The high-profile clash between the Catholic Health Association and the U.S. bishops has seemingly come to an end, with the two sides pledging to collaborate on efforts in Catholic health care. 

Sister Carol Keehan, a Daughter of Charity and president of the CHA, issued a letter to New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, stating that the CHA firmly supports the role of a local bishop as authentic interpreter of the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services (ERDs).  

In a response, Archbishop Dolan noted the potential challenges that lie ahead for Catholic health care and said that he values the support of the CHA, which will allow “the Church to speak with one voice” on these issues. 

Disputed decision 

The public exchange comes on the heels of the controversial case in which Phoenix Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted revoked the Catholic status of St. Joseph’s Hospital after the hospital terminated a woman’s pregnancy as part of an emergency procedure. The CHA openly supported the hospital’s decision. 

But Sister Keehan told Our Sunday Visitor that even though CHA didn’t agree with Bishop Olmsted’s assessment, they have always believed strongly in the importance of following the ERDs and in the bishop’s authority to interpret them. 

“We think the Ethical and Religious Directives are a great help to our members and to the families and the patients that we care for,” she said. 

“This was a horrible conflict in the way the bishop saw what the directives called for and the way the institution and its clinicians saw what the directives called for,” Sister Keehan added. “We deeply regret what he did, but we never thought he didn’t have the right to do it.” 

While the bishop’s decision in such cases is final, Sister Keehan said the CHA hopes to continue the dialogue to work toward a resolution between the hospital and the bishop. 

“Our fervent hope and prayer is that there would be the ability to have some reconciliation and renewed communion with the Church,” she said. “So in saying that we accept it, it doesn’t say, ‘well that’s that’ and we’re walking away.” 

Pro-life commitment 

Even before the Phoenix case, the bishops and CHA had found themselves on opposing sides of an argument over health care reform. CHA strongly backed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act even after the bishops removed their endorsement of the legislation over a concern that the final bill left open the door for federal funding of abortions. 

Sister Keehan said that while it was “very difficult” for CHA to take a different position than the bishops, she firmly believed from working closely with legislators on the language of the bill that it did not allow federally funded abortions.  

CHA has, however, joined the bishops in supporting the Protect Life Act, a bill that would amend the health reform law to ensure that it doesn’t provide for abortion funding, while also strengthening conscience-protection rights. Archbishop Dolan, in his letter, noted his appreciation for CHA’s support of the bill. 

Although CHA still feels the Protect Life Act needs some revision, Sister Keehan said, the organization supports it as an added protection against abortion funding. But endorsing the new bill, she explained, does not mean that CHA has changed its stance on the original health reform legislation. 

“We are not supporting [the bill] because we think there was federal funding of abortion in the Affordable Care Act,” she said. “But we would support anything that advances and strengthens our pro-life agenda.” 

Critical collaboration 

With many challenges and pressures facing Catholic health care today, a united effort by the bishops and CHA could be critical in ensuring that Catholic health professionals and institutions are able to continue practicing in accordance with their faith. 

“The climate in medicine and the culture has gotten much more hostile to the Church’s faith and witness,” said John Brehany, ethicist and executive director of the Catholic Medical Association. With more than 600 Catholic hospitals around the country, he told OSV, the CHA “can be a powerful force in literally demonstrating the truth of the Church’s teachings about life and health.” 

But considering the differences that have arisen between the bishops and CHA, Brehany said, the jury is still out on their future relationship.  

“I hear them saying they are on the same page,” he told OSV. “I hope that there’s clearer public behavior that demonstrates that, because we have seen clear public statements that have called it into question.” 

Leonard J. Nelson III, a law professor at Samford University’s Cumberland School of Law in Birmingham, Ala., and author of “Diagnosis Critical: The Urgent Threats Confronting Catholic Health Care” (OSV, $29.95), told OSV that it is a hopeful sign for CHA and the bishops to be working together.  

Nelson said that due to growing economic and societal pressures, it is “getting tougher all the time” for Catholic hospitals to continue to maintain their Catholic identity. Collaboration between hospitals and their bishops, particularly on the local level, will be the determining factor in their future success, he said. 

“A lot of it depends on follow-up,” Nelson said. “If you are going to con-tinue to be identified as a Catholic institution, you have got to maintain the link with the bishop. And there is going to have to be some sort of accountability and monitoring process that is put in place to ensure that these institutions are living up to the standards that they are required to live up to.” 

Scott Alessi writes from New Jersey.

The Final Say (sidebar)

In his letter to CHA president Sister Carol Keehan, Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York made clear that in moral and ethical debates in Catholic health care institutions it is the bishop who always has the last word. 

“Where conflicts arise, it is again the bishop who provides the authoritative resolution based on his teaching office,” Archbishop Dolan wrote. “Once such a resolution of a doubt has been given, it is no longer a question of competing moral theories or the offering of various ethical interpretations or opinions of the medical data that can still be legitimately espoused and followed. The matter has now reached the level of an authoritative resolution.”