Catholic Hospitals vs. the Bishops

Administrators shop for theologians to support practices that conflict with church teachings.



Thursday, 30 December 2010

The severing of ties last week between the Catholic Church and St. Joseph’s Hospital in Phoenix, Ariz., is the latest example of the fraying relationship between the bishops and Catholic hospital administrators. In recent years, some Catholic hospitals have taken greater liberties, authorizing abortions and sterilization procedures that the church strictly prohibits. Earlier this year, for instance, Rev. Robert Vasa, bishop of the Diocese of Baker, Ore., ended the church’s sponsorship of St. Charles Medical Center in Bend over the hospital’s performance of tubal ligations.

But the Phoenix case breaks new ground. In explaining his decision, Rev. Thomas Olmsted, bishop of the Phoenix Diocese, was the first to explicitly point to the role played by Catholic theologians in providing theological cover for “a litany of practices in direct conflict with Catholic teachings.”

The break began more than a year ago, when a Catholic nun and longtime administrator of St. Joseph’s Hospital gave permission for doctors to perform an abortion. She claimed the pregnancy was terminated to save the life of the mother. Sister Margaret McBride’s decision drew sharp criticism from Bishop Olmsted. After excommunicating Sister McBride, the head of the diocese then turned his attention to the role of the hospital itself.

In a Nov. 22 letter to Lloyd H. Dean, president of Catholic Healthcare West, the hospital’s parent company, Bishop Olmsted wrote that he would be moving to revoke the Catholic status of the hospital unless certain conditions were met by hospital administrators. Among other things, the bishop demanded that hospital officials acknowledge in writing that the abortion performed was a violation of Catholic directives for health-care institutions.

But hospital officials have defied the bishop and refused to meet his conditions. Rather than acknowledge that an illicit abortion had been performed at his hospital, Mr. Dean attempted to support Sister McBride’s decision by pointing out that “many knowledgeable moral theologians have reviewed this case and reached a range of conclusions.”

In a July 6 letter to Bishop Olmsted, Mr. Dean asserted that “this is a complex matter on which the best minds disagree.” Citing the opinion of Marquette University Professor M. Therese Lysaught on the permissibility of the abortion performed at St. Joseph’s, Mr. Dean appeared to suggest that the teaching authority of the Phoenix Bishop was just one more “opinion” on a “complex matter.”

This case points to the real problem in the church. For too long, the authority of bishops has been limited to issuing mere opinions. This is especially true at Catholic colleges and universities, where bishops have little affect on the culture and curriculum.

Associated PressRev. Thomas Olmsted, bishop of the Phoenix Diocese



In the recent health-care debate, it was these same Catholic theologians who joined Sister Carol Keehan, head of the Catholic Health Association, to defy the bishops over the legislation in Congress. Cardinal Francis George, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, criticized Sister Keehan and her organization for supporting a bill that did not contain provisions to protect life. President Obama was so grateful for Sister Keehan’s help in shepherding the bill through Congress that he awarded her one of the 20 pens used in the law’s signing ceremony at the White House.

Many theologians, like Prof. Nicholas Healy of St. John’s University in New York, write that theologians comprise “an alternative magisterium” to the teaching authority of the bishops. And in cases like the one at St. Joseph’s, the alternative magisterium often trumps the true Magisterium of the church. Catholic colleges and hospital administrators now “shop” for theologians who will support their decisions.

Bishop Olmsted has refused to allow this to continue. In his letter responding to Mr. Dean, the bishop wrote: “You have only provided opinions of ethicists that agree with your own opinion and disagree with mine.”

Concluding that “there can be no tie so to speak in this debate,” Bishop Olmsted said, “it is my duty as the chief shepherd in the diocese to interpret whether the actions at St. Joseph’s meet the criteria of fulfilling the parameters of the moral law as seen in the Ethical and Religious Directives.”

For faithful Catholics, there is relief that the tie between the theologians, the administrators and the bishops seems finally to have been broken. But there remains a sadness that yet another Catholic institution has been lost.

Ms. Hendershott is professor of urban studies at the King’s College in New York City. She is the author of “Status Envy: The Politics of Catholic Higher Education” (Transaction Books, 2009).

About abyssum

I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
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