Abortion rift divides bishops, Catholic hospitals

December 22, 2010

An umbrella group of Catholic hospitals is backing a Phoenix hospital
that was stripped of its church affiliation, thereby setting the stage
for another sharp conflict between the hierarchy and Catholic
health-care providers.

Sister Carol Keehan, president of the
Catholic Health Association, said St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical
Center "correctly applied" church guidelines in late 2009 when it
terminated the pregnancy of a dangerously ill woman. Catholic Healthcare
West, the parent company for St. Joseph's, is a member of the CHA,
which represents more than 620 hospitals and 60 health-care systems in
the U.S.

"They had been confronted with a heartbreaking
situation," Keehan said in a statement, adding that the hospital saved
"the only life that was possible to save."

During the heat of the
congressional battles over health-care reform, Kee­han and the CHA had
backed Demo­cratic leaders and President Obama in seeking passage of the
reform over the fierce objections of U.S. bishops, who argued that the
new law allows funding of elective abortions.

Because Catholic
Healthcare West operates in several dioceses, the conflict may well
expose fissures between bishops who take a hard line on Catholic
doctrine and those more willing to compromise, according to church
scholars.

"Health care seems to be the fault line developing
between the bishops and within wider society," said Steven Avella, a
Catholic priest and professor of religious history at Marquette
University in Milwaukee.

An Oregon bishop announced last February
that he terminated the church affiliation of a large medical center,
saying it had abandoned Catholic ethical guidelines. In April, the
bishop of Provi­dence, Rhode Island, demanded that the state's only
Catholic hospital quit the CHA over the group's support of the
health-care bill.

Rusty Reno, a senior editor at the conservative journal First Things, said such conflicts are likely to continue as Catholic health care follows the lead of its secular counterparts.

"The
bishops recognize they have a problem, which is that you have a
health-care system that calls itself Catholic, but refuses to conform to
Catholic principles," he said.

The Phoenix controversy centers on
a Catholic mother who agreed to terminate her pregnancy in November
2009 after doctors at St. Joseph's told her that she and the baby would
likely die if the pregnancy continued, according to the hospital.

On
December 21 last year, Phoenix bishop Thomas Olmsted revoked the
hospital's official church affiliation, which means that St. Joseph's
can no longer call itself Catholic, celebrate mass on its premises or
keep consecrated communion wafers in its chapel.

Olmsted decreed
that he could no longer verify that the Phoenix hospital provides health
care consistent with "authentic Catholic moral teaching."  The bishop
said it was his duty to remove the Catholic identity from the hospital
and from San Francisco-based Catholic Healthcare West.

After the
bishop's announcement, Linda Hunt, president of St. Joseph's, said she
was "deeply disappointed" by the decision. But, she added, the hospital
would "continue through our words and deeds to carry out the healing
ministry of Jesus."

Olmsted had asked the hospital to admit it was
wrong to terminate the pregnancy, to grant him greater oversight to
ensure compliance with Catholic doctrine and to teach medical staff
about the bishops' guidelines.

Officials at St. Joseph have
refused to admit wrongdoing. "Had there been a way to save both the
mother and the fetus, we would have done it," the hospital said in a
statement. "We are convinced there was not. We would do the same thing
again."

St. Joseph's, which was founded by Sisters of Mercy in
1895, said it "will continue to operate in the Catholic tradition," but
will obey Olmsted's directives about mass and communion wafers.  —RNS