Catholic Medical Quarterly Volume 68(2) May 2018


Report on the 13th Matercare International Conference,
“Catholic Health Professionals Can Still Deliver: Confronting Today’s Moral and   Ethical Challenge”,
Rome September 2017.  

Dr Dermot Kearney

Dr KearneyMatercare International is an organisation of Catholic obstetricians and gynaecologists primarily dedicated to the care of mothers and babies. Its mission is “to carry out the work of Evangelium Vitae (the Gospel of Life) by improving the lives and health of mothers and babies, both born and unborn, through new initiatives of service, train-ing, research, and advocacy designed to reduce the tragic levels of abortion world-wide and maternal and perinatal mortality, morbidity in developing countries” [Matercare International website mission statement]. It is officially recognised as the obstetrics and gynaecology wing of FIAMC (the International Federation of Catholic Medical Associations).

The organisation was formally founded in 1995 with an international gathering of obstetricians and gynaecologists in Liverpool, England and was largely an initiative responding to calls from Pope John Paul II in his Evangelium Vitae encyclical. Dr Robert Walley, a founding member, remains very much a driving force and an inspiration. Originally training in Obstetrics and Gynaecology in his home country, England, he felt that he had to emigrate in the early 1970s as he was not prepared to compromise his conscience and participate in abortion provision. He was told at that time that he basically had three career choices:

  1. abandon conscience and perform abortions;
  2. change to a different speciality in medicine or surgery; or
  3. emigrate. He chose the third option, settling in Newfoundland, Canada.

The first Matercare International workshop took place in Rome in 2001 and the group of 120, mainly obstetricians /  gynaecologists, were honoured by being granted a private audience with Pope John Paul II. He expressed his admiration for the organisation and for loyal Catholic healthcare personnel in general. “Your profession has become still more important and your responsibility still greater in today’s cultural and social context, in which science and the practice of medicine risk losing sight of their inherent ethical dimension, [and] health-care professionals can be strongly tempted at times to become manipulators of life, or even agents of death.

It is my fervent hope that at the beginning of this new millennium, all [Catholic] medical and health care personnel, whether in research or practice, will commit themselves wholeheartedly to the service of human life. I trust that the local Churches will give due attention to the medical profession, promoting the ideal of unambiguous service to the great miracle of life, supporting obstetricians, gynaecologists and health workers who respect the right to life by helping to bring them together for mutual support and the exchange of ideas and experiences.” [Pope John-Paul II to MaterCare International, 18th June 2001].

Conference pictureThe 13th Matercare International Conference took place, once again in Rome, from 20th to 24th September 2017. The Conference was appropriately titled “Catholic Health Professionals Can Still Deliver: Confronting Today’s Moral and Ethical Challenge”. The location was ideal for any Catholic conference as it was held at the Istituto Maria SS Bambina, a convent situated literally metres from the Vatican City colonnade lining St Peter’s Square. The rooftop of the Istituto overlooks the Square and is the familiar site used by a host of TV companies whenever they need prime location for Vatican reports. Wakening each morning to the site of the dome of St Peter’s Basilica over-looking your bedroom window is truly memorable.

Aside from the excellent location, the actual facilities at the Istituto were also ideal. Three meals were provided each day as part of the overall registration cost and this was a very welcome unexpected bonus. The bedrooms were simple but spacious, clean and very comfortable. The meeting room for each of the presentations was a very appropriate size with very good acoustics. The chapel in the convent was beautiful to behold and it was wonderful to have the opportunity to attend Mass and Rosary each morning before the conference sessions began. The rooftop facility gave a wonderful view over St Peter’s square and also over the city of Rome on the other side of the Tiber. It proved a wonderful location for socialising with the other conference attendees each evening.

The impressive line-up of guest speakers included His Eminence Willem Cardinal Eijk, Archbishop of Utrecht. Prior to the calling to the Priesthood, Cardinal Eijk qualified as a medical doctor from the University of Amsterdam in his native Netherlands. He qualified with his initial medical degree in 1978. He continues to have a particular interest in Medical and Biological Ethics and successfully completed a dissertation on the subject of euthanasia in 1987 to obtain a PhD, two years after his ordination to the priesthood. At this Matercare conference he delivered an inspiring opening address on the first evening of the meeting and subsequently spoke about the The History of Euthanasia and Physician Assisted Suicide on the following morning. It should be noted that the Conference dealt not only with issues relating to the care of mothers and babies but also covered several other important ethical issues affecting healthcare personnel. In this respect, the conference was extremely helpful and supportive to all of us working in areas outside of Obstetrics and Gynaecology.

