A year ago, the medical staff of St. Joseph’s Hospital in Phoenix was faced with a painful situation. A pregnant mother of four was in serious medical trouble in the 11th week of her pregnancy. The doctors’ opinion was that she was at extreme risk of death, and the odds of her own survival were diminishing with each day she remained pregnant. After consultation with the hospital’s medical ethics board, the patient, and her family, the doctors terminated the pregnancy in order to save the woman’s life.

Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix was not pleased when he heard about it. Not at all. His reaction was to deliver an ultimatum with three specific conditions:

    • The hospital must “acknowledge in writing” that the procedure was an abortion.
    • The hospital must agree to a diocesan certification process to guarantee compliance with Catholic doctrine.
    • The hospital must provide its medical personnel with ongoing training in the Catholic directives governing health care, “as overseen by either the National Catholic Bioethics Center or the Medical Ethics Board of the diocese of Phoenix.”

      Refusal to agree to these conditions, said Olmsted, would cost St. Joseph’s the ability to call itself a “catholic” hospital, and he would revoke the chapel’s permission to have masses said there. In addition to these direct consequences, removing the ability of the hospital to call itself catholic would also have financial repercussions that could cost them money from donors, foundations, and of course from the diocese itself.

      The bishop’s tone with the hospital and its administrators was unmistakable. I am the ultimate authority in this diocese, he tells them in his letter last month [pdf], and not you. Olmsted’s concern throughout the letter to Catholic Healthcare West (the owner of St. Joseph’s) is first and foremost about protecting and projecting his own authority and power:

      If actions speak louder than words, your actions communicate to me that you do not respect my authority to authentically teach and interpret the moral law in this diocese. Moreover, your actions imply that you do not acknowledge that what happened at St. Joseph’s Hospital was wrong and contrary to the ERDs [the USCCB's "Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, Fourth Edition"].

      That was last month, and Olmsted gave them until yesterday to repent and accept his ultimatum.

      They did not, and Olmsted carried through on his threat. To its credit, the hospital stood by its medical and ethical staff:

      Linda Hunt, president of St. Joseph’s, said the hospital now would become a “community hospital living in the Catholic tradition.”

      “We are very sad we have reached this point,” she said. “But our physicians felt we could not say we would never do the same thing again. . . .

      “Our medical staff did try to save both lives. We will always try to save both lives.” she said. “In this case it was impossible. Rather than let both the mother and the baby die. We saved the only life we could.”

      The Catholic Health Association agrees with St. Joseph. Sister Carol Keehan, the president and CEO of CHA, said,

      St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix has many programs that reach out to protect life. They had been confronted with a heartbreaking situation. They carefully evaluated the patient’s situation and correctly applied the ‘Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services’ to it, saving the only life that was possible to save.

      This is the same Sister Keehan who disagreed loudly and publicly with the bishops over their preference for the Stupak Amendment and their mis-interpretation of the Senate’s version of abortion restrictions in the health insurance reform debate. The bishops didn’t like her public opposition then, and they’re not going to like her public opposition now.

      To the purists in the hierarchy of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, this kind of challenge to their authority is unacceptable.

      If this were only about who can use the name “catholic” or where a catholic mass can be held, that would be one thing. But Olmsted’s actions, like his brother bishop’s actions in Oregon last February, serve to put doctrinal purity ahead of service to those in need — regardless of the beliefs of those in need — and serve as a warning to any other Catholic hospital not to follow in St. Joseph’s footsteps.

      And things don’t stop there.

      If a Catholic hospital has partnerships with non-Catholic institutions, those non-Catholic institutions must meet the same standards, or the partnership must be dissolved. If a terminally ill patient is admitted to a Catholic institution, it is the bishop’s decision as to what ultimately may or may not be done during that patient’s final days. Not the patient’s decision, not the family’s decision, and not the medical staff’s decision — the bishop’s decision.

      Olmsted, Vasa, and other bishops are playing hardball with the health care system in the United States. They are threatening to wall off Catholic hospitals into a Catholic ghetto, unless all other medical institutions live according to their dictates. The bishops played brinksmanship with the Stupak amendment in the health insurance reform debates, and they’re continuing with that same strategy now.

      Proclaiming your own religious values is one thing; forcing them down everyone else’s throat is something else. I said it of Vasa and I’ll repeat it here: “We’re too pure to let our name be associated with those people at that hospital” is a sad reflection on the Christian faith. Olmsted may have succeeded in purifying his diocese, but he’s going to end up alienating many of those he’s trying to reach by treating perceived threats to his own authority as more important than the very real medical threat to people like this pregnant woman.

      It reminds me of when Jesus’ disciples were arguing about which of them was the greatest, and Jesus said to them

      You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.

      It certainly seems as if there’s more of the tyrant than the servant to Bishop Olmsted, which does not bode well for any of us.

      (Photo by Dennis Scully of D Squared Productions Inc, h/t St. Joseph’s Hospital )