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  • Writer's pictureProfiles in Catholicism

An Interview with Barbara Golder MD, JD

Gordon: You became a Roman Catholic after exploring Methodism, Judaism, and Anglicanism. Please provide am overview of what you found positive in these other religions and why you finally chose Catholicism.

Dr. Golder: My journey wasn’t so much one of going from one positive thing to another though that was certainly true.  It was more a matter of responding to God’s invitation wherever I happened to be at the time.

I was raised Methodist, in a home that taught me faith is more lived than simply thought, and gave me a great love for the community.  Interestingly enough, it also gave me a great love of Church music—there’s a lot of theology in hymns and I seem to have absorbed a great deal of it.  In college, I began to doubt my faith, as I think many of us do.  I really believe that if you never question faith, you aren’t likely to really own it either. 

In medical school, when making sense of some of the more awful things in life became important, I decided I needed to have another go at faith.  I decided to start at the roots: Judaism.  Again, I learned faith as a living thing, not just a set of ideas and rules but a way of living and relating.  Later I would find how much Catholics learned from our older brothers and sisters, how “Jewish” much of what we do, and who we are really are.  When my husband and I had a child we needed to decide how to raise him.  My husband didn’t really resonate with Judaism, and so we shook the family tree.  Some Episcopalians fell out and because we were living around the corner from an Episcopal church, that’s where we went.  There I learned a love of liturgy and learned a great deal of Catholic theology because we ended up in a very Anglo-Catholic parish for 20 years.  And I learned to depend on the Eucharist, which is what would ultimately pull me into the Church.

I came to the Catholic Church largely as a result of the consecration as bishop of Gene Robinson in 2003, though it took another two years to complete my journey.   The acceptance of Gene Robinson as a Bishop, after Bishop Jack Iker (my first Episcopal pastor), who held historic beliefs about the faith, had a difficult time being confirmed in the office meant that many of the truths of faith that I had previously counted on were not only open for debate, it signaled that anyone who deviated from the new interpretation and held to an older and different way of looking at things was to be roundly castigated.  There was only one place left to go that offered me the Eucharist as I understood it, and I went.  I really think my conversion of heart came after I was received when I finally had the time to breathe and take in the great richness of the Church, her people, her traditions, and her teaching.  And, just as the church teaches, that conversion has not ceased.  There is always a new depth or a new discovery in the Catholic Church.

Gordon: How does your JD degree and education help address medical challenges as an MD?

Dr. Golder: Many of the challenges of practicing medicine these days are not just medical, they are legal: consent, billing, professional relationships, staff management, and so on. Helping doctors understand law helps them engage in daily practice with a little more ease.  If I can help doctors learn to think a little more like lawyers, they can learn to accommodate themselves to a legal landscape that is constantly changing.   

It’s also taught me the value of learning to speak the language of the people I am trying to reach.  Doctors and lawyers view the world through different prisms.  It’s important they learn to understand, value, and respect each other. From my perspective that starts with being able to bring unfamiliar concepts to each group in its own vernacular.

As an example, I wrote a book on AIDS law at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic.  It was actually intended for educators, but many of the principles involved are the same: how to care for students—or patients—and at the same time manage the risk of disease transmission and the needs of confidentiality?  I couched my advice in terms of general medical and legal principles, how to balance the demands of all the involved parties in light of known science and the principles of law.  Rereading it a few years ago, I was surprised how durable that advice was.  The facts have changed, but the principles still apply. I am hoping the folks that read that book 30 years ago were able to use the principles as the facts changed and change as the evolving situation demanded.

Gordon: What are the main bioethical issues that you address in your work?

Dr. Golder: I address whatever is current but all Catholic bioethics starts from the dignity of the human person. I think that gives us an edge in looking at bioethics not only from the perspective of bioethical principles but also from the perspective of what those principles demand from us in relationship to each other.  In that way, bioethics becomes as much an exercise of a community living out the call to virtue, in many different ways, as it does a matter of simply drawing moral lines that must not be crossed and staying on the right side of them ourselves. 

For example, we know abortion is a gravely immoral act and cannot be condoned.  I don’t think it is enough to simply tell that to a woman contemplating abortion.  I think the far more interesting question is this: here before me is a woman contemplating abortion.  What is it that I am supposed to do—how am I supposed to enter into her life—to help her in this moment of in time and in her circumstances so that she is free to make the morally correct decision and avoid abortion?  That question may move far beyond politics or advocacy and leads deep into the territory of social justice and individual sacrifice as well.  The two different approaches are intertwined and depend on each other.  I just happen to have an interest in the relational piece.

