By Sister Mary Diana Dreger, O.P., M.D.
Life and physical health are precious gifts entrusted to us by God. We must take reasonable care of them, taking into account the needs of others and the common good... (CCC, No. 2288).
This first article in the section of the Catechism of the Catholic Church entitled ''Respect for health'' identifies physical health as a gift from God. As any gift derives part of its value from the giver, our physical well-being is allotted significant importance. We cannot take lightly the worth of this gift, and the responsibility each of us has for it.
A priest's ordinary work at the service of the Church is dependent on his health. The aged or infirm priest can offer his prayers and sufferings as part of the communion of the saints. However, administration of the sacraments, teaching, and preaching are physically, emotionally, and intellectually demanding. To live the priestly life well, bodily health is essential.
Health problems interfere with a priest's work in various ways. A common difficulty might be a priest who is too tired to prepare his homilies well or offer the Sacrifice of the Mass with devotion. Less common would be the one who is disabled at a young age by potentially preventable illnesses. A priest has the responsibility to avoid problems that would limit living out the fullness of his vocation.
What is ''reasonable care'' of physical health? The basics include a balanced diet, regular exercise and adequate sleep. Our society is suffering from an epidemic of obesity and its related problems of diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease. The priest today is no less at risk; but his level of education, commitment to a life of virtue and position as a role model impart a higher degree of responsibility. Fresh fruits and vegetables, lean meats, appropriate portion sizes, limited sugar and salt are the requirements for a healthy diet. Even one who necessarily frequents restaurants or fast-food establishments has the possibility of choosing healthier options.
Two-and-a-half hours per week of aerobic exercise is recommended. This does not necessitate membership in a gym; brisk, sustained walking outdoors is excellent for promoting cardiac, pulmonary and musculoskeletal health. The witness value to parishioners or even opportunity to engage in dialogue with others in this way may be significant. We all remember accounts of Father Karol Wojtyla exercising body and soul during his camping trips with the youth of his parishes.
As for sleep, an average of eight hours of is still recommended; at least, a priest should recognize when inadequate rest is limiting his ability to pray and to serve his flock well. Understanding the limitations of the human body is important in the practice of the virtues of humility and prudence.
Appropriate medical care is also ''reasonable.'' Acute, self-limiting illnesses (respiratory infections and ''stomach bugs'') can be treated with over-the-counter symptom relief, fluids and rest. In our society, a person may neglect his health for a time, and then when faced with a common illness, become demanding of the physician and his medical staff. Physicians frequently hear, ''I don't have time to be sick!'' from a patient who previously didn't find time to care for his health in the usual ways.
Demanding antibiotics when they are not indicated is not only bad for the individual's health, but goes against the ''common good,'' contributing to rampant difficulties of antibiotic resistance. Inappropriately requesting expensive lab or radiologic testing again has potential harm for the patient and contributes to increasing medical and insurance costs.
More serious symptoms, those that limit usual activities, or those lasting for an extended time, should be evaluated by a medical professional. It is hard for a physician to get to know a patient for the first time during an illness; therefore, it is prudent to be established with a ''primary care physician'' when one is healthy.
The traditional ''annual physical'' is not necessary in all age groups; but certainly by age 50, a yearly ''preventive care visit'' is of benefit. Those with a chronic medical condition at any age should keep scheduled follow-up appointments and be active participants in their own care.
In this day of ethical concerns in medicine, including those related to end-of-life care, every adult should have a designated Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care. This person would make health care decisions for an individual only when the patient is not capable of making his own decisions. This may or may not be a relative, but should be someone who is aware of the patient's personal and moral healthcare preferences.
''Reasonable care'' of physical health incorporates concurrent care of emotional and psychological health. The sabbath rest of Sunday is limited by a priest's pastoral obligations. Nevertheless, he is no less called to honor the Lord's Day. Relaxing social interactions particularly with families is one way a priest can teach others how to spend Sunday in a holy and healthful way. No less should Sunday be a day for more focused prayer with the resurrected Lord, preparing the spirit for the activities of the week to come.
