By J.D. Long-Garcia
PHOENIX (CNS) — St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix can no longer identify itself as “Catholic,” Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted announced during a Dec. 21 news conference in Phoenix at the Diocesan Pastoral Center.
The Phoenix bishop issued a decree revoking the 115-year-old hospital’s affiliation with the Catholic Church. In the decree, the bishop wrote that he could not verify that the hospital provides health care consistent with “authentic Catholic moral teaching.”
“I really want to have Catholic health care,” Bishop Olmsted said during the news conference. “We should be working together, not against each other.”
Still, he said it was his duty to strip St. Joseph’s Hospital of its Catholic identity because its leadership, as well as that of its parent organization, San Francisco-based Catholic Healthcare West, is not committed to “following the teachings of the Catholic Church.”
To demonstrate that the hospital is no longer Catholic, Bishop Olmsted is prohibiting the celebration of Mass on the hospital’s campus and will have the Blessed Sacrament removed from the hospital’s chapel.
Linda Hunt, president of St. Joseph’s, said in a statement after the bishop’s news conference that the hospital was “deeply disappointed” by the action but would “continue through our words and deeds to carry out the healing ministry of Jesus.”
In May, officials at St. Joseph’s publicly acknowledged that an abortion occurred at the hospital in late 2009. The Arizona Republic, in its initial story on the matter, also revealed that Mercy Sister Margaret McBride had incurred an automatic excommunication because of her role on the ethics committee that sanctioned the abortion.
“Consistent with our values of dignity and justice, if we are presented with a situation in which a pregnancy threatens a woman’s life, our first priority is to save both patients,” Hunt said in her statement. “If that is not possible, we will always save the life we can save, and that is what we did in this case.
“We continue to stand by the decision, which was made in collaboration with the patient, her family, her caregivers and our ethics committee,” she added. “Morally, ethically and legally we simply cannot stand by and let someone die whose life we might be able to save.”
The public scandal resulting from the 2009 abortion isn’t the first time Bishop Olmsted took issue with Catholic Healthcare West’s adherence to the “Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services,” to which all Catholic hospitals in the United States are required to adhere.
Seven years ago, the bishop learned that Catholic Healthcare West did not comply with these directives at Chandler Regional Hospital.
“I have continued to insist that this scandalous situation needed to change,” the bishop said. “Sadly, over the course of these years, CHW has chosen not to comply.”
During the news conference, Bishop Olmsted detailed other Catholic Healthcare West facility violations of the U.S. bishops’ directives.
St. Joseph’s Hospital is involved with the Mercy Care Plan — an organization that provides health care through Arizona’s Medicaid program. By virtue of its involvement in the plan, the hospital has been “formally cooperating with a number of medical procedures” against Catholic teaching — a fact that the bishop said he learned about in the past few weeks.
This cooperation included setting up a structure through which patients receive procedures — such as abortions and sterilizations — which are against church teaching, according to Father John Ehrich, director of medical ethics for the Phoenix Diocese.
Learning about the Mercy Care Plan was the “tipping point” in Bishop Olmsted’s relationship with the hospital, Father Ehrich said.
The Mercy Care Plan, the largest provider of Medicaid in Arizona, has been in existence for 26 years. In meetings with diocesan leadership, the hospital said it had learned of Mercy Care Plan’s cooperation with unethical procedures 16 months ago.
“They hid it from the bishop for a year and a half,” Father Ehrich said. The hospital, he said, promised to address the issue but had signed contracts good through 2013.
“It’s a systemic problem,” Father Ehrich said. “We’re not talking about one isolated incident.”
Through its involvement in the Mercy Care Plan, the bishop said Catholic Healthcare West has been responsible for a litany of practices in direct conflict with Catholic teaching. These include: contraceptive counseling, provision of various forms of contraception, voluntary sterilization and abortions “due to the mental or physical health of the mother or when the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest.”
“The Catholic faithful are free to seek care or to offer care at St. Joseph’s Hospital,” the bishop said. “But I cannot guarantee that the care provided will be in full accord with the teachings of the church.”
Bishop Olmsted, explaining his authority to revoke the Catholic identity of St. Joseph’s Hospital, cited Canon 216, which states: “No undertaking is to claim the name Catholic without the consent of competent ecclesiastical authority.”
“I have hoped and prayed that this day would not come,” the bishop said. “However, the faithful of the diocese have a right to know whether institutions of this importance are indeed Catholic in identity and practice.”
After learning about the abortion earlier in the year, Bishop Olmsted met with hospital officials to learn more about the particular case, he said at the news conference.
“It became clear that, in their decision to abort, the equal dignity of mother and her baby were not both upheld,” he said. The baby “was directly killed,” which is a violation of the ethical and religious directives.
Throughout the process, St. Joseph’s Hospital and Catholic Healthcare West have maintained that the intention was to save “the only life that could be saved,” the mother’s, according to the hospital.
The bishop responded to the claim in a May 14 statement, reiterating that “the direct killing of an unborn child is always immoral, no matter the circumstances, and it cannot be permitted in any institution that claims to be authentically Catholic.”
The U.S. bishops’ Committee on Doctrine also weighed in on the issue with a June 23 statement.
“No circumstance, no purpose, no law whatsoever can ever make licit an act which is intrinsically illicit, since it is contrary to the law of God which is written in every human heart, knowable by reason itself and proclaimed by the church,” the committee said.
The withdrawal of a hospital’s Catholic identification is not without precedent.
Bishop Robert F. Vasa of Baker, Ore., announced in February that St. Charles Medical Center in Bend had “gradually moved away” from the church’s ethical directives and can no longer be called Catholic.
As a result of that decision, Mass is no longer celebrated in the hospital’s chapel and all items considered Catholic were removed from the hospital and returned to the church. The hospital retained the St. Charles name and a cross remains atop the building.
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