July 29, 2016


The ACLU vs. Catholic hospitals

The June 25 issue of The Economist had an article about Catholic hospitals, which, it reported, are gaining market share in the United States. The article pointed out that, of the 10 largest non-profit health systems in America, six are Catholic.

The article says, “The total number of Catholic acute-care hospitals, where patients receive short-term treatment for urgent health conditions, increased by 8 percent from 2001 to 2016. In the same period, the number of beds in such hospitals grew by 18 percent. One in six acute-care beds lies within a Catholic hospital.”

The article also reports that Indiana is one of 10 states in which 20-29 percent of the acute-care beds are in Catholic hospitals. It’s above 30 percent in four other states, and above 40 percent in six others.

This all sounds good for the Catholic Church. We Catholics can be proud of the fact that we are leaders in the care of the sick. The article acknowledges this when it says, “Catholic hospitals have been a force in American medicine since the Industrial Revolution, when nuns arrived from Europe to tend to immigrant communities.”

However, the purpose of the article wasn’t to praise the Catholic Church for its ministry to the sick. It was to warn its readers that Catholic hospitals don’t offer abortion services and sterilizations, and don’t permit doctor-assisted suicide or euthanasia. Therefore, the message is, if Catholic hospitals are gaining market share, there’s a threat to those who believe that all hospitals should offer those services.

There’s a movement underfoot, led mainly by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), to force Catholic hospitals to provide such services.

The article in The Economist correctly states that “Catholic hospitals generally follow the health-care directives laid out by the [U.S.] Conference of Catholic Bishops, which ban ‘contraceptive intervention’ of any sort.” The Catholic Health Association of the United States calls attention to those directives on its website, and they are also on the website of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

It’s obvious, though, that most people in this growingly secular society don’t agree with the ethical principles of the Catholic Church. That means that Catholic hospitals must continue the difficult task of trying to serve the sick in a society that would like it to change those principles.

If we have the government or courts telling Catholic institutions that they must provide contraceptives, abortifacients and sterilization for their employees in their insurance coverage, we’re sure to have attempts made to force Catholic hospitals to perform sterilization procedures. And now that physician-assisted suicide is legal in California, Oregon, Vermont and Washington, expect to see suits demanding that it be done in Catholic hospitals.

We’ve already seen that in Europe. In Belgium, for example, a Catholic nursing home refused access to an elderly woman’s doctor who was about to give her a lethal injection. A court in Louvain ruled that “the nursing home did not have the right to refuse euthanasia on the grounds of conscientious objection.” The nursing home was forced to pay damages to the woman’s family.

Now that assisted-suicide is legal in Canada, we may soon see legal action against Catholic hospitals there that refuse to allow it.

Catholic hospitals in the United States have changed considerably in recent years. Economic pressures have driven them to consolidate. Their leadership has also changed. Whereas in 1968 some 770 religious officials—mainly religious sisters—were running hospitals, today there are only four. The rest are laypeople.

Today Ascension Health is the world’s largest Catholic health system. It was formed in 1999 with the merger of the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul and the Sisters of St. Joseph of Nazareth. They were joined in 2002 by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet. St. Vincent Hospital in Indianapolis and its network of other health care facilities in central Indiana are part of Ascension.

Similarly, Franciscan Alliance is a system with 14 hospitals in Indiana, Illinois and Michigan, including hospitals in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.

The legal battles that will probably ensue will pit the religious rights of Catholic hospitals against the personal rights of patients. It should be possible to reconcile both since patients are not required to go to Catholic hospitals, and the majority of hospitals remain are not affiliated with the Church.

—John F. Fink

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