Ethnicity Online

Cultural Awareness in Healthcare


This section on the Catholicism is subdivided into:

introduction to catholicism

With a history dating back almost 2000 years, the Catholic Church (also known as the Roman Catholic Church) is one of the oldest institutions in the western world. About six out of ten Christians are Catholics, which amounts to more than a billion worldwide and about five million in Britain.

Catholics believe that Christ appointed the Apostle St Peter as the first leader of his church, and he has since been followed by an unbroken succession of Bishops of Rome, or Popes. Most Catholic beliefs can be traced back to St Peter's reign. They believe that the Pope speaks with God-given spiritual authority, and he can proclaim new doctrines when he speaks 'ex cathedra', or from the throne at the Vatican in Rome.

The Catholic Church is hierarchical or Epsicopal: after the Pope at the top of the pyramid, there are cardinals (who elect each new pope, and advise and assist on matters of doctrine and the running of the Church), archbishops, bishops, priests and laity. All of these holy men must be single and celibate, like Christ himself. There are no female members of the priesthood in the Catholic Church.

All Church matters are governed by Canon Law. The law is very complex, such that specialist lawyers are appointed to interpret it.


There are seven sacraments, or religious rites, in the Catholic Church: baptism, reconciliation (confession), Eucharist (communion with bread and wine), confirmation of belief, marriage, holy orders (for those joining the priesthood) and anointing the sick (also known as last rites or extreme unction). Most other Christian churches have only two sacraments – baptism and communion.

Catholic inpatients should be offered regular visits by the chaplain, who may be called upon to carry out the sacrament of the sick. This is believed to be an important aid to healing and may be administered at the beginning of an illness or before a major operation. Patients may wish to take regular holy communion, which may have to be brought to them, and arrangements may also have to be made for them to make a confession.

religious practices

Catholics tend to attend church at least once a week. The most important religious service is Sunday mass and holy communion, but a Saturday evening service may be attended instead.

Catholics are also expected to attend mass on holy days, including all Sundays, Christmas Day, Ascension Day, the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, All Saints' Day, the feast days of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, Corpus Christi and Epiphany (see 'Christian holiday' section).

During a hospital stay, Catholics will probably wish to attend Sunday mass if they can. If patients are unable to attend services, they should be offered regular visits by a priest or chaplain who can bring holy communion to them. If possible, this ceremony should take place in private, so that the patient can have some time alone before and afterwards.

Catholics may wish to receive the sacrament of the sick when they are ill or before undergoing major surgery, to help the healing process. This may involve a priest, or other visitor, using holy water or oil to make the sign of a cross on the patient's forehead.

Some Catholic patients may also wish to confess their sins to a priest, either before receiving holy communion or when they are seriously ill. Confession, or the sacrament of reconciliation, is important to them because the priest can grant them God's forgiveness.

Many Catholics pray to Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, who is considered to have influence over her son. Patients may like to keep a picture of Mary (or saints to whom they pray) at their bedside.

Catholics commemorate the key rites of passage of birth, initiation, marriage and death.

healthcare-related issues

This subsection contains an alphabetic listing of specific healthcare-related information and advice for Catholics.

birth and baptism

Apart from baptism, no other religious requirements are associated with the birth of a child to Catholic parents.

Catholic babies are welcomed into the Church at a service of baptism. The child's parents and godparents affirm their own faith and renounce evil on behalf of the child. The priest anoints the baby, sprinkling oil (oil of catechumens) and holy water on its head.

A baby will also be given its Christian names during this ceremony, which is also called a christening. It is traditional for Catholics to be given at least one saint's name, in the hope that they will take on their renowned qualities.

Baptism is very important; it is believed to be an essential sacrament for life beyond death, and must be carried out quickly if a new baby is unlikely to survive. In some cases, a midwife may be asked to baptise the baby, rather than risk a chaplain or priest arriving too late. Many parents will derive great comfort from the knowledge that their child has been baptised.

blood transfusions

Catholics have no religious objections to receiving a blood transfusion.


The Catholic Church has, for centuries, been opposed to artificial contraception, believing that 'each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of human life'. However, it is acceptable for married couples to limit the size of their family by natural means.

A Catholic doctor may not wish to be involved in the provision of contraceptive services on the grounds that they would be performing, or helping a patient to perform, an immoral act. Some Catholics may object to advising patients on the use of contraceptives, or even writing a referral letter. Others may feel that the immoral act is carried out by the patient using contraception and will not therefore have a problem with their own role in the process.


A chaplain or priest should always be called when a Catholic patient is dying. The patient and any visitors will find their presence very comforting. Routine last rites are appropriate for all Christians.

fasting and dietary requirements

Some Catholics may not eat meat or drink alcohol on Fridays and on Ash Wednesday, which is the first day of Lent. Instead, they will prefer to eat a fish or vegetarian option. In order to feel closer to God, many Catholics like to fast for at least an hour before receiving holy communion, although this is not expected of elderly or ill people.

foetal research

Most Catholics will find foetal research acceptable only if it does not harm the life or physical integrity of the child. Generally, they will be opposed to tissue that is derived from abortions being used for research or therapeutic purposes.

genetic counselling

Catholics may wish to receive genetic counselling in order to prepare them for the treatment and care of a child who has a genetic disorder.