For me the tantalizing part of bioethics is what it calls out of us as the People of God as a community of faith—what do we do to foster an environment in which virtuous behavior is facilitated by who we are, not just encouraged by our teaching?  I’ve seen some sidewalk counselors quite literally open their lives and homes to women in order to support a decision not to abort.  To me, that’s bioethics writ large and it is exciting.

Gordon: You also serve as Director of Adult Faith Formation and Evangelization at Basilica of Basilica of Sts Peter and Paul in Chattanooga TN.  How do you evangelize people join the Catholic Faith and do you use social media in reaching people?

Dr. Golder: Everyone evangelizes in a different way, as one can, with one’s own gifts and limitations.  I experience it as a one on one process, in relationship and responding to the person before me as he is.  That means I spend a lot of time exploring the different ways in which people come to and receive the faith—the more perspectives I have, the more likely I am to be able to connect in a meaningful way.  We have used programs—like Catholicism by Bp. Barron—and they have been (and continue to be) very useful.  But by and large, I wait to take my cues from the people I am talking with rather than coming with a predetermined agenda of information to impart.   

One of my major responsibilities is RCIA and while we cover all the “stuff” of Catholicism—doctrine, traditions, teaching, and so on—RCIA is as much a process of accompaniment—finding out where the inquirers are, what their needs are and—equally important—what catechumens and candidates bring to us that we need in our own lives of faith.   

Someone coming from the Episcopal Church, for example will find a different place in the family we call Catholicism than someone coming from a Seventh Day Adventist tradition.  And that’s OK.  Part of what I do is help people find where their spirituality and experience fit in the broader picture.  They need to find a way in the Catholic Church to be fully themselves and that takes exploration. 

As for social media—I use it but I try to use it very, very carefully.  In my experience, it’s often a deterrent rather than an attraction to those seeking out the faith.  Every year, I have someone in RCIA come to me asking about nasty comments made by Catholics to and about each other on some internet combox or another.  Social media witness is not always positive and Catholic commenters do not always keep in mind the broad range of perspectives permitted by Church teaching.  As a result, some pretty harsh, ultimately untrue things get said.  And trust me, someone is always watching.  Thoughtless words can so easily turn someone interested in the faith away.  My goal is not to be an obstacle in the way of anyone’s faith.  It’s my prayer every morning.

Gordon: We appreciate the opportunity of featuring you report Five things every Catholic should know about stem cell research. For lour readers who may not be acquainted with the stem cell challenges and the Catholic church, please comment on these questions   How does Pope Paul VI's encyclical, Humanae vitae relate to stem cell research?

Dr. Golder: Humanae Vitae lays out, quite clearly and beautifully, the role of marriage and married life, including why dividing sex from the creation of new life is so very disastrous.  Simply put, when that happens, we begin to relate to each other in a much less personal way, using that which was designed to be participation with God in the bringing of new life into the world as an opportunity for pleasure, or even for mutual satisfaction, rather than a sacred moment from which new life just might occur.  That too often becomes an opportunity for “objectification,” the treating of persons as things, something Martin Buber warned against in I and Thou.   

By the way, it’s really interesting that these days, many people young people, shaped by the secular world, are almost offended by the idea that sex is for procreation.  They have been so thoroughly affected by the availability of contraception, that the idea that sex results in a baby is a “failure” rather than the natural order of things.

We have before us a generation of people for whom the idea of sex and babies being linked just isn’t on their radar.  That creates quite a challenge in communicating the truths of Humane Vitae, because they just don’t have the same perspective as we do to start with so our usual ways of communicating simply do not work well.   

If that depersonalization happens with the person before us we see—the partner in the martial act—how much more it happens with the person we cannot see—the new life created in the womb.  And how much easier it is, having decided that the unitive and procreative aspects of sex can be separated, to create that new life in a way that it can be manipulated for our purposes in other ways.  That’s the very basis of stem cell research: the notion that—as a result of what has been called the contraceptive mentality—we no longer recognize life as life from its first moment of being.  And if it is not life, then there is no reason it cannot be manipulated as a thing, for whatever end we have in mind.  That’s going to be a difficult perception to reverse.  It will take many kinds of missionaries into the secular culture, all with different gifts.  It’s not just a matter of intellectual conversion.  That’s why I think the relational piece—how we make it easier for people to make the moral decision—is so important.

