When it comes to teaching on health care, the Church has long been ridiculed as anti-progress and unscientific – but in fact it has been a prophetic voice that will be stifled at the peril of humankind, a national gathering of Catholic physicians heard Sunday.

Dr. Stephen Genuis drew from his experience as a researcher and specialist in Obstetrics and Gynecology and Environmental Medicine to argue that the Church’s steadfast positions are being proved credible by science itself. 

Speaking to about 100 delegates at the annual conference of the Canadian Federation of Catholic Physicians’ Societies in Edmonton, Genuis said the fracture between the Church and secular health care has grown over the years, stemming from its opposition to artificial contraception, abortion, reproductive technologies, and most recently, to assisted suicide and euthanasia.

What do the Popes say about the environment?

Pope Paul VI – Apostolic Letter Octogesima Adveniens
(May 14, 1971)

“Man is suddenly becoming aware that by an ill-considered exploitation of nature he risks destroying it and becoming in his turn the victim of this degradation.”

John Paul II – Encyclical Redemptor Hominis (4 March 1979)

“Man often seems to see no other meaning in his natural environment than what serves for immediate use and consumption. Yet it was the Creator's will that man should communicate with nature as an intelligent and noble ‘master’ and ‘guardian,’ and not as a heedless ‘exploiter’ and ‘destroyer.’"

Message for World Day of Peace
(1 January 1990 )

“When man turns his back on the Creator’s plans, he provokes a disorder that has inevitable repercussions on the creative order.”

Benedict XVI - Address to the Clergy of the Diocese of Bolzano-Bressanone (6 August 2008)

“Creation is groaning - we perceive it, we almost hear it - and awaits human beings who will preserve it in accordance with God. The brutal consumption of Creation begins where God is not, where matter is henceforth only material for us, where we ourselves are the ultimate demand, where the whole is merely our property and we consume it for ourselves alone.”

Francis – Encyclical Laudato Si'
(24 May 2015) 

“I wish to address every person living on this planet … Our Sister, Mother Earth, now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her.”

“There was the scientific mainstream, who were interested in good medical care and evidence-based science and putting patients first, and those religious outliers, who had a blind adherence to dogma, who were unreasonable, their information was not based on science, and they were not putting their patients first.”

Genuis had personal experience with that reaction in his early medical career. On his first night shift in training as an obstetric resident at an Edmonton hospital, he refused to help prepare patients for abortions, so the hospital had to call in the staff doctor instead, and he was not happy. The next morning, “he came in and furiously ranted to all the other obstetricians about these religious fanatics and how they shouldn’t be allowed to practise medicine and certainly not in any obstetric program. …It was something that many of my colleagues began to see.” 

But Genuis said the consequences of ignoring the Church’s voice have been tragic. He cited respected scientific journals that have reported on the health consequences of the birth control pill: higher rates of teen pregnancies, sexually transmitted infections, and now undisputed links to cancers, heart disease and vascular disease.

The prophetic voice of the Church has been speaking out for years on the environment issue as well, most recently in Pope Francis’ landmark encyclical on Care for our Common Home, Laudato Si’, he said. “The message has been clear, it has been consistent and unwavering, but it’s being ignored from within and from without.”

The World Health Organization reported in 2015 that about 20,000 deaths per day occur directly as a result of inhalation of toxins through indoor and outdoor air.

“Twenty thousand people dying a day and we’re hearing nothing about it. But we did hear from the Holy Father about it.”

He noted that cigarette smoking was found to be linked to cancer back in 1947, but it took two generations before the research was widely accepted, and the same thing is happening with research on the health consequences of environmental degradation. Tens of thousands of chemicals are being released into the air, water and earth. They have been completely untested, “and many are just as bad or worse than what’s in cigarettes.”

He said there is overwhelming evidence in the medical literature that up to 90 per cent of chronic disease is caused by environmental factors. The most alarming rises have been in children in youth, with conditions such as autism, diabetes, cancer and mental illness.

“The epidemic of chronic physical and mental disease is being caused primarily by environmental determinants. Most MDs are not yet aware of this reality.

 “The Church has and continues to cry out loud and clear about environmental determinants, but it seems few are responding.”

But he said doctors have an enormous opportunity to help their patients by embracing environmental medicine: learning about what’s really causing ill health and teaching patients what to avoid and how to rid their bodies of environmental toxins.

“This is not some voodoo medicine, this is cutting-edge science that’s throughout the medical literature.”