When Catholic Hospitals Lose Their Identity and Way (Part II)

On Monday, in the editorial “When Catholic Hospitals Lose Their Identity and Way,” we focused on Phoenix Bishop Thomas Olmsted’s stripping St. Joseph’s hospital of its Catholic status, after it refused to admit that it had done anything wrong and to change its ways after it became known that it had authorized and carried out a direct abortion in November 2009 and was guilty of several other clear violations of the U.S. Bishops’ Ethical and Medical Directives (ERDs). With courage, Bishop Olmsted acknowledged the obvious, that that he was no longer able to verify that St. Joseph’s could provide health care consistent with Catholic moral teaching.

We concentrated on the fundamental importance that Catholic institutions be Catholic not just in name but in practice so that the faithful can trust that what they’re receiving is authentically in line with Catholic faith and morals. We also examined why Bishop Olmsted’s insistence on the evil of the abortion carried out by the hospital on the child of a woman whose life was endangered by pulmonary hypertension was the only justly Catholic conclusion. But there are some other relevant aspects of the case that merit reflection, insofar as they point to worrisome trends about which the bishops and faithful Catholics need to be concerned.

The first is the response of the CEO and President of the Catholic Health Association (CHA), Sr. Carol Keehan, to the hospital’s actions and Bishop Olmsted’s episcopal reaction. After Bishop Olmsted’s decree, Sr. Keehan released an email statement praising St. Joseph’s and stating that the hospital made the right call in carrying out the abortion. The hospital, she asserted, “carefully evaluated the patient’s situation and correctly applied the ‘Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services’ to it, saving the only life that was possible to save.” In other words, she suggested, not only was Bishop Olmsted dead wrong in his conclusion that St. Joseph’s had violated the ERDs, but also the U.S. Bishops’ Conference’s Committee on Doctrine, which on June 23 published a doctrinal note underlining that the Phoenix procedure was a direct abortion that was “intrinsically wrong” and “never permissible because a good end cannot justify an evil means.” Her intellectually unsustainable position was that she — not Bishop Olmsted and not even the Bishops’ Doctrine Committee — was a better interpreter of the ERDs than the bishops who themselves wrote them. She also failed to mention that the saving of the mother’s life occurred through the direct killing of her child’s.

Sr. Keehan’s actions in the Phoenix case show a similar pattern to her interventions during the national health care debate last year. Sr. Keehan did not say what is legitimately inferred from her emailed statement, that she, in contrast to clear Church teaching, supports a direct abortion in the case of a pregnant woman whose life is at stake.  Instead, she pretended as if she agreed with the bishops’ directives, but only quibbled with their application to the facts of the Phoenix woman and child. During the health care debate, when the bishops came out in opposition to the final version of the bill because it had several surreptitious mechanisms for public funding of abortions. Sr. Keehan’s response was that the bishops were again wrong, not on the principled conclusion that the evil of funding abortions would outweigh the good of vastly extending health care benefits, but on the “facts,” insisting that the bill did not fund abortions despite multiple reputable studies and articles demonstrating how the mammoth bill did. In both cases, she sophistically pretended that the bishops were not wrong on matters of faith and morals but only in their basic ability to read and interpret. In his final speech as President of the U.S. Bishops’ Conference in November, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago called out this attempt to pretend that “only the bishops are too dense to understand complicated pieces of legislation,” retracing the clear evidence of both legislative text and intent and describing how, after passage, a federal agency tried to start funding abortions through three of the mechanisms in the bill.

With regard to the abortion at St. Joseph’s Hospital and to the health care debate, some might say that it shouldn’t be surprising that the head of a trade union representing Catholic Healthcare West and many of the Catholic hospital chains across the country would seek to defend the institutions that fund her organization. But for a Catholic, especially for a religious, such defense shouldn’t be at the expense of the truth and fidelity. Sr. Keehan’s behavior during the health care debates constituted a true scandal and confused many as to whether Catholic legislators and constituents in good conscience could support a bill that funded abortions. Her behavior in the Phoenix situation, rather than calling St. Joseph’s administrators to reconsider their decisions, more likely will lead to their continued defiance of the ERDs and direct other Catholic hospitals down the same immoral course. Jesus spoke in the Gospels about false prophets, wolves in sheep’s clothing, who arise and lead many astray. While her vesture is different, Sr. Keehan, by her actions, is distinguishing herself as one of the most notable of their contemporary number.

