Editorial - Hope and Bioethics: The Power of Narrative

Michael McCabe
Issue 26, November 2008

Hope is the virtue that enables us to look to the future with real confidence. It is not to be reduced to wishful thinking. We can all pass the time daydreaming, imagining a future that has nothing to do with reality. Wishful thinking has no bounds: it admits of no limitation; it is not criticized by what is actually possible...Hope is grounded in life...Hope is not limitless; it is limited by real possibility. Hope needs help if it is going to go beyond the expression of desire...Without help; hope remains an orphan – abandoned in the nursery of the mind..."

--Dennis McBride, CSSR.

In 1984, while a member of the Chaplaincy team at Wellington Hospital, I recall meeting a remarkable priest, Father Gerard Bourke, CSSR. When I met him he was a patient in the Orthopaedic Ward and was in traction. Early each morning I would take him communion and he would ask me to give him an intention for his prayers each day. Over the weeks I gradually got to learn something of his remarkable story.

Among other things, he had been a Chaplain in the Second World War and was imprisoned for some time in the infamous Changi Prison, Singapore. He built a little Church in the prison camp and dedicated it to Our Lady of Perpetual Succour after the previous Church had been destroyed by bombing. Father Gerard accompanied work parties into Singapore city and ministered for a time in several of the other prison camps before that was disallowed by his Japanese captors.

He spoke vividly about the pain and destruction caused by war and hatred and how the lives of many Allied Soldiers and civilians ended so brutally. In all of this suffering he continued to minister to the many. On one occasion he told me, "this time in Changi Prison was the lowest ebb of my life – spiritually, emotionally and psychologically..."

As a newly ordained priest and newly appointed hospital chaplain who was struggling to make sense of the pain and suffering that I was encountering on a daily basis, his words felt like the voice of an angel. Perhaps that was why my reply was a little inelegant, resonating as it did with my own experience of helplessness. "Well then", I asked, "how did you survive? How did you remain a priest in the face of such suffering?"

He did not seem to mind the question, and with a gentleness born of great pain, he said, "every time I could not stand the suffering and bloodshed anymore, and every time I wanted to go AWOL, the Lord would send someone into my tent who needed help. This soldier would inevitably pour out all his troubles and suffering to me. I was always so moved by these stories that I knew I had to stay because I could make a difference to these soldier's lives. In truth, these soldiers made a difference in my life, because they gave me hope...so much so I am still a priest!"

Embedded within the suffering of each of us are deeper layers of meaning. This meaning, when we embrace it, can be a rich and powerful source of hope to both the sufferer and caregiver alike. This is the irony of hope - it can only be discovered with the help of others and by taking the risk of love and compassion.

Thomas Aquinas links hope with love and describes hope as the virtue that causes and increases love and uplifts the human spirit. "Hope causes, or increases, love; sometimes by virtue of the emotion of pleasure, which it arouses; and sometimes by virtue of the emotion of desire, which it intensifies; for without some hope there is no strong desire." [Summa Theologiae I-I, 27, 4.] "Hope adds to desire a certain drive, a buoyancy of spirit about winning the arduous good." [Summa Theologiae I-I, 25, 1.]

In his 2007 Encyclical Letter, "On Christian Hope", ["Spe Salvi"], Pope Benedict XVI speaks similarly when he says that, hope enables a person to face "the present, even if it is arduous." [n.1] He describes hope as a distinguishing mark of Christians because it is based on the "fact that they have a future." Even though they do not know the details of what awaits them, "they know in general terms that their life will not end in emptiness." [n.2] Even so, discovering hope remains somewhat elusive and challenging, not only for those without a faith or belief in the transcendent, but also for those with the gift of faith.

Cultures and professions can communicate hope in the way they engage the gifts of individuals and communities. Environments can reflect hope in the way in which they assist in uniting the world of the sufferer with the world of beauty and transcendence. However, while good structures enhance the future, they are not of themselves enough for the presence of hope. Hope requires others. The other – be that an individual, a community, and ultimately God – provides the "scaffolding" for hope to occur and for it to be maintained at a communal and personal level.

The late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin once described the Church as a "community of hope" and also referred to the healthcare profession as a "witness to hope." Human life cannot be lived in isolation and hope is diminished when people are reduced to commodities in healthcare or deprived of the witness of the community. That is why the need for hope can perhaps be seen most clearly at the beginning and end of life, and why the interdisciplinary field of bioethics has the responsibility to be a carrier of the community's hope. As Pope John Paul II reminded us, bioethics represents a "meeting place" where many different voices can be creatively and respectfully present.

Perhaps more than anything our very presence at this meeting place will remind those of us who minister in the field of bioethics of our own need for hope; hope in the professions, hope in society, and hope in the future? To paraphrase Father Gerard Bourke, even amidst dwindling and limited possibilities, and even against the backdrop of deep existential suffering, it is possible to discover a meeting place whereby hope is reborn. Often that meeting place will be a simple conversation with our neighbour in which personal stories are shared.

Rev Michael McCabe, PhD
The Nathaniel Centre