Gordon: Why should people concerned who are interested in ending abortion be knowledgeable about stem cell research?

Dr. Golder: Embryonic stem cell research is abortion in another guise, and one that is more appealing because it relies on the emotional pull of healing terrible afflictions: paralysis, genetic disorders, Parkinson’s disease.   

It’s also important to distinguish embryonic stem cell research, which cannot be supported, with adult or umbilical stem cell research, which is perfectly permissible and has had success—think, for example of a bone marrow transplant.  I think it’s telling that the NIH has this to say about stem cells: “Human embryonic stem cells are thought to have much greater developmental potential than adult stem cells. This means that embryonic stem cells may be pluripotent—that is, able to give rise to cells found in all tissues of the embryo except for germ cells rather than being merely multipotent—restricted to specific subpopulations of cell types, as adult stem cells are thought to be. However, a newer type of reprogrammed adult cells called induced pluripotent stem cells, has proven to be pluripotent.”  (emphasis added) 

The embryonic cells are thought to be better, but adult stem cells—which present no moral issue—have proved to be equally pluripotent and have produced a number of successful interventions.  It seems to me that there’s an ideological push for embryonic stem cell research and I wonder how closely it is linked to the ideological push for abortion.  If there is a morally appropriate way to do this research, why pursue another that raises moral issues?

Gordon: Is stem cell research a topic that priests should discuss during their homilies?

Dr. Golder: Far be it from me to prescribe homily topics!  That’s above my pay grade. 

I do think this is one topic that needs long and serious discussion and that may be better suited to small groups than just from the pulpit.  It can be a sensitive topic and it affects so many people.  There is often a need for questions and answers to avoid simplistic misunderstanding of the concepts involved.  I think there is a need for clear, simple articles that can start people thinking a bit about how medical issues intersect with their faith.  That was part of my hope in writing about this topic for Angelus News.

Dr. Golder: This is a straightforward document that addresses several simple questions: can living embryos be used for research?; Is cloning morally permissible? Is it morally permissible to use stem cell lines or cells derived from them for therapeutic purposes?  In each case, the answer is no, and the reasoning is easy to understand: 

On the basis of a complete biological analysis, the living human embryo is - from the moment of the union of the gametes - a human subject with a well-defined identity, which from that point begins its own coordinated, continuous and gradual development, such that at no later stage can it be considered as a simple mass of cells… From this it follows that as a human individual" it has the right to its own life, and therefore every intervention which is not in favour of the embryo is an act which violates that right.

I also think it is important to remember this is impermissible primarily because of the effects of the embryo-as-person, but that the ill effects of failing to recognize that personhood also spills over to everyone on us: every act in which we dehumanize another dehumanizes us as well, for we experience our humanity in relationship to each other and in community. Each such act draws us farther and farther from God.  Embryonic stem cell research kills the embryo, but it also damages the life of faith in those who pursue it. 

Gordon: What is your opinion can parishes do to address the pandemic of sexual harassment in our society?

Dr. Golder: Everyone involved has a different perspective on this subject, rightly so.  It can be very difficult to hear a differing and valid, perspectives because this is such a painful topic that affects so many of us at so many levels.  It’s a complicated problem, far more difficult that we’d like it to be. 

I don’t see a single simple cause, but I do think there might be a relatively simple underlying theme: we must insist that we treat all people with the dignity they deserve and by not tolerating anything less in our presence.  Working that out proves a bit problematic, and I am certainly no expert.  But I do have a few observations for whatever they are worth.  I was pleased so see many of them in an article that came across my Facebook feed this morning; maybe I’m not so far off base.  

Harassment of any kind seems to happen—at least in part--when we cease to see a person as a person of dignity and see him rather as something to be manipulated for our own purposes.  C.S. Lewis put it this way:  Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.  Of course, the definition of neighbor depends more on our response than anything else, as the parable of the good Samaritan teaches us.  How different the world would be if we Catholics really lived this way, 24-7!

