Patriarch of health care shared wisdom


Gordon Self

April 30, 2012

Last month, at age 85, we lost one of the most influential people in Catholic health care. Father Kevin O'Rourke was described as a "patriarch," whose contributions supporting clinicians and theologians alike to think clearly about the health care ethics issues of our times was incomparable.

A Dominican, he embodied the intellectual prowess for which his community's reputation is known, but also possessed a deep pastoral concern and practical wisdom that made his work accessible.

One of my favourite pictures of Father Kevin is him at the bedside of a patient in ICU, doing an ethics consult, indicative that his writings were always informed by the real lives and circumstances of people we serve.

He and his Dominican colleague, Father Benedict Ashley, developed the principle known as "prudential personalism," retrieved in part from the writings of Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas. The principle involves a discerning attitude and prudential judgment in determining what ought to be done within the context and goals of a person's life.

Father Kevin often reminded us that the ultimate goal in life is not bodily existence at all costs, but rather, friendship with God. I was so privileged to talk with Father Kevin every year at an annual gathering of Catholic theologians and ethicists, the last occasion just a week before his death.

Indeed, we would do well not to forget his legacy. Unlike his demonstrated practical wisdom, tempered by humility and compassion, there are some today whose moral judgments appear to lack such pastoral concern.


We need to be wary of public advocacy that focuses only on rendering moral judgments without appreciating the context in which the decisions they critique are made, let alone the personal impact their judgments have on those genuinely trying to do the right thing.

Fr. Kevin O'Rourke

Fr. Kevin O'Rourke

Hunger for righteousness is one thing. But mean-spirited and judgmental advocacy is another. One only has to note the tone of pre-election rhetoric and attack ads, or social media blogs and editorial letters bent on demonizing people to see this.

Consider the approach of another public advocate. Walter Bruggemann's biblical analysis of Jeremiah distinguishes two themes in which the prophet is concerned. One, "to pluck up and tear down," is expressed by Jeremiah's repeated warning of the looming Babylonian threat that would ultimately result in Israel's captivity and exile, interpreted by the prophet as divine judgment.

In contrast, the theme "to build, to plant" speaks of hope that God will bring about something new from the remnant exiled nation, but only later.

Jeremiah is a complex figure, at times feeling supported by God in the task he has been given, and at other times, abandoned. His task would have been easier if all he had to do was to condemn Israel, or conversely, be a spiritual cheerleader, overlooking the sins of the people and painting a rosy future.

Rather his job description requires the capacity to hold such polar opposites in tension. Today's self-proclaimed Jeremiahs tend to be a little more one-dimensional, and predominately focused on the plucking up and tearing down sides of things, too.

In his frequent public discourse, Father Kevin O'Rourke engaged ethical issues straight on, providing a critical analysis on such things as tube feeding, withdrawal and withholding life support, genetic testing, organ donation, or disclosure of medical error.


In true Dominican fashion, he could cut through false assumptions and tear down positions that were not in communion with the Church and our social justice tradition. Even when stipulating the parameters as to what is morally permissible in a Catholic hospital, Father Kevin would not let us lose sight of the person in our care, nor forget hope in discerning a reasonable way forward.

This balanced approach to ethics applies not just in Catholic health care but everyday life. All of us must make prudential choices, often among few available good options.

Given that life is messy, and hindsight 20/20, it is inevitable that some decisions will be subject to criticism afterwards. And so they should. We must continually learn from our experience to avoid making future mistakes.

But scathing public indictments that tear down others, especially without regard for the contextual facts or personal circumstances, is unfair and unproductive. Rather, the community needs advocates who give equal attention to providing practical suggestions and offering tangible hope, along with constructive and respectful criticism in calling others to account.

Such is the legacy of Father Kevin O'Rourke.

(Gordon Self is vice president, mission, ethics and spirituality for Covenant Health and can be reached at