Editorial: Service vs. belief?

It’s been a grueling few years for Catholic health care in the United States, and by all accounts, it’s not about to get any easier.

The latest attack is the recent, but hardly unprecedented, flurry of lawsuits issued by the American Civil Liberties Union pushing for Catholic hospitals to provide services that are in direct violation of not only their mission but of Church teaching. So far, this type of litigation hasn’t gotten far in the courts thanks to freedom of conscience laws, but, as anyone who has been following the interminable litigation over the contraception mandate knows: times, they are a-changin’.

For centuries — and some may argue millennia — health care has been synonymous with the Catholic Church. Tending to the sick, especially the poor or forsaken, was the mission of countless saints throughout the history of Christianity. In this country alone, the first hospitals were funded, built and staffed by the Church in general and Catholic women religious in particular. Their mission was that of Christ the great healer: to lovingly care not only for each person’s soul, but for that individual’s entire being regardless of background or status. And, for the most part, they were left in peace to do the work that no one else wanted.

The situation today is astoundingly different. These same holistic health policies advocated by this same Church are now referred to — as one prominent physician scathingly put it in a recent Time magazine essay — as “extremely dangerous.” Church leaders with a great and valuable understanding of tradition and what it means to care for the entire person are dismissed as “nonmedical entities.”

The result of these campaigns against Church-affiliated hospitals is that they are being pressured via legal action to provide services to which they are morally opposed, such as sterilizations and therapeutic abortions. As Dr. Patrick Lee, director of the Institute for Bioethics at Franciscan University of Steubenville, said in this week’s story on the subject (Page 5), “secularists have the wind behind their sails now. Victories with same-sex marriage and the HHS mandate have emboldened them, so they’re asking for things they once said they didn’t want — like Catholic hospitals providing abortions.”

In an environment of increasing secularization and moral relativism clothed as tolerance, the Church in the United States is finding itself at a critical crossroads. When it comes to the institutions bearing its name, it may be forced to choose between service and belief. To withdraw their many good and valued services from society would be not only tragic but would fall out of step with the Gospel call. Yet to submit to the pressures on issues of deep moral significance would be unthinkable. In a society where abortion, euthanasia, birth control, eugenics and same-sex marriage are the norm, the Church may be facing a future of countless lawsuits and coercive judicial rulings or surrender.

It seems appropriate on the eve of the U.S. bishops’ fall meeting to ask what this group of Church leaders is doing to prepare for the uneasy future of Catholic institutions, and how they hope to negotiate these multiplying legal challenges. While a public campaign on behalf of religious liberty is important, Catholic hospitals, schools, charities and nonprofit institutions are more in need of a concerted strategy for the future if they are to continue to live out their Catholic mission in the world to the fullest extent possible.

Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; Gretchen R. Crowe, editor