In 2009, the Iona Institute published a study by Professor Patricia Casey, “The Psycho-social Benefits of Religious Practice” on the positive impact of religion on people across a range of measures, including mental health.
While the paper and the associated conference – the first of their kind in Ireland - received considerable media coverage, there was little sustained interest in the subject.
But in today's Irish Times, Professor Des O'Neill says that there is a need for a better understanding of religion and spirituality in the medical world.
He points out that although spirituality “is internationally recognised as an important aspect of healthcare” and that “the majority of US medical schools include a module on spirituality in the medical curriculum,” outside of palliative care “there is virtually nothing in the Irish medical literature, or that of the Irish Medical Council” .
He speculates that part of the reason for this is general backlash against the past influence of the Catholic Church in Ireland.
He says: “A victim of this [backlash] is the understanding that spirituality is a broad concept applicable to those of all faiths and none, and that regardless of our own personal beliefs we need to develop ways to support expression of this aspect of our shared humanity in healthcare settings.
“There are many definitions of spirituality, nearly all of which focus on meaning, hope, transcendence and a relationship with a higher being or force, such as nature or God.
“Common among many accounts is the concept of communion – with self, others, nature, and for some, with a God.”
Overall, Professor O'Neill acknowledges that medicine can interact healthily and helpfully with religion on a day to day basis.
Referring to Tallaght hospital where he is based, he says: “No longer does one ‘call for the chaplain’ in Tallaght hospital when patients are in extremis: the pastoral care team, lay and religious, pro-actively visit the wards and make contact with patients in the context of a listening and sympathetic ear, and on the basis of consent.
“This welcome sense of access to all is consistent with a holistic vision of care, one which has a broader reach than predominantly for those who are near death.
“From this first level of pastoral care, patients can then access the sacramental aspects as they wish.
“For example, for Catholics, a thrice-weekly round by 70 volunteer ministers of the Eucharist is available to those who desire it, with a take-up of about two-thirds of the patients over the course of the year.”
He concludes by saying that Irish medical professionals need to do better “in our research and education so as to develop a therapeutic articulacy and a better understanding of the appropriate framing of spiritual needs in healthcare”.