Emotional health plays a role in the well-being of the human person. Appropriate leisure activities are important in cultivating the many aspects of an individual's life. Reading, hobbies or participation in sports can develop particular gifts and provide relaxation of the mind and body.
Every adult should understand the reality of stress and how it manifests itself in one's own life. The connection between stress and physical health is well understood. Not only should a priest be able to use this information in pastoral care of others, but he should recognize signs of stress in his own life, and use tools for managing it.
The Catechism recognizes that while lack of healthcare is one problem, at times there are those who make health itself a type of ''god.''
If morality requires respect for the life of the body, it does not make it an absolute value. It rejects a neo-pagan notion that tends to promote the cult of the body... (CCC, No. 2289).
Long hours spent in exercising or in competitive sports suggests a focus other than the supernatural. Unusual diets, food supplements, high-dose vitamins, or alternative medical treatments are expensive and counter a faith that values the use of intellectual reason.
Mistreatment of the body is addressed in another article of the Catechism:
The virtue of temperance disposes us to avoid every kind of excess: the abuse of food, alcohol, tobacco or medicine... (CCC, No. 2290).
Temperance and mortification are at the basis of the life of virtue. We can hardly hope to excel in a life of justice and charity if we have not first taken care of those problems which, when uncontrolled, lead us to selfishness. Further, as persons unified in body and soul, we cannot plan to grow in the spiritual life if we are weighed down by indulging the appetites of the body.
All know the danger of lung and other respiratory cancers due to smoking or tobacco use in any form. In fact, every system of the body is threatened by this highly addictive habit. It is not possible to justify smoking as beneficial to the person in any way. Numerous medical opportunities exist to assist those who are already addicted. The priest must consider the witness he gives to others in continuing this habit, both in terms of health concerns and economic costs.
''Heavy drinking'' is defined, for an adult male, as more than four alcoholic drinks at one occasion, or more than 14 drinks in one week. (One drink is defined as 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits.) This level of alcohol consumption puts a man in danger of developing more serious alcohol problems.
Higher consumption of alcohol is a risk factor for serious liver disease. It increases the rates of various cancers, and contributes to high blood pressure and heart disease. Alcohol misuse commonly plays a role in motor vehicle and other types of accidents. A priest who drinks excessively will be limited in his apostolic work, not only because of direct results of intoxication, but because of the damaging witness he gives to the life of the priesthood.
The celibate life of the priest calls for the virtue of chastity, included under the cardinal virtue of temperance. It is not possible to practice a virtue in one aspect of our lives without its practice in all aspects of life. Intemperance in food or drink risks yielding to temptations in the area of chastity. In his book Priests for the Third Millennium (OSV, 2000), Archbishop Timothy Dolan recommends a ''disciplined, balanced way of life,'' which he describes as
choreographing prayer, work, rest, recreation and friendship, with a disciplined approach to eating, drinking, spending money, buying new gadgets and entertainment. We used to call it an ''ascetical'' approach to life. Now we call it establishing a healthy rhythm of life (p. 318).
Attention to physical and emotional health is integrally related to our work and growth in the spiritual life. The priest, who with every believer is called to the heights of contemplation, must have at the basis of his spiritual life a strong foundation in asceticism. ''Life and physical health are precious gifts entrusted to us by God...'' (CCC, No. 2288).
In its treatment of the fifth commandment, the Catechism of the Catholic Church includes appropriate care of physical health. In an age that tends to separate the material world from the spiritual, the body from the soul, the Church encourages us to remember instead the unity that exists in the human person.
Hence those who seek to lead souls to Christ must remember that they are incarnated souls, and care of the body is appropriate and necessary for those striving to follow the Word Incarnate. In teaching the fullness of our faith, the priest who promotes the dignity of the human person will necessarily be witnessing to proper care of physical health, not only in his words but by his example as well. TP
SISTER MARY DIANA, O.P., M.D., is a Dominican Sister of Saint Cecilia in Nashville, Tenn.
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