This article appeared in the August 2007 edition of the Catholic Medical Quarterly

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‘Theologians should practise theology and doctors should practise medicine’: A Response

Following the report from the February Ethics Committee in the May issue of the CMQ, I thought that my viewpoint on the suggestion that “theologians should practise theology and doctors should practise medicine” would be interesting to share. I am just about to enter 4th Year at Leeds Medical School but have spent the last academic year in Oxford, studying theology at Blackfriars Studium, the House of Studies of the English Dominicans. Stepping out of the medical world and spending a year as a theologian has broadened my intellectual capabilities as well as giving me involvement in an environment which takes into account the spiritual life just as much as the material. I hope that this will have a positive effect on the way I practise medicine.

It all started one sunny Easter Sunday morning in Walsingham. I was sitting next to a Dominican friend, Richard Finn OP, waiting for the service to begin and asked, almost as a passing comment, “How would you suggest I learn some more theology?” “Well,” said Richard, “I could suggest some books for you, or there’s long distance learning courses available, or, you could come to Oxford for the year…”

I had been trying to decide whether to intercalate or not and though I wasn’t particularly enthused by any of the options at that point, I thought that at least it would get me a few extra points on my MTAS form. I would also have time as a ‘normal student’ to pursue extra curricular activities before plunging into medicine proper. On hearing that I could spend the year in Oxford, however, studying something that I’d thought would be confined to my spare time for the foreseeable future, the prospect of intercalating became a lot more exciting. Once I’d established that Richard was serious and had the go ahead from the medical school, everything just seemed to fall into place and after an even longer summer holiday than I had expected, I headed off down to Oxford.

My course was a “Certificate in Catholic Theology”, accredited by the University of Wales, Lampeter. I took ten modules: Introduction to Theology, Introduction to Scripture: Critical Methods, Moral Theology, Sacramental Theology, Wisdom and Apocalyptic Literature, God and Creation, Christology, Theology of St Paul, Life of Virtue and last but certainly not least in a Dominican Studium, Theology of Aquinas.

I have to admit that in three years of medicine, I had never spent so much time in the library, or indeed studying as I did this year. On first arriving and seeing that there were only 4 compulsory lectures per week, I thought, ‘well what on earth do arts students do with all their time?’, signed up to a beginners’ Latin class and was pleased to see that there were plenty of other lecture courses that would keep me occupied. I soon discovered the necessity for all the extra time when I was given a reading list!

I was slightly daunted by the prospect of essay writing, it never having been my strong point, and having had few opportunities to improve on essay writing while at medical school. I would like to be able to say that by the end of the year I had essays under control, would spend 3 days reading, write a plan and reel off 2000 words with plenty of time for proof reading before my tutorial. Almost inevitably, however, there would be a 2am finish, followed by getting up at 6am to proof read and I certainly discovered how valuable the last 15 minutes before a tutorial could be! Nevertheless, a total of 51,617 words, 24 essays and 3 Latin exams later, this year has been a tremendous learning experience in terms of the approach to knowledge as well as the content. I learnt to think much more critically so much so that after the constant questioning it was with a strange sense of relief that I settled down to hour of pharmacology revision once in a while!

It remains to be seen how much medical knowledge I’ve retained from last year but in order to keep in touch with medicine in one form at least, I began volunteering at the hospital chaplaincy through the university chaplaincy SVP group. Even though it was just half an afternoon a week, it was important as it reminded me of the world outside the ‘university bubble’ where the only crises I had to deal with were those pertaining to essays. My experiences as a chaplaincy volunteer gave me an alternative perspective on life in the hospital, although I evidently had not lost the ‘medical student look’ as I once narrowly avoided getting involved in an OSCE! As a neutral bystander I had time and no agenda of my own other than to give that time to the patients I met and, as I’ve found with other things that I’ve volunteered for, I ended up feeling that I gained much more than I gave.

In particular, I noticed the very real need for community. Recognising that the sick are still part of the Christian community if not central to it (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:22) is something that we can offer secular society, which has the tendency to marginalise suffering or see it simply as something to be eliminated. What saddened me, however, was that many people, particularly older people, were lonely and several of them liked being in hospital because at least there were people around them. The absence of feeling part of a community at parish level and stories of turning up to church every week but speaking to no one didn’t actually surprise me, but my experience of university chaplaincies and youth events where the community atmosphere is apparent almost straight away serve as a sharp contrast.

Community was also a feature of the environment in which I was studying. Study is an important part of the Dominican life and as such is not merely an academic discipline but is part of the formation to become more Christ-like. This study is supported by the prayer life of the community and having the opportunity to go to Mass every day was a welcome reminder that the study should not be focused on intellectual gain but on how this intellectual gain supports faith and the ability to love and serve people. I was inspired, encouraged and teased by the friars, many of whom I hope will remain life long friends. Serious discussions on the doctrine of the Trinity were balanced by the joy of a community that wasn’t afraid of a good party. One particularly memorable occasion had several friars, habits and all, gathered around the piano at my house singing Unchained Melody!

I would certainly recommend taking time to study theology in a formal way. The catechesis I received while growing up was patchy and while personal study is helpful, being immersed in theology, having the chance to read a wide range of material, being challenged to absorb and respond to the knowledge and being able question wise people about it was an invaluable experience.

In response to the suggestion that “Theologians should practise theology and doctors should practise medicine”, true, but as members of the Body of Christ, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’, nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you’.” (1 Corinthians 12:21). In the reality of human life, theology and medicine cannot be separated so decisively except on an abstract level. The human person can be spoken of in terms of the body and the soul and the creation can be divided into the material and the spiritual, but it seems to me that both theology and medicine are concerned with the entirety of human life. If theology aims at giving a rational account of God, knowledge of Whom comes through revelation, it should do so in order to bring people closer to God, closer to fulfilment. If medicine is about healing people, it should do so in a fully human way, so that healing of the body is also healing of the soul. The two disciplines are different but should not be in opposition to each other or judged to be concerned with different ends but rather should complement each other and interact. I hope that St Luke, physician and evangelist, would agree!

I know considerably more theology than I did nine months ago, just as I know considerably more about the human body than I did four years ago but in both cases, I’ve come to appreciate that the more I learn, the more I realise there are things that I don’t even know I don’t know! It is the responsibility of theologians and the hierarchy of the Church to stay in touch with laity living in a secular world. It is equally the responsibility of the laity to listen to the Church hierarchy and attempt to understand Church teaching, particularly if it is something that seems to be contrary to human flourishing. In reference to Humanae Vitae and Church teaching on contraception and condom use, I’m going to cop out of giving an opinion for now and take some more time to listen.

For more details on courses available at Blackfriars, see