Hospice & Catholic Church Teaching

The Catholic Church has long been a proponent of hospice care.
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The term hospice can be traced back to the Latin word "hospis," meaning both "guest" and "host." Hospice care is given to a person who is terminally ill or, rather, cannot be cured. Instead of offering treatment, therefore, the goal of hospice care is to provide management of pain and symptoms to make the patient as comfortable as possible. Though many religious organizations provide followers with hospice centers, this type of care is particularly prevalent within the Catholic Church. Some Catholic hospices, in fact, have nurses who are nuns or monks. While hospices are continually evolving and improving their approach, this practice has origins that go as far back as the fourth century.

1 Origins

Incurable Crusaders were sent to hospice centers.
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"Hospice" was first used to describe treating terminally ill patients by France's Jeanne Garnier in 1842. The first recorded instance of this tradition, nonetheless, occurred in fourth century Rome when a woman named Fabiola used her personal wealth to care for the sick and dying. Later the Catholic Church established hospice centers that served as way stations for pilgrims traveling to and from the Holy Land. The Knights Hospitallers cared for travelers as well as the sick and dying in Jerusalem, and were recognized as a military order in 1113 by the pope. During the Crusades, soldiers deemed incurable were sent to hospices since they were seen as detrimental to patients in healing centers. According to "Hospice: Practice, Pitfalls, and Promise," however, hospices "passed into history" in the Middle Ages.

2 Rebirth of Hospices

St. Vincent de Paul is widely recognized as having revived the hospice tradition when, in the 17th century, the Catholic priest founded Sisters of Charity in Paris. While also caring for orphans and the poor, this group dedicated its efforts to helping the sick and dying. In the 1950s, English physician Cicely Saunders revolutionized hospice care through her work with St. Christopher's Hospice. Among her innovations in caring for the sick and dying was the concept of using a team to treat a person which, according to "Hospice: Practice, Pitfalls, and Promise," has "become the foundation for hospice care throughout the world."

3 Treatment

In addition to addressing patients' physical needs, hospices provide treatment that is both psychological and spiritual. Family and friends are encouraged to participate in the process with volunteers who not only serve as nurses but also become friends. No patient is turned down and, as Joanne Cleave explains, because hospices are "at the forefront of pain relief research and research into terminal illness," patients can participate in cutting-edge drug trials and treatments. Oral medication is used instead of injections if possible, with workers attempting to prevent pain rather than simply treating it when it appears. In the United States recently, hospice care has shifted outside established centers, with volunteers and workers providing services in patients' homes.

4 Controversy

Religious certitude and ethical arguments, though the basis of humanitarian efforts such as hospice care, can sometimes lead to controversy as well as pain and suffering. In 1992, for example, an Italian woman, Eluana Englaro, had been in a persistent vegetative state for 17 years after a car accident. Her father asked for her feeding tubes to be stopped, a decision that would result in her death. The Catholic Church pursued a legal battle against the father on moral grounds, with one Vatican cardinal calling the father's intervention "murder." The deep-seated tradition is of providing care for the sick, no matter how unlikely recovery is. The father won the case and Englaro died four days after her feeding tube.

Jose Maldonado teaches literature at several colleges. He has contributed to various online publications and holds a master's degree in creative writing.