Vatican Raps 'Religion Of Health'

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Vatican officials Thursday decried what they called a "religion of health" in affluent societies and held out Pope John Paul II's stoic suffering as an antidote to the mentality that modern medicine must cure all.

"While millions of people in the world struggle to survive hunger and disease, lacking even minimal health care, in rich countries the concept of health as well-being figures in creating unrealistic expectations about the possibility of medicine to respond to all needs and desires," said the Rev. Maurizio Faggioni, a theologian and morality expert on the Vatican's Pontifical Academy for Life.

"The medicine of desires, egged on by the health-care market, increases the request for pharmaceutical and medical-surgical services, soaks up public resources beyond all reasonableness," Faggioni said at a news conference.

The theologian spoke in advance of a debate in the academy next week on politically hot issues such as the right to life and medical care.

Manfred Lutz, a psychiatrist and Vatican academic, said John Paul, who for years has struggled with Parkinson's disease, was "the living alternative to the prevailing health-fiend madness."

The pope's emergency hospitalization earlier this month for breathing problems - his seventh hospitalization since becoming pontiff in 1978 - fueled open discussion, including among leading cardinals, over whether he should step down because of frail health.

But officials at the news conference took pains to put a positive spin on the limitations health problems bring. John Paul II, who also has knee and hip problems, no longer walks in public, and Parkinson's has left his speech often unintelligible.

"Precisely in the handicap, in the disease, in the pain, in old age, in dying and death one can, instead, perceive the truth of life in a clearer way," Lutz said.

"The pope's message is 'suffering is part of life and has meaning," the doctor said.

Monsignor Elio Sgreccia, the Vatican's chief bioethicist, said people need to ponder the question: "Does a right to health 'at all costs' exist? Or is it rather a right to treatment?"

"Medicine has become impossible to manage because it can't fulfill the desires" of consumers for perfect health, said Sgreccia, who heads the academy, a Vatican advisory body.

Vatican officials stressed that all people should have access to basic health care.

But "it is difficult to establish what a decent minimum is," said Faggioni, when asked about criticism over unaffordable health care for many in the United States.

Asked about anti-AIDS measures, Sgreccia reiterated the Vatican's teaching against use of condoms and the Church's insistence that sexual faithfulness within marriage was the best way to combat HIV contagion.

The seminar next week marks the 10th anniversary of the pope's encyclical "Evangelium vitae" encyclical in which he delivered the Catholic Church's most forceful condemnation of abortion, euthanasia and experimentation on human embryos, and restated the Vatican ban on birth control.

By Frances D'Emilio