Page last updated at 00:54 GMT, Sunday, 14 February 2010

Archbishop Vincent Nichols attacks NHS over compassion

Archbishop Vincent Nichols: "Sometimes I believe people are.... perceived as a problem, a medical problem, a physical problem"

The leader of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales has used a homily to criticise what he sees as a lack of compassion in some parts of the NHS.

Archbishop Vincent Nichols said that some hospitals see patients as no more than a set of medical problems.

He argued calls for assisted suicide and euthanasia reflected a society that did not know how to deal with death.

The archbishop's comments were delivered at a special service of healing at Westminster Cathedral.

He said the constitution of the NHS promises to respond with humanity to a patient's distress and anxiety as well as their pain.

But the archbishop claimed some hospitals failed to meet that commitment because of a prevailing culture which saw patients as no more than medical cases to be resolved.

By Robert Pigott, BBC News religious affairs correspondent

When Archbishop Nichols criticises the NHS for treating some of its patients as merely a set of a medical problems, he is also fighting a wider and more fundamental battle - about the sanctity of human life. The idea that human life is sacred is central to Christianity, and church leaders see it as a principle underpinning the morals and values of wider society.

The Roman Catholic Church fears that the same tendency to ignore the spiritual dimension of people that leads to what Archbishop Nichols claims is inadequate health care, also leads people to treat death as purely a medical event.

He believes that death stripped of its spiritual element, leaves people preoccupied with the prospect of increasing disability and potential pain - encouraging calls for assisted suicide to be made legal.

However, permitting people to end a life intentionally would directly replace Christian values with secularist ones, and that would strike a significant blow in further undermining the influence of the Church in society.

He said systems of care had been created which, by treating patients in this way, inflicted what amounts to hidden violence on them.

In a BBC interview the archbishop said: "Most people in this country are immensely grateful to the NHS for both their professionalism and their compassion.

"But also many people know of stories, where they have felt particularly their elderly and dying family members have not received that full measure of the compassion which the NHS sets as its highest standard.

"Clearly there are lots of circumstances which make it difficult for that level of care. But sometimes I do believe people are reduced a little bit and perceived as a problem, a medical problem, a behavioural problem."

In his homily he rejected calls for assisted suicide, accusing its supporters of wrongly seeing death as simply a medical event.

The archbishop also said society was at a loss to know how to respond to death.

In the interview, he said: "I think there is in our society there is a growing fear of death, a fear of the circumstances in which I might die, a fear I might be over-treated or under-treated. But fear is always a bad guide. Death is part of life."

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