The strongest witness to the effective work of Dr. Robert Saxer and the organization he heads, the Catholic Medical Association, is the recent change of heart of a fellow physician. Dr. David Harris, a Florida obstetrician/gynecologist, will no l o n g e r prescribe contraceptives to his patients even if they ask, and will provide information on Church-approved Natural Family Planning.
The change in direction for Dr. Harris came after years of gentle but persistent guidance from Dr. Saxer, a Florida pediatrician, and other members of the Catholic Medical Association. A key factor was an audiotape Dr. Saxer gave him by Janet Smith, who lectures and has written a number of books on the Church's teaching on artificial contraception.
“They're very good people,” Dr. Harris, who practices in Fort Walton Beach, said of Catholic Medical Association. “They did it very kindly and gently, but they put a burr in my saddle. Eventually, if you look at the evidence about artificial contraception, you have that nagging voice in the back of your head saying that something is not quite right.”
He knows he may lose patients when he sends out a letter this month explaining his decision. “It's a big financial risk, I realize that,” he told the Register. “You assume you'll lose a fair number of patients when you tell them you won't be prescribing contraceptives. But you hope there will be enough people out there who will be happy with your decision.”
Dr. Saxer takes little credit for the change in his colleague whom he now considers a friend. “It's the strength and attractiveness of the truth,” he stated. “We can only seek to make it known. Catholic ethics in medicine is nothing other than the natural law, which we all are drawn to. We want to promote this among our Catholic physicians.”
Dr. Robert Saxer attributes his success to ‘the strength and attractiveness of the truth.’
Dr. Saxer, 69, was elected to a two-year term as president at the Catholic Medical Association convention last November. The convention produced some controversy by its endorsement of a statement that claims homosexuality is not a genetically determined condition and that persons with same-sex attractions can change their orientation through therapy and proper reception of the sacraments. The extensively researched statement, “Homo-sexuality and Hope,” cites many recent studies to conclude that some persons may be predisposed or “at-risk” for developing homosexual attractions because of environmental and familial situations, but no one is “predestined” to homosexuality.
Recommending a counseling method based on Catholic principles, the statement says, “For a Catholic with same-sex attraction, the goal of therapy should be freedom to live chastely according to one's state in life.” In this respect, the Church asks no more of those with same-sex attraction than it does of all Catholics who wish to live in the state of grace, the report adds. It goes on to highly recommend the work of Courage, an international organization that supports homosexual Catholics in living chastely.
The statement also cites the case of Dr. Robert Spitzer, the psychiatric researcher who was involved in the decision to remove homosexuality from the American Psychiatric Association's list of mental disorders.
In a recent interview, the statement says, Dr. Spitzer claimed that he is now convinced that a number of persons with homosexual attractions have made great progress toward a heterosexual orientation.
“The main point of the statement is that there is hope for homosexuals who suffer from what we prefer to call same-sex attraction disorder,” Dr. Saxer said. “It is not a predetermined condition, and we should not be telling people that it is.”
Most of Dr. Saxer's work these days is in the pro-life field. He was co-founder six years ago of the Florida Catholic Medical Association, a chapter of the national organization, which has representatives working with bishops and respect-life offices in all of the state's seven dioceses. He has worked with the Florida Catholic Conference on life issues from abortion to euthanasia to stem-cell research, and testified on behalf of the conference in the state legislature on abortion bills dealing with parental notification and a woman's right to know.
D. Michael McCarron, executive director of the Florida Catholic Conference, called Dr. Saxer's contributions indispensable in the work of the state's bishops. “He is very willing to be involved in public policy issues and to make a statement from his medical expertise,” McCarron said. “
We readily call on him and I would say without a doubt that he is very effective.”
McCarron said that Dr. Saxer sat down a few years ago with then-Sen. Connie Mack of Florida to explain the importance of a federal bill promoting pain relief for patients who may be tempted toward physician-assisted suicide. After the meeting, Mack became a cosponsor of the bill in the Senate, but it did not pass, McCarron stated.
“He appreciates the importance of working with a person and getting a message across in an engaging way,” McCarron added.
“His biggest contribution has been the formation of the Florida Catholic Medical Association,” he continued. “He has opened up avenues of communication that didn't exist before. Now the doctors are talking to the respect life directors in every diocese about the science of medicine, and the respect life directors are able to reach doctors with explanations of Church teaching. I think he should bring this model to every state.”
The gentle approach also describes the methods of the Catholic Medical Association as an organization. Although the association's mission involves an un-swerving support of the Church's teaching on the whole range of controverted medical issues, Dr. Saxer explains, all Catholic health professionals are eligible to join, regardless of their views. The assumption is that physicians who dissent on issues such as contraception, abortion or stem-cell research will be easier to reach if they receive Catholic Medical Association mailings and attend the conferences.
“We're not giving out a litmus test when someone joins.” Dr. Saxer said. “The topics we cover are varied enough so that all our members will be interested in something. As long as we have them listening, there's a chance that the message will get through.”
Dr. Harris is an example that the approach works. “They have a kind and non-threatening way. I think if they had come on strong, I would have gotten defensive and turned them off,” he admitted.
Dr. Harris said that he was brought up in the Methodist religion and converted to Catholicism before his marriage some 30 years ago.
He learned in medical school about the contraceptive pill as a part of routine care and “never gave it a second thought. I didn't give much thought to Church teaching.”
That is, until Dr. Saxer got his ear.
Brian Caulfield writes from New Haven, Connecticut.