The Christian Response to Healthcare and End of Life

Now, for some of the following I’m going from memory so bear with me. Liturgist Father Alexander Schmemann wrote a small book For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy. In this book he has some interesting remarks on healthcare and how Christians should respond to this. In it he makes the accusation that Christian hospitals, especially regarding end of life issues, are basically secular in their care and how they deal with end of life issues.  I’d like to summarize why and how his accusation follows and see if I might generate some conversation about this.

Henry Neufeld, recently wrote on healthcare, concluding:

But health care plans that simply deal with distributing care won’t provide a long term answer. We need to keep in mind how good health care is produced, and what any new plan will do to that production. Medical practitioners are not merely distributors of an existing good, like water. They are producers, and if we want them to produce we’ll need to deal fairly with them as well.

Dan Edelen also has comments regarding healthcare recently:

Healthcare is troubling issue because fewer and fewer people can afford it, yet none of us is immune to entropy. The early Church made its name in Rome by caring for the sick. Most of the world’s hospitals were founded by Christians. Yet Christian leaders today seem utterly flummoxed by the issue, preferring to ignore it even while their congregations suffer.

I think the problem with that sort of notion is that it is entirely secular … which may be right for the government. But many hospitals are Christian (Lutheran General and so on). Sponsered and run by religious organs. And they are both right, to a point. The church pioneered getting the narratives of the poor into the public square. It pioneered a safety net and health care via monastic and parish service and servants were integral to the early Church in Roma and Constantinople.

Fr. Schmemann suggests that counseling and care (of Christians by Christians) at the end of life is incorrectly motivated. What he calls for is that instead of looking at quality of life and extension of the same, the priority of a Christian as he nears the end of his days in this life should be martyrdom. Now martyrdom doesn’t mean dying spectacularly in defense of the faith. It means, essentially witness. In this context, martyrdom means that the end of your life should be sign, a witness of your life in Christ. Extension of life, for a Christian, should be the highest priority, after all there is the life to come. Your life should be an expression and witness to that fundamental ontological freedom.

I’ve been told that the passing of a monk in a monastic community is a time of wonder and joy. Now I’ve been told this regarding Orthodox monastic communities but I’d suspect it true of any Christian cenobitic community). Shouldn’t a Christian hospital be structured, at least toward avowed Christian patients, to make that true. And that would be the priority, over and above the specific medical needs. In fact, shouldn’t that need advise and drive the specific medical treatment prescribed?

Now there is a certain practical difficulty to this. What about those patients for whom the right treatment in this line is not so clear. Alzheimer’s related dementia or other degenerative neurological illnesses seem difficult to put in this context. But … it seems to me we are so far from being able to foster an environment like that of the monastic community. Have you ever heard of a hospital helping you in finding the wonder and joy in the passing of a loved one. How about your church? How about your attitude toward your ending of days?

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  1. Thanks for posting on this.

    I don’t know about churches helping with this, but when we lost our 17 year old son to cancer, the experience was both sorrowful and peaceful. He told his mother early in the evening, “I’m going home tonight,” and he died about 2 hours later. His friends from the church praise band (he had been a drummer) came over, got out their instruments and sang until he had gone home. The hospice social worker, not a Christian, said she had never felt such peace as was in our home that evening.

    I am not denying the sorrow of the experience either, but there is more to death for the Christian than the loss; much more.