To the participants in a course on human pre-leukaemia

15 November 1985

On Friday, 15 November, the Holy Father met with participants in an international course providing up-to-date information on “human pre-leukaemia” organized by the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart.  The following is the text of the Pope’s address on this occasion.

Distinguished Professors,


1. I take particular pleasure in being here among you, who have come to Rome from the various parts of the world for this international updating course on “human pre-leukaemia”, organized by the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart.

I greet each and every one of you cordially, in the awareness of the precious service that your assiduous labour renders to man and to society today, and will render still more in the near future.

The meeting responds to the primary objective of bringing to the awareness of the researchers the most recent results of scientific research on the subject, of facilitating exchange of information, of singling out the specialized centres of the particular field so as to facilitate the direction of patients.

2. The hardships faced by those suffering from leukaemia are many, especially when they are obliged to remain hospitalized for extended periods, or when isolation becomes necessary.  The troubles are more serious when the patients are children or young persons who are constrained to live for months or for years under therapeutic treatment, to abandon their studies, their friendships, normal social contacts, to live in fear of a revival of the malady and, in the case of acute forms, in anguish over their inability to conquer it definitively.

Certain treatments, such as those you call “support therapy”, themselves involve an accumulation of suffering,  a psychological burden whether for the patients themselves or for their families, who at times abandon themselves to the hectic search of a hope, with journeys, and with heavy expenditure of moral and financial energy.

You are in fact in the position of having to confront one of the most resistant evils of our time, against which the possibility of success often appears extremely limited, even if the rate of survival today has notably increased over that of the past.

3. In most recent times, in fact, considerable advances have been made, especially in the field of genetics, which have allowed the cause of many forms of leukaemia to be singled out and more accurate diagnoses to be made, sometimes even at a preventive stage, with the possibility of more timely intervention.

Thus new perspectives have been opened, effective for facilitating a more complete understanding of the mechanisms that are at the base of the process of malignant transformation, for monitoring the progress of the therapy, for maintaining the proper balance among the tissues of the organism.

Advances and prospects induce us to underline the benefits that derive from the development of science when this is directed to the good of the person through the cure of maladies.  I refer to that type of medicine which by definition is therapeutic in the precise sense of the word, and which, while rejecting ends that are destructive and manipulative of human life, directs its proper efforts to the still possible and almost inexhaustible conquest of new cures.

I am sure that public opinion and the authorities in particular will feel increasingly sympathetic towards these conquests and towards these objectives of a science which will receive the encouragement it deserves and be supplied with the means necessary for research.

4. Today’s meeting offers us the opportunity of underlining, beyond its scientific value, the great ethical value of the charitable efforts expended so lavishly on this category of the sick by the medical personnel, doctors and paramedical workers.

The leukaemia patient is largely dependent on a whole network of interventions which for the most part require a human support consisting of specific preparation, of delicacy of approach, of inner richness.

You have done well to concentrate on the moral and spiritual density of this task in your reflections during the congressional labours, and to give special consideration to human assistance as an essential component of support in the most updated medical therapy, extending your attention even to the families of those stricken by the malady.  You have done well to solicit the concern of the community and of those engaged in voluntary service, so that these families may be able to support the weight of a hospital treatment that at times becomes very prolonged and expensive, without however neglecting the fulfilment of their daily duties, which never cease to retain their own urgency and character of necessity.

To your own lofty reflections I would like to add the incomparable contribution of the gift of faith, which helps us to perceive the presence of the suffering Christ in the sick person and reveals the salvific value of suffering that benefits the entire ecclesial Body, gives inestimable value to the persons of the medical personnel who exercise the mission of Christ the physician, expressed in the Gospel figure of the Good Samaritan (Salvifici Doloris, 28).

The Lord of life, who promised the greatest recompense to one who visits a sick person, affirming that whatever is done to one of the least of his little ones is done to himself (Mt. 25, 36-40), will not fail to repay, with gifts that surpass all expectations, the one who dedicates his time and his very life to the human beings afflicted by one of the most tenacious evils of our era.

Respect for the patient

5. I would like also to mention a few ethical issues and a few problems that can be encountered in the cure and in the medical treatment of these sick persons.

It is necessary above all to recall the respect for the life and for the dignity of the dying when, in spite of the treatment offered, death seems no longer avoidable.  The presence of suffering even in the terminal phase, while it should stimulate every effort to lessen the pain and to sustain the spirit of the dying should never allow “actions or omissions which by their nature or in the intention of the agent have as their goal to shorten the life so as to spare the patient or his relatives suffering” (Declaration on euthanasia of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 5-5-1980, n. 11).

The principle of the “proportionality of the cure” (ibid., n. IV), while it discourages the employment of purely experimental or completely ineffectual operations, does not dispense from the valid therapeutic task of sustaining life nor from the administration of the normal means of vital support.  Science, even when it is unable to heal, can and should care for and assist the sick.

If it had ceased struggling for life and engaging itself for the cure of human diseases, medical science would never have been able to advance, nor to obtain those successes for which it is universally recognized today.

Practices of euthanasia, more or less manifestly proclaimed, signal a moment of regression and of abdication on the part of science, and an offence to the dignity of the dying and also to his person.

Then too, a great respect for the patient is necessary in the application of new therapeutic methods still in the experimental stage, as can still be verified in the case of leukaemia with the transplantation of bone marrow, when these therapeutic methods would still show  a high percentage of risk.  We recall that “for lack of other remedies it is licit to have recourse, with the consent of the sick person, to means made available by the most advanced medical science, even if these still form part of an experimental study and are not entirely free from risk.  In accepting to undergo such treatment, the sick person will even be able to give an example of generosity for the good of humanity” (Declaration on euthanasia, 5-5-80, n. IV).  Nevertheless, until a form of therapy, which presents mortal risks, can be approved for general use, every possible measure will have to be taken to attenuate the risk factor, and a control placed on the desire to carry experiment through to the end.

6. Distinguished Professors, knowing well that the engagement of scientists and of doctors in general and of all of you in particular is characterized by scientific exactness and by the highest moral awareness of the tasks of medicine and of your professional service, I express my most intense satisfaction regarding the results so far achieved, the current research  projects, the charitable work carried forward with assiduous and exemplary presence.

While expressing the most fervent good wishes for future programmes directed to the healing and to the care of these patients, to the moral support of their families, I am happy to impart to you, to the entire university community, to your dear ones and to your pupils, the Apostolic Blessing.

John Paul II