Thursday, June 15, 2017

Cholera isn't the Plague

There is a scene in the Italian movie about St. Guiseppe Moscati that gives a good image for the Catholic bioethicist.

We know that St. Guiseppe had a role in addressing the 1911 cholera epidemic in Naples. His research prompted him to make public health recommendations to prevent its spread. In the movie, this is summarized dramatically in one scene. The saint finds city officials burning the furniture and belongings of cholera victims in order to stop the spread of disease.

St. Guiseppe commands that they stop, insisting that cholera isn't the same as the plague. (Cholera is spread by fecal-oral transmission, and is therefore much less contagious than diseases droplet or airborne vectors.) The solution to the cholera epidemic was hygiene and effective plumbing, not quarantine and destruction.

I think of this scene when I am considering bioethical issues. Many theology teachers cautioned me never to think about practical ethics in terms of what I could get away with. Others reminded me not to conclude that we should stay far away from anything possibly problematic. The first approach is irresponsible; the second, Pharisaical.

I try to take St. Giuseppe's approach. His research into the true nature of things permitted him to see what he and others ought to do. That way, he could place legitimate restrictions on people while also freeing them from unnecessary burdens.


  1. Hi! Christian pre-med student here. I recently discovered your blog and I'm really enjoying readying your viewpoints. Many Christians have varied views on medical ethics and I appreciate how you present what you think without belittling others or being extremist!

    1. Hi Laura! It's such a pleasure to meet you and to look through your sites. I wish you all the best on the pre-med part of your journey! Thank you for reading and for likewise considering my point of view so kindly. Let's pray for Christian unity.