Archbishop Dolan and CHA president affirm local bishop’s authority in medical ethics

ppkeehandolancna010211 Sr. Carol Keehan / Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan

Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of New York and Sr. Carol Keehan, president and CEO of the Catholic Health Association (CHA), have exchanged letters affirming that the local bishop is the authoritative interpreter of religious and ethical guidelines in Catholic health facilities.

The exchange also looked ahead to further cooperation on pro-life and religious freedom issues.

Sr. Keehan’s Jan. 18 letter to Archbishop Dolan, the president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, noted previous discussions with the New York archbishop and Bishop Robert Lynch of St. Petersburg, Florida concerning the Ethical and Religious Directives (ERDs) which govern Catholic hospitals in the U.S.

“I was happy to have the opportunity to assure you that publicly and privately, CHA has always said to sponsors, governing board members, manager and clinicians that an individual bishop in his diocese is the authoritative interpreter of the ERDs,” her letter continued. “We explain that a Bishop has a right to interpret the ERDs and also to develop his own ethical and religious directives if he chooses.”

The letter expressed the association’s “sincere desire” to work with the Church and individual bishops to understand clinical issues and to bring Church teaching to bear on them.

“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,” Sr. Keehan continued.

She said her organization has “consistently worked” to help its members and others understand the ethical directives while also noting that the local bishop is their “authoritative interpreter.”

In his Jan. 26 reply, Archbishop Dolan said it was “so helpful” for Sr. Keehan to reiterate the Catholic Health Association’s commitment to “complete fidelity to Catholic moral teaching and practice.”

The acknowledgment of the local bishop’s place in interpreting the ethical directives is “a welcome and crucial component” in understanding authentic Catholic moral teaching.

In cases of ethical dilemmas there is a need for “appropriate consultation” with medical professionals and ethical experts, the archbishop said. However, where conflicts arise between these experts and the local bishop, the bishop 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 archbishop explained. “Thank you for making clear that the
CHA and the bishops both share this understanding of the Church’s teaching.”

Archbishop Dolan’s letter foresaw times when it will be “very important for the Church to speak with one voice” on issues like the right to life, religious liberty, and serving the poor and the needy. He specifically mentioned the Pitts-Lipinski bill that would “definitively resolve” questions about the 2010 health care legislation’s funding for abortion services.

The protection of Catholic institutions’ ability to “carry out their mission in conformity with our faith” is also important because “there are increasing political and social pressures that are trying to force the Church to compromise her principles.”

Archbishop Dolan closed his letter by thanking Sr. Keehan for her clarification and her “personal dedication” to the Church’s healing ministry
The exchange of letters comes after almost a year of conflicted relations between the bishops and the Catholic Health Association.

In December of last year, Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of Phoenix, Ariz. stripped the Catholic affiliation from a Phoenix hospital which performed a direct abortion. Sr. Keehan defended the hospital, whose parent company is a CHA member. She said the hospital had “correctly applied” the Catholic bishops’ ethical directives.

Sr. Keehan’s organization had also backed the 2010 health care legislation despite the opposition of the bishops and pro-life groups who considered its abortion funding restrictions to be severely lacking.

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