The Catholic Church maintains that homosexual acts are unnatural and prevent the possibility of procreation, and that homosexuals should be precluded from marriage or sexually active committed relationships. It does, however, recognise that some people are born with homosexual tendencies, and condemns acts of violence or familial rejection towards homosexuals.


Catholics believe that procreation is inseparable from the marriage act, and that any substituted reproductive technique is undignified. Only those fertility methods that do not separate the unitive and procreative ends of the act are acceptable. It is not acceptable to use methods that involve: the destruction of embryos, donated sperm, extracorporeal conception, surrogacy or any compromise of the dignity of the marriage, either partner or the child itself.

life support

It is acceptable for Catholics to reject life-prolonging procedures that are felt to be insufficiently beneficial or excessively burdensome. Hydration and nutrition may be discontinued if a patient is no longer comforted by them or their body cannot assimilate them.


The Catholic Church forbids pre-marital, post-marital and extra-marital sex, in addition to masturbation and all same-sex activities. Marriage is an indissoluble sacrament that endures until the death of a spouse. The Church does not recognise divorce, and will issue an annulment only if evidence can be provided to show that a marriage is invalid.

medical treatment

Catholicism does not generally call for any special medical treatment. However, some Catholics may have an issue with the origin of some vaccines (see 'vaccines' below).

organ donation

Catholics are unlikely to have any religious objections to organ donation, but some families may wish for a chaplain or priest to be present when the procedure is carried out. Organs should be removed only after death, and the doctor who determines death should not be a member of the transplant team.

pain and suffering

Christians may view suffering in a positive light, as their participation in the redemptive power of Christ's suffering and death. This belief may help them deal with the pain – possibly viewing it as the birth pangs of a new creation.


The Catholic Church does not have any religious objections to a post-mortem being carried out. However, the body should be carefully restored because it is Catholic tradition to open the coffin for viewing.

pre-natal testing

Because of the view that all human life is uniquely special, and that abortion is totally unacceptable, some Catholic patients may refuse pre-natal screening. Some healthcare workers may also have a problem with what they consider to be a service to screen out and eliminate unwanted children.

However, patients should be advised about testing that can be invaluable in the management of the delivery and neonatal care of babies with specific problems.

termination of pregnancy

The Catholic Church has always condemned the termination of a pregnancy as a grave evil, believing that we have souls from the moment of conception. Each God-given human life is considered to be uniquely special and should be respected as such.

This can cause difficulties for Catholic medical staff who may be unwilling to have any involvement in the termination of a pregnancy. Even writing, or simply typing, a referral letter regarding a termination, or clerking in a patient may be quite unacceptable to some Catholics.

Termination may be tolerated in order to save the life of the mother. Catholic healthcare workers will feel a sense of duty to offer moral and spiritual support to anyone who has suffered the trauma of a termination.

There has been much debate about whether medical staff who have a conscientious objection to the termination of pregnancies should be allowed to counsel patients. In 1991, the British Medical Association's stance was that they should not, but their position was reversed a year later after objections were made by Catholics who felt that patients should not be counselled solely by pro-abortionists.

Managers are advised to discuss this issue with newly recruited Catholic healthcare staff to determine their position on the termination of pregnancies and the level of involvement they would be prepared to have, in an effort to avoid any potential problems before they arise.


The Catholic Church does not permit the sterilisation of either men or women. A procedure that induces sterility as a side effect will be considered to be acceptable if no alternative treatment is available.


Some commonly used vaccines are developed from cell lines that have been derived from aborted human foetuses. Cell lines are maintained to have an indefinite lifespan and it is unlikely that further cell lines will ever be required. However, this still presents Catholics with a moral dilemma about benefitting from the termination of a pregnancy.

However, there are alternative animal-derived versions of most childhood vaccines, except the rubella vaccine. A Japanese version of the rubella vaccine (derived from rabbit cells) exists, but it is currently not licensed for use in the UK. This vaccine can therefore only be obtained and administered by a general practitioner, on the understanding that no one is legally liable for any side effects it may cause.

Catholic healthcare workers may object to being involved with the development or use of human-derived vaccines.

further information

See also:

The Catholic Church in England and Wales

The official website of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales provides a wealth of information about the Catholic faith.

39 Eccleston Square, London SW1V 1BX

Tel: 020 7630 8220

The Guild of Catholic Doctors

This is the website of an association of Catholic Doctors in England and Wales.

Brampton House, Hospital of St John & St Elizabeth, 60 Grove End Road, London, NW8 9NH

Tel: +44 020 7266 4246

This website, which is produced by a group of Catholic Priests and Brothers who belong to The Congregation of Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, contains many articles on medical ethics and bioethics.



Worldwide, there are more than a billion Catholics, bound together by their faith in Jesus Christ and their obedience to the papacy. The Catholic Church is one of the major Christian churches in the UK, with about five million members, but only about one million are regular churchgoers.

Like other Christians, Catholics believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ, the son of God made man who came to earth to redeem humanity's sins through His death and resurrection. However, the Catholic Church differs from other Christian churches in both its hierarchical organisation and its teaching.

The Catholic Church places great emphasis on moral law and is strong in its devotion to saints. Catholics are encouraged to attend weekly mass and are obliged during the Easter season to attend the sacraments of reconciliation (formerly known as confession) and holy communion. The receiving of Christ's body and blood at communion as the bread of life is central to the Catholic faith.