The second issue was also raised by Cardinal George in his November discourse: Who speaks authentically for the Church? He noted, “We bishops have no illusions about our speaking for everyone who considers himself or herself Catholic,” but emphasized, “we speak for the apostolic faith, and those who hold it gather round.” The commentary of others, he said, is “opinion, often well-considered and important opinion that deserves a careful and respectful hearing, but still opinion.” In the Phoenix case, the same issue was in play. In a July letter to Bishop Olmsted, Catholic Healthcare West’s CEO Lloyd Dean included a copy of a theological opinion by Dr. M. Therese Lysaught of Marquette University and stated, “As you know, many knowledgeable moral theologians have reviewed this case [of the direct abortion] and reached a range of conclusions. …One must at least acknowledge that this is a very complex matter on which the best minds disagree.”

Bishop Olmsted acknowledged the differences of opinion but in a November response said that faithful Catholics cannot stop there. “It would appear that your intention is to resolve our disagreement by asserting that there is no single ‘correct’ answer to the question…. In effect, you would have me believe that we will merely have to disagree, … that you are not doing anything wrong, but that your interpretation of the ERDs simply differs with my own. According to Catholic teaching, though, there cannot be a ‘tie’ so to speak in this debate. Rather it is my duty as the chief shepherd in the diocese to interpret whether the actions at St. Joseph’s and other hospitals meet the criteria of fulfilling the parameters of the moral law as seen in the ERDs. … You have not acknowledged my authority to settle this question but have only provided opinions of ethicists who agree with your opinion and disagree with mine. As the diocesan bishop, it is my duty and obligation to authoritatively teach and interpret the moral law for Catholics in the Diocese of Phoenix. Because of this, the moral analyses of theologians are important elements that should assist and inform a bishop in the exercise of his teaching authority. However, it is ultimately the authority of the bishop as teacher and pastor that is determinative.”

One of the most salient characteristics that distinguish Catholics from Protestant Christians and others is our belief in the authority of the Pope and bishops to teach definitively on faith and morals. That legitimate authority — confided by Christ himself when he said, “He who hears you hears me and he who rejects you rejects me” (Lk 10:16) — simply needs to be recognized and accepted by those Catholics and Catholic institutions who seek to remain faithful. Today, as Anne Hendershott pointed out in a Dec 31 article, we’re facing the reality of Catholic hospitals that “shop for theologians to support practices that conflict with church teachings,” much like guilty defendants shop for clever lawyers and soft judges. Theologians, however, do not constitute a “parallel magisterium” with equal authority to the bishops. Degrees, even theological brilliance, are not equivalent to the grace of apostolic succession and the ecclesial authority that flows from it. Because of intellectual and practical confusion in the Church, those who have authentic doctrinal and pastoral authority, like Cardinal George and Bishop Olmsted, are needing to rise to the occasion to exercise that authority for the good of the Church and, in the Phoenix case, for the good of children whose lives are immorally taken.

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About the Author

Father Roger J. Landry is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, who works for the Holy See’s Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations. He is the former pastor of St. Bernadette Parish in Fall River, Massachusetts and St. Anthony of Padua Parish in New Bedford, Massachusetts.

After receiving a biology degree from Harvard College, he studied for the priesthood in Maryland, Toronto and for several years in Rome. After being ordained a Catholic priest of the Diocese of Fall River by Bishop Sean O’Malley, OFM Cap. on June 26, 1999, he returned to Rome to complete graduate work in Moral Theology and Bioethics at the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family.

Fr. Landry writes for many Catholic publications, including a weekly column for The Anchor, the weekly newspaper of the Diocese of Fall River, for which he was the executive editor and editorial writer from 2005-2012. He regularly leads pilgrimages to Rome, the Holy Land, Christian Europe and other sacred destinations and preaches several retreats a year for priests, seminarians, religious and lay faithful. He speaks widely on the thought of Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis, especially John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. He was an on-site commentator for EWTN’s coverage of the 2013 papal conclave that elected Pope Francis, appears often on various Catholic radio programs, and is national chaplain for Catholic Voices USA.

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