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Open Secrets, Statistics and News

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jul 28, 2008

There are so many open secrets in the Catholic Church that it is sometimes difficult to figure out what should be reported as news. The recent exposé of Catholic hospitals in Texas is a case in point, but it is not at all an isolated case. To take the most obvious example, veteran Church watchers knew for a generation before the priestly abuse scandals broke that homosexuality was a protected vice in some quarters of the American Church. But it was impossible to engage the attention of the bishops.

There is no need to cover old ground. This new issue arises from a recent study of hospital records for the State of Texas which showed that Catholic hospitals in Texas reported some 9,684 cases of sterilization and 39 legally induced abortions from 2000 through 2003. This is a scandal, certainly, and it was greeted with surprise and horror on the part of many sound Catholics. Yet no one who has followed Church affairs closely over the past generation could have been surprised by the findings, as the frequent failure of Catholic hospitals to fulfill their moral mission is well-known. In fact, Catholic hospitals have suffered the same loss of Catholic identity that has afflicted most Catholic institutions over the past fifty years.

Indeed, one might well ask why any intelligent observer would expect Catholic hospitals to have a better record at implementing official Catholic teaching than parochial schools, universities, seminaries, parishes, religious orders, libraries, formation programs, retreat centers, and so on. In every category, both deliberate dissidence and well-meaning secularization have been extremely widespread.

While this is so, it does little to tell us what the Texas hospital statistics really mean. While it appears clear that many of the sterilizations were direct tubal ligations, which are clearly immoral, the study does not distinguish between direct and indirect abortions. Indirect abortions are unintended consequences of treating a serious pathological condition, and so may be moral. To understand what the abortion numbers mean, one would also have to see comparable numbers from Texas hospitals as a group. For example, if 39 direct abortions were performed at Catholic hospitals, that would be 39 too many, but if thousands, tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands were performed in a similar number of other hospitals, it would put the Catholic failure in a much better light.

I do know that Texas law was revised in 2004 to require some kinds of abortions to be performed in special health facilities, including hospitals. Before that, perhaps most of them were performed in abortion clinics, and perhaps very few were done in hospitals at all. If so, the Catholic numbers would look far worse. Given both the change in the law and the increased vigilance of many American bishops in the aftermath of the sex abuse scandals, it would also be interesting to know what has happened since 2004. If the numbers went down dramatically, that would be very positive news.

At present the only certain good news is that the Texas bishops are investigating this study. They are actually trying to find out what is going on. It will be interesting to see what set of answers they are willing to settle for, but we already know we’ve moved forward a little since the days when a bishop might have ignored the report altogether or might have merely phoned the hospital head to hear his reassurance that everything was all right. Until the investigation is finished, the meaning clear, and appropriate corrective action taken, we won’t really know what to make of it all.

Open secrets don’t give us hard data, and raw statistics don’t provide genuine meaning. I want to know what non-Catholic hospitals were doing during the same period, and I also want to see what’s happening now. If the bishops ask the right questions and actually figure out what this means—and then make their findings public—well, let’s just say we would have no doubts about the importance of that news.

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