Arizona hospital that performed abortion may lose Catholic status
Bishop Thomas Olmsted and St. Joseph's Hospital
Bishop Thomas Olmsted and St. Joseph's Hospital

.- According to a recent letter that became public on Dec. 15, Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of Phoenix may revoke the Catholic affiliation of an Arizona hospital that performed an abortion in November 2009.

The letter is addressed from Bishop Olmsted to Lloyd Dean, president of the San Francisco-based non-profit corporation Catholic Healthcare West, which operates St. Joseph's Hospital in the Diocese of Phoenix. It concerns a rift that has emerged between the bishop and the health care corporation, after staff at St. Joseph's chose to abort the child of a woman some advisers said could not safely give birth.

That incident led to the excommunication of a religious sister, Margaret McBride, who had advised doctors to perform the abortion. Defenders of her decision said that the abortion was permissible under the principle of “double effect,” because the primary intention was to ensure the health of a physically frail woman.

However, Bishop Olmsted's judgment –which the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops later endorsed– was that the proposed “treatment” consisted primarily of a direct and intentional abortion, making it ethically impermissible under any circumstances. Catholic Healthcare West, however, has not admitted any wrongdoing in the highly publicized case.

In his Nov. 22 letter to the president of Catholic Healthcare West, Bishop Olmsted acknowledged that the company had continued to defend its decision, by referring to the work of certain moral theologians who had reached a “range of conclusions” different from his own and that of the U.S. bishops' conference.

“In effect,” the bishop wrote to the company president, “you would have me believe that we will merely have to agree to disagree.”

“But this resolution is unacceptable,” he continued, “because it disregards my authority and responsibility to interpret the moral law and to teach the Catholic faith as a Successor of the Apostles.”

The specific disagreement between Bishop Olmsted and Catholic Healthcare West concerns the “Ethical and Religious Directives” of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (“ERDs,” in the terminology of the bishop's letter) which lay out guidelines for medical care in accordance with the norms of Catholic moral theology.

Those guidelines draw an important distinction between a non-abortive medical procedure that must be performed in order to save a pregnant woman's life –even if it has the secondary effect of causing an unborn child's death– and a direct, intentional abortion.

While the first procedure may be permissible under certain circumstances, the second is never allowed. Catholic Healthcare West has maintained that the November 2009 abortion case was not a clear-cut violation of the directives, but rather “a very complex matter, on which the best minds disagree.”

“According to Catholic teaching, there cannot be a 'tie' in this debate,” Bishop Olmsted responded. “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 … I have determined after review of the facts and circumstances that an abortion did occur at St. Joseph's.”

He went on to criticize Catholic Healthcare West for insisting that the case was morally undecidable. “Your actions imply that you have no intention to acknowledge that what happened at St. Joseph's hospital was morally wrong according to the ERDs,” he wrote. “This would imply that you will not change your mode of operation in assessing future cases in which similar circumstances are present.”

“Because of this, I must now act,” he said, “not only to assure that no further such violations of the ERDs occur, but also to repair the grave scandal to the Christian faithful that has resulted from the procedure that took place at St. Joseph's and the subsequent public response of CHW (Catholic Healthcare West).”

The bishop proposed an agreement whereby St. Joseph's Hospital could retain its Catholic identity and affiliation. His proposal would require Catholic Healthcare West to acknowledge that a direct and intentional abortion had taken place at St. Joseph's, and commit itself to avoiding any such action in the future.

Additionally, he demanded that Catholic Healthcare West undergo a review and certification process in accordance with the Diocese of Phoenix's own standards, and provide St. Joseph's staff with “ongoing formation” on the Ethical and Religious Directives under the authority of the diocesan medical ethics board or the National Catholic Bioethics Center.

“Only if all these items are agreed to, will I postpone any action against CHW and St. Joseph's Hospital,” the bishop stated, specifying that he would take canonical action if the company did not commit itself to compliance before Dec. 17.

These actions would include the removal of the Eucharist from chapels and tabernacles at the hospital, revocation of priests' permission to celebrate Mass there, and a public advisory that St. Joseph's is no longer a “Catholic” hospital. “This is a decision that will be immensely difficult for me,” Bishop Olmsted acknowledged, “but one that I can and must make.”

While Bishop Olmsted did not intend the letter to be public, a diocesan spokesman did confirm its authenticity in an e-mail to CNA on Dec. 15. The scanned version of the letter that became available online bore a stamp reading: “Received Nov. 29 2010, Office of Lloyd H. Dean.”

In a brief official notice, the diocese stated that “the letter to Mr. Lloyd Dean that was made public today is considered to be private and confidential,” while all parties continue “working together … to find the best way to provide authentic Catholic health care in accordance with the Church's teaching.”

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