Wednesday, January 15, 2014

America on ACLU Case vs. USCCB: "Catholic Bishops Are not Making Decisions about Care"

The editors of the Jesuit journal America think that the American Civil Liberties Union does not understand how the Catholic church functions, and how Catholic bishops interact with Catholic hospitals. America is responding to the ACLU case against the USCCB, about which I've commented previously here, here, and here.

America editorializes:

The A.C.L.U. misunderstands several things about the church and how authentic expressions of faith are "lived" in society—how the directives actually work in the field, for one. Catholic bishops are not making decisions about care. The difficult calls are left in the hands of doctors and, when required, hospital ethics review boards, which are allowed broad latitude in any difficult, high-risk judgments. The suit also ignores the existence of Directive 47, which allows treatment in crisis situations even when it might result in the indirect termination of a pregnancy.

But as Rick Henry writes in response to the preceding statement, there's the case of Sister Margaret McBride and Bishop Thomas Olmsted in Phoenix in 2010. When McBride agreed with the decision of her hospital ethics committee to terminate a pregnancy in a case in which a mother's life was at stake if the pregnancy continued, Bishop Olmsted excommunicated her. He then yanked the title "Catholic" from the hospital.

Given this case, I wonder what on earth America could mean in stating that "Catholic bishops are not making decisions about care" and that bishops are content to leave "the difficult calls" in the hands of doctors and ethics review boards. As Rick Henry points out, it was precisely when doctors at the Phoenix hospital concluded that a woman's life was at stake if she carried a pregnancy to term, and when the hospital ethics committee made a difficult decision on the basis of that expert medical judgment, that Olmsted asserted his episcopal authority and excommunicated McBride, then removed the title "Catholic" from the hospital.

What about that story indicates that Catholic bishops keep their hands out of determining what kind of healthcare is provided in Catholic hospitals? What about it suggests that Catholic bishops respect the autonomy and expertise of doctors and ethics committees as they deal with difficult questions about the provision of healthcare and serious situations that test principles?

And then there's my own Catholic diocese and my own hometown of Little Rock, where, as I noted last year, my bishop, Anthony Taylor, flatly declared last spring that he would not allow "cooperation with immoral medical practices" if my city's Catholic hospital merged with the state's public, taxpayer-funded university hospital. "I will not allow" birth control pills to be prescribed and dispensed by "my" hospital . . . .

What about these statements in any way meshes with the claim made by America's editors that Catholic bishops allow Catholic hospitals to make their own informed, conscientious decisions about the kind of healthcare they'll provide, and that Catholic bishops respect the autonomy and expertise of doctors and ethics committees as healthcare is dispensed in Catholic hospitals?

I have a question for America and its editors: when will we move beyond the ugly, defensive reflex reactions of tribalism, which envisage the church as beyond question and anyone asking critical questions about the church as the enemy? Haven't we paid a high enough price already for that tribalism, which turns a blind eye to our considerable faults and outright sins, while unfairly demonizing anyone on the outside asking valid critical questions about our failure to live up to our best practices and best ideals?

Is the continuation of crippling Catholic tribalism what the new pope stands for? Really?

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