DALLAS--The Rev. Patrick Moran prefers prayers with a personal touch. So for nearly 40 years, he prayed for the sick by name at every Mass. Then, a few months ago, he reluctantly stopped. Now, the Minnesota priest simply offers a general prayer "for all those who are sick."
His actions are the result of an emerging debate over medical privacy that some church and legal experts predict will change the way prayer is conducted in public worship and on prayer chains and prayer hotlines.
With prayer so central to faith, the avenues for it are seemingly endless. Books on prayer are best-sellers. Conferences led by prayer superstars are sell-outs. Internet chat rooms and prayer e-mail chains abound, full of names of people who are suffering from a variety of diseases.
But with computer technology making it possible to share data more easily than ever before, Americans' concern about protecting their privacy, especially medical records, has made it a pressing legal and social matter.
"It's a very sensitive pastoral issue," said Moran, 67, pastor of St. Elizabeth Catholic Church in Gary-New Duluth, a small, northeastern Minnesota community. Kathy Kunes fields sick calls at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Parish in Plano, Texas, where she's a secretary.
"Many times people want the priest to know what's wrong, but they just don't want it being made public," she said. "Usually, that's when it's something like prostate cancer, breast cancer, a stillborn birth, or drug problems. It's very painful."
Some churches get permission from ill members before going public with prayer requests. Others say that's not necessary. After all, who wouldn't want prayer? "People voluntarily join churches," said the Rev. Larry Burton, president of the Association of Professional Chaplains in Schaumburg, Ill. "They expect the care of each other and to pray for one another.
"The trouble is," he said, "the culture has changed, and there are new ways to communicate. We have a heightened sense of privacy and a heightened opportunity to violate privacy."
Even getting consent may not solve the problem entirely. Sometimes in worship or in Sunday school, members are invited to spontaneously offer prayers. What happens if they disclose that a neighbor, a friend or someone outside the church suffers from depression, alcoholism, or drug addiction?
Or when information is put on an e-mail prayer chain without the subject's knowledge? After the shootings at Wedgwood Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas, last September, an e-mail circulated nationally requesting prayers and chronicling what happened at the church, only some of which was true, according to the Baptist Standard.
Can churches be expected to monitor every prayer?
Probably not, Burton said. Still, he insists that churches need to do more to protect people's privacy.
"It's about how to respect your brothers and sisters," he said. "I may not want you to know my business. I may not want you to know I have prostate cancer. But I still want prayer. Once you announce it from the pulpit or put it in a prayer e-mail or on a bulletin board, you can't control it."
Instead of suing, members who feel their privacy is compromised are more likely to leave their church, according to Twila Brase, president of the Citizens' Council on Health Care, a national health care policy organization based in St. Paul, Minn.
"They might sue if the ramifications of the disclosure were such that it affected their insurance or their employment or because they felt it created a stigma," she said.
Brase believes that medical privacy is more of an issue in urban congregations with thousands of members than in smaller family-type churches. "When it's just a small, close-knit circle, people are more willing to have information shared," she said. "But in a big congregation, there may be reasons why they don't want certain people to know their medical conditions. Maybe their employer is in the church. Or estranged family members. Or an insurance agent. Think about someone battling depression or alcoholism."
Power, 71, who doesn't have family in the city, appreciated the support. "I would get cards from people at church," she said. "When somebody saw me, they would give me a hug. As a result, I didn't feel so isolated."
But mostly, she was comforted by the prayers. "I believe that prayer works. And I have all these people who are praying for me."
The Rev. Sally Brown, an associate pastor at NorthPark, said the church is careful about how much information it discloses to the congregation when a member is ill.
"We don't want to embarrass people or upset folks," she said. "We have to realize that illness is a very personal thing, and there are times even when you have someone dying, that they won't even let their friends come and see them. That's a thing we have to honor."