Austin doctor inducted into Pontifical Academy for Life

By Mary P. Walker

Senior Correspondent

Sometimes even the pope needs help from experts to understand whether new medical treatments, technologies and methods of scientific inquiry promote and respect the dignity of human life. In 1994, Blessed John Paul II established the Pontifical Academy for Life as a collaborative "think tank" to advise the Holy See about bioethical issues. Members are Catholic, appointed by the pope and include scientists, physicians, ethicists, priests and theologians who are world-class experts in their disciplines of study.

Before he resigned earlier this year, Benedict XVI, appointed Dr. Robert Buchanan of St. Mary Cathedral Parish in Austin to the academy. Buchanan is the Seton Brain and Spine Institute’s chief of functional and restorative neurosurgery and neuroscience. He has exceptional academic, clinical and research credentials, and serves on the board of the National Catholic Bioethics Center.

Fascinated by the human mind, Buchanan is one of only a few physicians in the U.S. who is a board certified specialist in both psychiatry and neurological surgery. He holds faculty appointments at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School and the University of Texas at Austin, where he has a lab to study brain function and explore treatments for epilepsy, psychiatric diseases, and movement disorders.

As impressive has his credentials are, Buchanan sees his Catholic faith as the foundation for his life and practice of medicine.

"It is impossible for me to separate my identity as a Catholic from anything I do," he said. For him, practicing medicine is a sacred calling. Because both priests and physicians minister to people’s most intimate needs, he sees many similarities between the vocations.

Buchanan grew up in a devout Catholic family on the south side of Chicago. Drawn to both the priesthood and medicine, he explored the question of his future with the Jesuits. After graduation from medical school, he faced the decision of whether to enter the novitiate or a medical residency program. The Jesuit provincial encouraged him to consider a psychiatric residency as he continued to discern because the specialization would be useful if his future led to the priesthood. The residency gave Buchanan clarity in two ways: he met his future wife, Jeana; and he decided that he wanted to become a neurosurgeon.

Both honored and surprised by his five-year appointment to the Pontifical Academy for Life, Buchanan explained that the church must address the rapid pace of scientific discovery.

"There are new, novel technologies that need to be studied to understand whether they may or may not be immoral," said Buchanan.

For some issues, it is easy to understand what is right or wrong based on church teaching. For example, the church has consistently taught that a human person begins at conception. Therefore, creating, using and destroying embryos for experimentation violate God’s law. Other issues do not have such clear-cut answers, he said.

One such issue deals with biomedical technology. Scientists are making great strides in creating a "bionic hand." If science can create such a hand, how far can we morally go with enhancing our natural capabilities? When do enhanced "body parts" turn us into a "superhuman" and possibly impinge on God’s beautiful design and purpose for our human body, created in his image and likeness?

There are also moral concerns about treatments dealing with the workings of the brain and intelligence. If science leads us to the ability to imbed a computer chip in the brain or creates a pill that makes us "smarter," under what circumstances could these be morally therapeutic or permissible? When would this technology fundamentally change who a person is, and therefore collide with God’s special design and plan for each person?

All of these questions and more are being asked by the Pontifical Academy for Life. While it may seem that academy members are delving into the realm of science fiction, scientific inquiry and medical technology are evolving rapidly. Members work hard to ensure that the magisterium, that is, the teaching authority of the church, has the information needed to guide the faithful.

Academy membership is an honor that entails a significant commitment. Members travel to the Vatican for an annual meeting, most recently Feb. 21-23. The theme of this Year of Faith’s meeting was "Faith and Human Life." There is also a mid-year meeting by conference call. Throughout the year, members research, discuss and work on documents addressing particular issues. With members all over the world, they collaborate day and night, by phone, in person and through e-mail.

Buchanan reminds us that this work is more than just an intellectual exercise for the church. The Gospels show us that Christ is concerned with spiritual and physical healing, and academy members strive to ensure that medical care and scientific inquiry mirror Christ’s loving concern for both body and soul, always respecting the dignity of the human person.

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