The right of Catholic health care facilities to offer medical care according to the moral teachings of the Catholic Church is under fire again. After the decision of the bishop of Phoenix, Ariz., to remove the “Catholic” designation from a hospital in his diocese after it failed to address his concerns over procedures it performs, including abortion, that he deemed unethical, the American Civil Liberties Union has stepped up its effort to require Catholic hospitals to provide “emergency reproductive care,” including abortion. 

But the threat is not only external. Some ethicists and even the largest trade organization for Catholic medical facilities, the Catholic Health Association, have pushed back against the bishops, deepening a rift in the Church. 

Damaged mission 

“When such dissent is publicly promoted by consecrated religious and trade organizations that identify themselves as Catholic, the damage to the Church’s mission is even greater,” said Msgr. Kevin McMahon, a moral theologian who teaches theology at the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio. “The truth is one and it must be proclaimed with one voice.” 

Indeed, in a Dec. 22 editorial, The Arizona Republic declared that the break between the Catholic Church and St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center was “inevitable” because Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted’s “interpretation of moral law is in conflict with the best judgment of the hospital’s medical professionals.” 

Yet, in spite of what hospital officials or critics may say, “the bishops are the authentic teachers of Catholic faith and morals,” and the diocesan bishop has the responsibility of interpreting the U.S. bishops’ Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services (ERDs) within his own diocese, said Msgr. McMahon.  

He noted that the ERDs were the result of “broad consultation” with both theologians and health care professionals and “have served the Catholic faithful well.” 

Msgr. McMahon said there is no conflict between Catholic moral teaching and good medicine because they have the same goal of promoting and protecting human dignity. 

“The conflict is between Catholic moral teaching and bad medicine,” he said. “It is bad medicine directly to kill one person to treat another. Such actions not only rob the innocent person of his or her life, they also make evildoers — killers — of those who perform or cooperate in them.” 

‘Tough environment’ 

Nevertheless, some Catholic hospitals are resisting full implementation of the ERDs as interpreted by the bishops, and in isolated cases are being called on it, said Samford University law professor Leonard Nelson III, the author of “Diagnosis Critical: The Urgent Threats Confronting Catholic Healthcare” (OSV, $29.95). 

Early last year, Bishop Robert Vasa of Baker, Ore., removed the Catholic designation of St. Charles Medical Center in Bend because it insisted on providing sterilizations. And in July, Trinity Community Medical Center of Brenham, Texas, voluntarily gave up its Catholic identity because it wanted to provide sterilizations. 

Such disunity also harms the Church in the public square, said Nelson. Already most prominent Catholic politicians reject Catholic ethical standards for health care, he said, as do organizations such as the ACLU. 

Now, with the Catholic Health Association viewing the ethical directives as an impediment to good patient care, Nelson said, this is going to create “a really tough environment” for Catholic health care. 

Coming to a head 

On Dec. 22, the ACLU wrote the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, claiming that Catholic hospitals violate federal law by refusing to provide “emergency abortion care” and called on the federal government to “investigate” and take “appropriate action.” 

The ACLU letter was a follow-up to a similar letter sent July 1, and was prompted by Bishop Olmsted’s action against St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center after that facility approved and allowed an abortion and refused to pledge it would not do so again. The hospital claimed that the mother would have died from pulmonary hypertension if the pregnancy had continued. The medical records remain sealed. 

In a Dec. 21 statement, Bishop Olmsted said that in his investigation, he found: “The baby was healthy and there were no problems with the pregnancy; rather, the mother had a disease that needed to be treated. But instead of treating the disease, St. Joseph’s medical staff and ethics committee decided that the healthy, 11-week-old baby should be directly killed.” 

Bishop Olmsted disclosed in his statement that he had been in discussions with the parent health system of St. Joseph’s — Catholic Healthcare West (CHW) — for seven years over ongoing violations of the ERDs, which were most recently re-vised by the U.S. bishops in 2001 to govern Catholic health facilities. CHW is sponsored by six orders of women religious. 

Only recently, Bishop Olm-sted said, did he learn that “CHW and St. Joseph’s Hospital, as part of what is called ‘Mercy Care Plan,’ have been formally cooperating with a number of medical procedures that are contrary to the ERDs, for many years.” 

Among the illicit procedures Bishop Olmsted cited were dispensing contraceptives as well as performing sterilizations and “abortions due to the mental or physical health of the mother or when the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest.” 

CHW is headquartered in San Francisco, and on Dec. 21 Archbishop George Niederauer of San Francisco released a statement saying he “intends to initiate a dialogue with the leadership of Catholic Healthcare West regarding those questions.” 

Archbishop Niederauer said discussions about implementation of the ERDs already have been taking place within the bishops’ conference. 

Ann Carey writes from Indiana.

Time For Choosing (sidebar)

John Brehany, executive director of the Catholic Medical Association, says bishops have tended to let Catholic hospitals police themselves, but the Phoenix case is a glaring example of why they need to get more involved to insure authentic implementation of the Ethical and Religious Directives. 

“There has been a growing gulf in medicine between Catholic medical moral principles and the practice of medicine precisely because our society has become more secularized,” Brehany told Our Sunday Visitor. “Advocates for abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide and gay rights have pushed aggressively not simply for their point of view to be tolerated, but for their point of view to be recognized as the standard, as the cultural orthodoxy everyone must fall in line with.” 

“You could say it’s time for Catholic health care to choose; that time has been there, and increasingly that choice is going to be forced upon them; unfortunately, in the Phoenix case, it looks like they lined up the choices and said, ‘We’ll give up our Catholic character.’”