Card. Angelini inglese
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The Meaning of a Historical Trajectory


"Go on your way, and do likewise." From Hippocrates to the Good Samaritan.
The subject "From Hippocrates to the Good Samaritan" does not express a general juxtaposition. In the same way it does not amount to a contrived or artificial tandem. Look at the back of the program of this international conference and you will see why this is so. In the past this fact was understood. But today, in many quarters, it seems that there is a desire that it should be forgotten. Nobody had ever sought to put a cross or a Christian symbol on the frontispiece of works by Aristotle-works which even such an outstanding theologian as Thomas Aquinas adjudged precursors of Christian thought. Nor had anyone ever sought to do likewise with the works of Cicero, a figure whom Tertullian called "anima naturaliter christiana." But such an act was performed by an enlightened Medieval scribe when he transcribed the Hippocratic oath in Greek in the form of a cross. The manuscript is kept in the Vatican library. The inference is obvious: he who read the Hippocratic passage with care perceived in it the teaching of Christ.
There is an undisputed continuity between the content of the Hippocratic oath and the content of Christian morality. This continuity lies in a shared commitment to promote and defend life from its conception to its natural ending. This is a continuity which is emphatically observed by the Holy Father John Paul II, among many others. In the encyclical Evangelium Vitae His Holiness refers to the "ancient and ever relevant Oath of Hippocrates, according to which every medical doctor is called upon to be committed to absolute respect for human life and its sacredness."
The Hippocratic Oath, indeed, has four general features, and these are:
* a profound respect for nature in general;
* a unified and integral conception of the human being;
* a rigid and strict relationship between personal ethics and professional ethics;
* a mainly participatory vision of the exercise of the art of medicine.
There is, therefore, an evident precursory element within the Hippocratic Oath which leads on to the Christian vision of life-a vision which adheres to (and enriches) all of these four features of the oath. But it is, above all, in the full and total defense of life that the position of this great Greek doctor and physician created a receptivity to the acceptance of the Christian belief that life is participation in the life itself of God projected into eternity. And it is here that there is a crucial point at which the thought of Hippocrates and Christian thought coincide-in the exclusion of any possibility of discrimination in relation to the notion of life. Hippocrates sees the promotion and the defense of life as a criterion and guide for the practice of his profession and as a measure by which to judge the honesty and correctness of the medical doctor. He knew full well that the acceptance of possible distinctions which involved exceptions to this principle would mean that this principle would become fragile and vulnerable. And he is so convinced of this fact that his oath draws near to a religious view of life. Indeed at the beginning of the oath the physician from Kos refers to the divinities of the Greek pantheon and at its close he seems to echo these initial words when he wishes every ill to befall him if he should ever diverge from his oath.
There are two other elements in Hippocratic ethics which have an almost Christian aspect. They are, in the first place, the need for the medical doctor in the practice of his profession to be at the service of the sick person and not to act in his own calculated and selfish interest. And he is so convinced of this that he sees a non-utilitarian reward as the prize for the correct exercise of his profession. Indeed,the person who is called to the bed of those who suffer well knows-as the Schola Salernitana of medical thought makes clear-that the doctor is forgotten about when the illness or ailment has passed away and that as a result there is a temptation to present the bill for professional services when the patient is most in the grip of his infirmity. Here we can see the contemporary relevance of a Christian defense of the Hippocratic Oath, especially in an age such as this, when we find that side by side with great advances in the realm of science and technology we are threatened by their being placed at the service of wrongful goals and by their employment as instruments in the achievement of wrongful ends.
A careful analysis of the Hippocratic Oath enables us to come to a simple conclusion: few professional categories can so agree upon the essential principles of their activity as those who are engaged in service to health-I am referring here, of course, to health care workers. Through an identification of the Christian view of the world with the vertical and horizontal beams of a cross, and its encounter/comparison with the non-Christian view or views, we might imagine service to health-and thus to life-as the exact point at which the two beams meet.
It is certainly true that in this field as well the very newness of Christianity is expressed in the doctrine and practice of the attribution of value to suffering when that suffering, notwithstanding the efforts of science and of every other means, cannot be removed. But in truth few truths are so rational as the attribution of value to suffering-something which draws upon all the resources of man and enables him to reach the highest and noblest points of what he really is. It is not true, therefore, that only faith can supply the strength by which to accept and give value to pain. It can be of decisive importance in this endeavor, but the support it provides can also involve the placing of roots in human reason and intelligence, elements which themselves are also gifts of God.
The placing of Hippocrates and the Good Samaritan in tandem is constantly encountered in the whole history of medicine and health care. During this history the Church, during her two-thousand years of life, has shown herself to be a pioneer. This reality illuminates another truth, a truth which has been referred to by the Holy Father. In serving those who suffer, a meeting of all men of good will becomes possible, a meeting which in other fields has proved difficult, if not impossible. Philosophical, religious, political, economic, and social ideas can experience insuperable differences and divergences. Service to anyone who suffers, on the other hand, because it involves an encounter with the most universal and deeply felt of human aspirations-namely, the safeguarding and recovery of health, and thus the advancement and defense of human life-renders an ecumenism of works possible, a reality which constitutes a real bridge towards justice and peace.
Indeed, such an ecumenism of works is more than an aspiration-it is a necessity. And the decision to link together Hippocrates and the Good Samaritan of the Gospel parable is an attempt first and foremost to demonstrate that it is especially in her solicitude for the sick and the suffering, and in the advancement and the defense of life and the dignity of the human person, that the Church-being at the same time the heir to the highest values of each and every civilization-wants to place herself at the vanguard of the difficult advance towards that civilization of love to which, indeed, there is no alternative.