In November 2009, an abortion was performed at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix, Ariz., which is owned by Catholic Healthcare West (CHW). 

Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of Phoenix found out about the abortion from a whistleblower. After investigating the matter, he informed a woman religious who had been involved in approving it that she had been automatically excommunicated by her actions. 

The hospital defended its actions as permissible under the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services (ERDs), particularly Directive 47. It permits indirect abortions, for example, the removal of a cancerous tumor in the uterus where the abortion is an indirect and unintended aspect of treatment. 

The hospital claimed that the abortion was necessary to save the life of the mother, but there is no way that the accuracy of this prognosis can be confirmed because of privacy regulations. Even if we accept the hospital’s contention the abortion was necessary to save the mother’s life, it seems to violate the prohibition of direct abortions in Directive 45 because the abortion was the directly intended treatment. 

Some investigation of the facts and interpretation of the ERDs is required, but who is to perform these tasks? Clearly, for Catholics these are precisely the sorts of questions that ought to be brought to the local bishop, who promulgates the ERDs in his diocese. It is his responsibility to interpret and apply them in order to safeguard the Catholic identity of hospitals and prevent scandal. 

Even before the abortion controversy, Bishop Olmsted was concerned about the lack of adherence to the ERDs in CHW hospitals in his diocese. His attempts at dialogue continued with greater intensity after he was informed of the abortion. In a Nov. 22 letter to CHW, the bishop warned that he would revoke St. Joseph’s Catholic status unless CHW agreed to acknowledge that this abortion had been performed in violation of the ERDs, submit to a review and certification process to ensure compliance with the ERDs, and provide a formation program on the ERDs for the medical staff. 

CHW did not agree to these requirements. As a result, on Dec. 21 Bishop Olmsted revoked his consent to the use of the name “Catholic” by St. Joseph’s. In a press conference, the bishop referred to a pattern of non-compliance with the ERDs at CHW hospitals, and said the revocation would remain in effect until he was convinced that CHW would adhere to the ERDs. 

CHW’s response to Bishop Olmsted’s decree was disconcerting: They rejected any implication of wrongdoing with respect to the abortion, and indicated that they would not change any of their policies, operations or procedures. Moreover, the Catholic Health Association (CHA) issued a press release with a statement by its CEO, Daughter of Charity Sister Carol Keehan, supporting St. Joseph’s action and characterizing the abortion as permissible. 

The litmus test for determining whether a hospital is Catholic is whether it adheres to the ERDs as interpreted by the local diocesan bishop. He is responsible for authoritative interpretations of the moral law: that is the role of the bishop as successor of the apostles.  

The defiance of Bishop Olmsted’s authority sets a dangerous precedent, and could presage a further secularization of Catholic health care. If Catholic hospitals are no longer subject to the supervision of local bishops to ensure their adherence to the ERDs, then we are on the verge of a massive change to Catholic life in America. 

Leonard J. Nelson III is author of “Diagnosis Critical: The Urgent Threats Confronting Catholic Healthcare” (OSV, $29.95).