It was thrilling to be present to hear and meet the daughter of a canonised saint. Dr Gianna Emanuela Molla, daughter of St Gianna Molla spoke about My Mother the Saint: Dr Gianna Beretta Molla. She spoke lovingly of her mother, whom she never knew, who gave her life heroically that she might live. She told us of the love that surrounded her from her widowed father and her brother and sisters as she grew up. Following the steps of her mother, she qualified as a medical doctor and later specialised in Care of the Elderly. She temporarily stopped working as a doctor so that she could provide total care for her aging father, returning some of the love and sacrifice that he had shown towards her throughout her life, especially during her childhood and developing years. Dr Molla brought prayer cards and relics relating to her mother for all of the conference attendees.

We were blessed to have a number of priests attending the entire conference. Fr Richard “Dixie” Taylor from Boar-bank Hall in the Cumbrian Lake District is the Spiritual Advisor for Matercare International. He delivered a number of presentations including a mini-retreat on Mary and the Theology of Motherhood and on Blessed John Henry Newman’s address to medical students . Fr Raymond de Souza is a priest for the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario in Canada and is a world-renowned correspondent, writing for several Catholic newspapers and periodicals, including our own Catholic Herald in the UK. His presentations on Religious Freedom, Law and Medical practice – What Future? and Hard Case made Canada’s very bad Assisted Death Law were incisive, very well researched and expertly delivered.

The Canadian contribution to this Conference was quite remarkable. Robert Wally, the organisation and conference founder, was accompanied by his wife Susan and two of their seven children, Simon and Roisin, both of whom were instrumental in the whole organisation of the event. In total, fifteen delegates had travelled from Canada to Rome for the conference, contributing greatly to its success.

An even larger number travelled from Australia. Led by Dr Elvis Seman, the Chairman of Matercare Australia, seventeen Aussies represented their country. Dr Seman also played a major role in the conference organisation and the daily proceedings, ensuring that each session ran very smoothly. A total of 67 delegates from 14 countries and four continents attended the five day event.

As mentioned above, the conference dealt with a wide range of topics particularly relating to healthcare issues that provide ethical and moral challenges for Catholic healthcare professionals and students. Prof Bogdan Chazan and Dr Malina Swic informed us of particular challenges they have faced in their native Poland in relation to conscientious objections to carrying out abortions and the provision of pre-natal testing that might lead to abortions respectively. There was a separate presentation on the work of the Ordo Iuris Institute in Poland, dedicated to protecting the conscience rights of workers. There was also a wonderful presentation by Nik Nikas and Dorinda Bordlee from the American Bioethics Defense Fund on the current legal status in the USA for conscience rights in healthcare. These organisations defending conscience rights in the workplace operate on similar lines to the Thomas More Legal Centre in the UK.

In addition to the presentations already mentioned there were outstanding mini-seminars with entire sessions dedicated to the problems of Assisted Dying and Euthanasia with speakers giving personal experiences from Canada, USA, Belgium and the Netherlands and also on Natural Fertility Awareness programmes and NaPro technology. It was lovely to meet Dr Monique Risso, a CMA (UK) member based in Gibraltar. Dr Risso trained in Leeds before returning to her native Gibraltar and she has established a local NaPro technology service. She gave an inspiring account of how she managed to establish this service after an initial enlightening account of what NaPro technology involves.

Fr George Woodall, an English priest, is professor of moral theology and bioethics at Rome’s Regina Apostolo-rum university. His presentations on Principal of Double Effect and The Object and Intention of Natural Family Planning were among the highlights of the entire conference. He took the opportunity in the latter presentation to re- visit the Humanae Vitae papal encyclical to illustrate the treasures of natural methods of family planning over the misguided tragedy of artificial contraception. Fr Woodall is the author of Humanae Vitae; Forty Years on: A New Commentary published in 2008 on the 40th Anniversary of the encyclical. It remains one of the greatest commentaries on that pivotal work. The good news, we were told at the Matercare session, is that a new revised edition is set for release this year to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae.

The social programme was highly enjoyable. We were treated to a video recording of a remarkable premiere performance of a unique Cantata in Celebration of Motherhood: from Eve to Mary from the Basilica of St John the Baptist in St John’s, Newfoundland. This new work was composed by the highly-acclaimed Newfound-lander Gerard Blackmore. There was also an opportunity for attendees to participate in a guided tour of the Vatican museum as it was on our doorstep. Each evening ended with a social gathering on the rooftop of the Istituto. Of course, we also managed to attend the general Papal audience with Pope Francis as a group in St Peter’s square on the first day of the conference.

This Matercare International conference was highly educational. From a personal point of view, I learned so much about areas of medicine and medical ethics that I was previously unfamiliar with, particularly in relation to modern methods of fertility awareness and NaPro technology. The most enduring memory, however, is the experience of friendship and support from meeting so many good people from many different countries and many different backgrounds sharing their faith, their fears, their worries and their joy. That’s really what makes attendance at such international conferences so worthwhile. The next Matercare International conference, once again in Rome, is planned for Autumn 2019. Try it. You won’t regret it.