We need to be talking about sexual harassment among ourselves, and a lot, and we must be willing to listen to different perspectives and admit the value and truths these different experiences bring. There’s really not “one” cause or “one” remedy.  And just as with bioethics, the interesting question is not so much what other folks ought not to do, but what I am called to do as a Catholic to change things for the better.   

I think language is more important than we realize.  Years ago (and long before the Internet) Martin Buber in I and Thou cautioned us that the major ailment of our time was the inability to relate to people as Others rather than as things.  I think he nailed it.  Our discourse has become so very objectifying, even sometimes among the faithful and when discussing matters in the Church.  Once a person becomes a “thing” in our minds, we feel free to treat him as we wish, rather than as the person with inherent dignity and mystery he is.   

I was once given the penance of not referring to anyone by a trait or description for a week, and to substitute “beloved child of God” instead.  So the “jerk” who cut me off in traffic became a “beloved child of God.” I was amazed at how my perspective changed because of that simple exercise.   And, by the way, that exercise was extended to the names I called myself in that week; self-respect is as essential as respect for others.  

Language and imagery are important in a different way as well.  I find it remarkable that, in a culture that collectively doesn’t bat an eye at the most disturbing images of women presented in art, music, and literature— for example, some rap lyrics and 50 Shades of Gray—all of a sudden is surprised that some men see women as nothing more than objects of their power and domination (and some women see men the same way).  Unless we address that dynamic, ridding ourselves of the current crop of offenders will simply make room for more, either in the same way or in some other manifestation.  

People who have positions of power are obliged—really, truly obligated—to speak out when they see something wrong.  It’s clear that in many of the cases now being discussed in the media, powerful people knew and did nothing to stop it.  That is simply wrong. Power is meant to exercised in part to protect the vulnerable.  When we do not do that, we fail in our call as the people of God. 

Equally important is that the social remedy is balanced in favor of the vulnerable.  Protect the weak and helpless, not the offender.  It sounds simple, but how often it is not done!  The victim needs protection and vindication, even if it means embarrassment for the institution. It’s also important to give the benefit of the doubt to accusers, but not to let an accusation be tantamount to proof.  Sometimes the vulnerable party is the one whose reputation is sullied and never really restored, even when allegations are proved false.  Finding the appropriate legal and social balance is going to be difficult and we will make mistakes.

It is important that we not make the same mistake as those guilty of harassment: turning a person into a thing without inherent dignity. To God, no one is disposable. We pray for the harassed, as we should, but when was the last time you heard prayers for those who abuse their power and position to the detriment of others?  I think Jesus had something to say about that.  Prayer is meant in part to spur us as a community, as Church, to action for those we mention in our prayers.  I much prefer a society in which we prevent the circumstances that create an environment of harassment than one in which we react to it.  

Last but not least, it seems we’ve lost any sense of forgiveness in society; that leads to scapegoating rather than healing and a sense of wholeness.  There has to be a way of forgiving people and reintegrating folks back into the community; otherwise, the repentance we look for loses some of its meaning.  Forgiveness heals not only forgiven but also the one who forgives.  That’s powerful medicine.  That’s something the Church can show society how to do if we are given the chance.

Gordon: What impact does Covid-19 have on pregnant women?

Dr. Golder: COVID can create complications for pregnant women.  Pregnant women are about 5 times more likely to be admitted to hospital for symptoms than women who are not pregnant and also more likely to require mechanical ventilation.  However, the rate of recovery is about the same in either case, which is good news.

Pregnant women should, as a result, consider how to reduce their risk for exposure.  That means limiting contact with others and limiting the time of contact, as well as the usual measures of masking and handwashing.

If possible, delivery should be delayed until the infection of the mother has passed. This is, of course, not always possible.  The CDC and ACOG have developed some guidelines for managing the delivery of COVID positive patients  These decisions will depend on individual circumstances and recommendations will change as more data evolves.

Infants and young children can contract the illness, so COVID-positive or asymptomatic women caring for infants must be particularly attentive to hygiene: masking, washing hands, and making sure that breastfeeding supplies (pumps, guards) are clean after every use.  The possibility of a bottle rather than breastfeeding (even if breastmilk is pumped) should be offered.  Deciding whether to separate the mother and child until the risk of infection has passed is made on a case by case basis and will depend on individual circumstances, resources, and needs.

At present, there is little systematic data on treating COVID in the context of pregnancy.


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