Catholic physicians unite to confront the culture, build a culture of life
By Jean Torkelson
When John Volk graduated from medical school a quarter century ago, he never imagined that his profession would someday be at the center of a culture war.
“I didn’t think the culture would come to this, really,” said Deacon Dr. Volk, a family physician practicing in Evans. “But when you have a voice that stands out, like the Church, she is going to be a target, especially when she stands up against the culture that exists today.”
Current cultural norms dictate that what’s become known as “mainstream medicine” should offer access, if not outright approval, to contraceptive and sterilization services, abortion referrals, and sexual choices for teenagers.
But Volk and a growing number of Catholics in the health care industry are resisting “mainstream medicine” by making their practices explicitly Catholic. They are counseling natural family planning in place of artificial birth control and sterilization, refusing to condone abortion or efforts to promote euthanasia, and counseling sexual abstinence.
And while government restrictions loom, support is growing for Catholic health care providers through various organizations with the Church’s encouragement.
A major source of support is the annual White Mass, which was held Oct. 20 at Church of the Risen Christ in Denver. The Mass is celebrated for the intentions of physicians and all health care workers and is associated with the Denver Guild of the Catholic Medical Association. The guild and the White Mass were launched in Denver in 2008 through the support of Archbishop Charles Chaput and the ongoing guidance of Bishop James Conley.
The White Mass and the guild are affiliated with the Pennsylvania-based Catholic Medical Association, an 81-year-old organization that is enjoying a resurgence of membership and a dramatic increase in local guilds—from two guilds to more than 70 since 2004, according to its president, John Brehany.
Paradoxically, for many physicians the most common entryway to a more Catholic understanding of medicine has come through an idea that historically divided Catholics—the use of artificial birth control.
Here are stories of three Catholic physicians practicing in the Denver area.
“I was a Catholic, but not well formed,” said Deacon-Dr. Volk, who graduated from medical school in 1986. While he never would have suggested abortions for his patients—“That was pretty self explanatory,” he said—nevertheless, “I was pretty much practicing mainstream medicine, including things like contraception. It was a gradual awakening.”
Through Catholic men’s conferences, friends and books by such authors as Christopher West, who writes extensively about Catholic marriage and natural family planning, Volk began his explicitly Catholic practice about 10 years ago. About three years ago, he was ordained a deacon. His practice in Evans is at Sunrise/Monfort Family Clinic, 2930 11th Ave.
When he began his Catholic practice, Volk wrote an open letter to his patients explaining why he was no longer prescribing artificial contraception.
Was the change difficult to make for the practice?
“Yes and no,” he said. “It’s interesting because a number of my patients are non-Catholic Christians and they never heard before that birth control might be immoral. I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback. Very few people left (the practice).”
Now he is free to express what is rarely is heard in a “mainstream” doctor’s office: “Birth control redefines the sexual act as one of ‘no commitment and no consequences’ … that definition has created a lot of heartache in our society, in terms of the divorce rate, unwed pregnancies and abortion.”
Not always easy
Dr. Carlos Vera was in practice almost 20 years before he stopped prescribing birth control in 2005.
“I was a late bloomer,” Vera said. “When I finally realized what I was doing, I realized I wasn’t all that Catholic.”
He and his wife Abby, a nurse, began researching the basic science of birth control and concluded that one unintended consequence of artificial birth control—whether pills, injections or an IUD—was the possibility of abortion.
“I didn’t want to become party to that possibility,” he said. Instead, the Veras studied natural family planning in depth and eventually Vera became an NFP consultant.
It’s not uncommon for physicians who choose to make their practices Catholic to lose jobs or patients. Vera had his own difficult adjustment. Soon after he started his first pro-life practice in Northglenn, a mainstream clinic moved in nearby, effectively forcing his clinic out of business. He recalled thinking, “Well, Lord, we were trying to do the right thing … what do you want?”
The answer seemed to be, “Try again.” Now he’s practicing family medicine through the Cisneros Center of OB-GYN and Family Medicine located at 9981 N. Washington St. in Denver.
But Vera is still concerned about the continued threat of government intervention in health care decisions.
“It’s frightening,” Vera said. “I see physicians going to jail for (resisting government health care mandates). But I’m trying to be moral and faithful to my religion and in the long run, the only person I have to answer to is God.”
Profound patient changes
Pediatrician Michelle Stanford began her practice in 2001. As the decade wore on, she began to actively search for professional and personal fellowship with other Catholic physicians. Her search led her to the newly formed Denver Guild of the Catholic Medical Association, as well as to Endow, the education, outreach and networking organization, founded in Denver, whose mission is expressed in its full name, Educating on the Nature and Dignity of Women.
At one Endow event, Stanford was introduced to “Humanae Vitae,” Pope Paul VI’s historic, and many say prophetic, 1968 encyclical, which banned Catholic use of artificial birth control.
“It was as if the Holy Spirit was speaking to my heart—oh my gosh, he’s talking to me!” Stanford recalled thinking. Now she and her medical partner are both pro-life practitioners at their clinic, Centennial Pediatrics located at 15464 E. Orchard Road in Centennial.
Founded in Denver: 2008
Information: on the guild or how to find a Catholic doctor, visit denvercma.org
Catholic Medical Association: Based in Bala Cynwyd, Pa.
Relevant stats: Record-breaking 600-plus health care professionals from 40-plus states attended annual national conference, September 2012.
While a few patients left, most of her young patients, and their parents, have beenopen to a perspective on life issues and teenage sexuality from a Catholic physician’s perspective.
Stanford said the discussions have led to some “great stories” of profound change.
In one case: “A teenage boy realized he was a little depressed because of his multiple partners and that it was probably related to his promiscuity. He said, ‘Every time I have sex with a different girl I lose part of my soul,’ and I said, ‘You got it.’ Sometimes they don’t link the two things together.”
Last month, Stanford attended the annual national convention of the Catholic Medical Association in St. Paul, Minn. The conference broke attendance records, drawing 600-plus physicians and health care workers from more than 40 states. Not surprisingly, the hot topics involved concerns over government intervention in private health care decisions.
While the implications are ominous, “everybody’s pretty optimistic,” Stanford said. “There is a power with all of us sticking together, staying informed and fighting this fight together.”
After all, she added, “We have the right person on our side—God—so you have to trust.”
Jean Torkelson: 303-715-3122; www.twitter.com/DCRegister