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David E. NantaisApril 03, 2023
A woman holds aloft an opened copy of the Quran in a prayer space.A woman holds aloft an opened copy of the Quran in a prayer space. (iStock/Anggi Dharma Prasetya)  

Catholic ministries hold a special place in the United States health care landscape. Catholic health care providers aim to heal the whole human person—body, mind and spirit. The guiding document Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, also states that the Catholic health care system should offer spiritual care to all those it serves, not solely Catholics. Offering the sacrament of the sick to an ailing Catholic patient is important, but so are the religious and spiritual needs of the others that Catholic health care serves in the United States.

The Muslim population in the United States is growing at a significant rate, and over the past two decades, it has struggled with numerous stress-related health care concerns, some related to elevated anxiety and other issues due to conscious and unconscious bias toward Muslims after the attacks on 9/11. Since there is no comprehensive Muslim health care system in the United States, Muslims often seek help and employment at Catholic hospitals, which account for one out of every six hospital beds in the United States. Catholic health care should welcome our Muslim sisters and brothers, both as patients and as colleagues, and offer accommodations to meet their spiritual and religious needs. I suggest three ways to do this: assigning female health care providers to female Muslim patients, offering halal meals and creating spaces for prayer.

Offering the sacrament of the sick to an ailing Catholic patient is important, but so are the religious and spiritual needs of the others that Catholic health care serves in the United States.

Female Muslim patients may request a female health care provider out of modesty, as a devout female Muslim does not remove her hijab or disrobe in front of men except for her husband. Catholic health care practitioners should accommodate these requests whenever possible. It is true that during the worst days of the Covid pandemic, when hospitals were bursting with severely sick patients, such accommodations were not always possible. But in these extraordinary cases, calmly explaining the situation to the patient can ease tensions and, hopefully, encourage the patient to accept the care that she needs, regardless of the provider’s sex, or to reschedule care. This practice exhibits respect and upholds a sense of reverence for the human person, a cornerstone of Catholic social teaching.

Providing halal meals to Muslim patients is another gesture of welcome and compassion. The word halal is Arabic for “acceptable,” and it refers to the method by which animals are slaughtered and butchered, as well as to a prohibition on consuming pork products or alcohol. Kosher meals for Jewish patients are much more common in Catholic hospital systems and can be mistakenly equated with halal meals. But there are food distributors that sell halal meals for hospitals, and if a Catholic system is serving a community with a significant Muslim population, it should consider adopting these dietary options. Familiar, tasteful foods are important in the healing process and communicate our care for Muslim patients.

At one hospital, I observed Muslims praying in a small janitor’s closet. This should not be the case at a Catholic facility that believes in the power of prayer and worship and in the dignity of the human person.

The final accommodation also applies to visitors and to Muslim colleagues working in Catholic heath care systems: provision of a space for prayer. This space is, ideally, not shared with other faith traditions, as Muslims believe the presence of religious iconography to be distracting. The space should also be carpeted, as Muslims pray kneeling on the floor, and oriented toward Mecca, with a qibla wall indicating this direction.

Muslims pray five times each day, and as a Catholic who may have 10 minutes during my morning commute to pray, I find this practice quite edifying. Catholic health care should encourage the religious practices of our colleagues, and Muslim physicians and nurses are becoming a larger segment of the health care practitioner population. Offering a space for prayer may also include resources for ablution, as Muslims wash before praying. Without intentional prayer spaces, Muslim colleagues and visitors must pray in less ideal conditions. At one hospital, I observed Muslims praying in a small janitor’s closet. This should not be the case at a Catholic facility that believes in the power of prayer and worship and in the dignity of the human person.

As a Catholic health system mission leader in a metropolitan area with a substantial Muslim population, I have a special interest in the issue of religious and cultural accommodations. It grows out of a concern for a Catholic understanding of justice and the common good, which seeks the flourishing of all human persons. I was lucky to be involved with a project five years ago to build new worship and prayer spaces for a mid-size Catholic hospital in a western suburb of Detroit.

Our design team, understanding the rich diversity of our patients and colleagues, decided that we should construct three spaces: a Catholic chapel, a Muslim prayer room and a quiet meditation space. While primary care clinics in a Catholic system may not be able to find the space for a separate room, there are options to establish an interfaith prayer room with minimal decor. The Muslim prayer room included male and female options for ablution, and an exquisitely crafted qibla wall. Muslim colleagues access the prayer room, especially on Fridays, the holy day for Islam. The medical residents in particular appreciate the space, as several came to the United States from majority-Muslim countries after completing medical school.

Effectively implementing the vision and mission of Catholic health care in the 21st century will require adaptations and a growing appreciation for those who are not Catholic. Catholic values, if articulated effectively, are very attractive and compelling to many, including those who are not Catholic. These include patients who come to receive holistic care and colleagues who seek meaningful work. Muslims will continue to come to Catholic health care facilities as patients and colleagues, and their spiritual and religious needs should be accommodated. It exhibits concern for the whole human person and is a natural extension of the Catholic mission.

[Read next: “5 lessons from Pope Francis’ commitment to Muslim-Catholic dialogue”]

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