A TRAINED theologian and self-taught computer whiz, Mexican Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragan now spends most of his time dealing with very technical medical questions.
The 73-year-old cardinal is president of the Pontifical Council for Health Care Ministry, which encourages the work of hospital chaplains, but goes well beyond strictly pastoral concerns.
“We must provide guidance on the various problems that face the world of health care today, from specific illnesses to technological discoveries, from political decisions to medical practice,” Cardinal Lozano told Catholic News Service.
Although Pope Benedict XVI has yet to make specific requests of the council, the cardinal said the Pope’s first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (“God is Love”), has set the framework for the council’s activities.
Pope Benedict, the cardinal said, “has a very clear vision of the entire Church, a vision that is very precise and systematic”.
The cardinal said the Pope’s encyclical told the Church: “Love has something to say to us in our political decisions and our institutional decisions. It is not something ethereal”.
Pulling what he described as a “2-gigabyte memory stick” from his breast pocket, plugging it into his computer and calling up current statistics, Cardinal Lozano said the more than 109,000 Catholic hospitals, clinics, rehabilitation centres, convalescent centres and other health related institutions around the world are a concrete sign of the Church’s love for all men and women.
Another sign of love, he said, is his office’s efforts to train and support Catholic doctors, nurses, pharmacists and researchers in their efforts to cure and care for the sick and to defend human life.
“The greatest challenge facing Catholic health providers today regards the dignity and sacredness of life,” he said.
The problem is not just the legalisation of abortion and growing acceptance of euthanasia, but efforts to violate the consciences of Catholic medical personnel by forcing them to participate in procedures they consider immoral, he said.
“For example, there are many universities and many countries where you cannot become an obstetrician if you have not assisted at and performed a certain number of abortions,” Cardinal Lozano said.
The council supports Catholics in defending their right to conscientious objection, and it lobbies for legislation recognising that right.
Another major problem, he said, is posed by the AIDS pandemic, especially in Africa.
While the cardinal has been drawn into the debate over condoms – he insists that abstinence before marriage and fidelity within marriage are the best ways to prevent the spread of the disease – his focus is on getting people in developing countries access to the same drugs that save people with HIV/AIDS in wealthy countries.
He cajoles big pharmaceutical companies into lowering their prices, and he is not above begging for donations to the Vatican’s Good Samaritan Foundation, which pays for antiretroviral treatment for the poorest AIDS patients.
In its two years of existence, the foundation has distributed almost US$300,000, he said.
All of the money is used to buy antiretroviral drugs from a major pharmaceutical company at a deeply discounted price.
“The nuncio in Ghana told me Mother Teresa’s sisters, who have a home for people with AIDS, were bringing him 21 people to bury each month,” the cardinal said. “Now it is one a month because they have antiretroviral drugs.”
Cardinal Lozano has estimated that Catholic religious orders and institutions are responsible for about 25 per cent of all the treatment offered to people living with HIV/AIDS around the world.
Showing the Church’s action against the pandemic is the only way to fight the widespread prejudice that the Church is doing nothing because it is not handing out condoms, he said.
Cardinal Lozano said that during a visit to Lithuania he was interviewed on television and was asked, “Why does the Church want to control people’s sex lives?”
“I said, ‘Look, each person faces two paths. One leads to life and the other to death. I have an obligation to tell you which leads to death and which leads to life, then you have an obligation to choose,'” he said.
Cardinal Lozano was Bishop of Zacatecas, Mexico, when he was appointed president of the council in 1996.
In the early days, he said, “I brought my own laptop (computer) to work” because the Vatican offices were not computerised.
In the 1980s, he said, even though “everyone thought it was a game and I was wasting my time”, he personally put together a Web site for Zacatecas diocese.
His council was one of the first Vatican offices to have a Web site – www.healthpastoral.org – and it still functions independently of the Vatican site.
Although he managed to teach himself how to build a Web site, he said that when he arrived in Rome he relied on books, assistants and consultants to educate him about health care issues.
“I had an obligation to study, to learn many things, and this is an obligation that continues,” he said. “Otherwise, what good would I be doing? This is not an office concerned with fairy tales, but with real life and death issues.”