By Nancy Frazier O’BrienCatholic News Service
WASHINGTON (CNS) – In an exchange of letters with the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the head of the Catholic Health Association has affirmed that the local bishop is the “authoritative interpreter” of the ethical and religious directives that guide Catholic health care.
Sister Carol Keehan, a Daughter of Charity who is CHA president and CEO, said her organization “has a sincere desire to work with the Church and inspanidual bishops to understand as clearly as possible clinical issues and bring the majesty of the Church’s teaching to that.”
In response to the letter, Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of New York, USCCB president, said the Church must “speak with one voice” against the “increasing political and social pressures that are trying to force the Church to compromise her principles,” including “the problem of illegitimate government intrusion in our health care ministries.” {{more}}
The letters followed telephone conversations among Sister Keehan, Archbishop Dolan and Bishop Robert N. Lynch of St. Petersburg, Fla., who serves on the CHA board. Bishop Kevin W. Vann of Fort Worth, Texas, the bishops’ liaison to CHA, “was also part of the consultation,” according to a USCCB news release.
CHA and the USCCB took opposing stands on whether the health reform bill passed last March would adequately protect against the possibility of federal funding of abortion and guard the conscience rights of health care providers and institutions.
Sister Keehan also sided with Catholic Healthcare West, the health system that sponsors St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix, in the hospital’s dispute with Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of Phoenix over whether an abortion that occurred at the hospital in late 2009 violated the “Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services,” often referred to as the ERDs.
Hospital officials had contended that the mother’s life was the only one that could have been saved in the case and that the directives had been followed.
But Bishop Olmsted disagreed and in December 2010 decreed that the hospital could no longer identify itself as Catholic, because he could not verify that it provided health care consistent with “authentic moral teaching.”
During the controversy, Sister Keehan had defended the hospital’s action in a “heartbreaking situation” and said personnel there “carefully evaluated the patient’s situation and correctly applied” the directives, to which all Catholic hospitals in the United States are required to adhere.
Archbishop Dolan said in his Jan. 26 letter to Sister Keehan that “any medical case, and especially one with unique complications, certainly requires appropriate consultation with medical professionals and ethical experts with specialization in the teaching of the Church.”
“Still, as you have reasserted, it is the diocesan bishop’s authentic interpretation of the ERDs that must then govern their implementation,” he said. “Where conflicts arise, it is again the bishop who provides the authoritative resolution based on his teaching office. Once such a resolution of a doubt has been given, it is no longer a question of competing moral theories or the offering of various ethical interpretations or opinions of the medical data that can still be legitimately espoused and followed. The matter has now reached the level of an authoritative resolution.”
Sister Keehan said in her letter, dated Jan. 18, that CHA has always told sponsors, board members and clinicians that “a bishop has a right to interpret the ERDs and also to develop his own ethical and religious directives if he chooses.”
“We are absolutely convinced that the teaching of the Church, in combination with a clear understanding of the clinical situation, serves the people of God very well,” she added.
Archbishop Dolan welcomed the CHA support, expressed in a Jan. 24 letter from Sister Keehan to Rep. Joe Pitts, R-Pa., for the congressman’s Protect Life Act, which would amend the health reform law to ensure there is no funding for abortion or abortion coverage.
Noting that “our staffs have recently met and are working together on this and other policy matters,” Archbishop Dolan said, “We look forward to CHA’s collaboration with the bishops and the USCCB staff as we advocate for the bill’s passage and implementation.”
But the archbishop said the USCCB also has “significant and immediate concerns” about threats to conscience rights in the health reform law passed last year.
“We bishops have some specific ideas on how to address this problem, and we would welcome your suggested solutions as well,” he said. “For the sake of the common good and to assure the moral and doctrinal integrity of the exercise of the apostolate, we should work together to confront this and similar threats to conscience.”
In an interview with the National Catholic Reporter newspaper published online Jan. 31, Archbishop Dolan said Sister Keehan “feels very strongly that the decision (to revoke the Catholic status of St. Joseph’s Hospital) was terrible, but she knows that the bishop of the diocese is the authentic interpreter and implementer” of the directives.
“She wholeheartedly believes that, and CHA believes that,” he said.
“We’re all in this together. It’s not that the CHA is working on the side of the hospitals, while the bishops are trying to preserve a pure morality because it’s being chipped away,” Archbishop Dolan said. “Philosophically, we’re on the same page.
“The worry is that our Catholic hospitals are now where our universities were back in the 1980s, slowly drifting out of the Catholic orbit.”
He suggested other Catholic facilities might cut ties with the Church if it meant “defending the integrity” of Catholic health care.