'"

In August 1997, she started medical school at Vanderbilt University. Four years later, she graduated, spent three years in residency and in 2004 she was board certified in internal medicine. She joined the Catholic Medical Association in 2006 and two years later started a local guild of the association. She serves on the national group's board of directors and is studying for a degree in moral theology."

Dreger currently works at St. Thomas Family Health Center South Clinic in Nashville where her patients are mostly uninsured immigrants. She also holds an annual weekend retreat "to bring women physicians together for downtime, discussion and silence." This year's retreat is Nov. 6-9.

"Each of us is called to change the world using the gifts we have been given in the vocation to which we are called," Dreger said. "Pope Francis is reminding us constantly that we are essentially called to be missionaries. Every Christian, wherever we are is called to bring Christ to the world."