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The Dilemma of Providing Moral Medical and Social Services

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Sep 24, 2008

It’s happening again. The Church is threatening to terminate social and medical services in the province of Victoria, Australia if a new Victoria law passes which would require doctors in Catholic hospitals to refer patients who want abortions to medical practitioners willing to provide that service. In several places in the United States and England, similar threats have been made in the face of laws mandating placement of adoptive children with gay “couples”. In that case, the threat is to close Catholic adoption services.

There are fifteen Catholic hospitals in Victoria, which together handle about one-third of all births in the province. For this reason, the threat of Archbishop Denis Hart of Melbourne to close Catholic hospitals may be enough to convince the upper house of the Victorian parliament to reject the measure. At the same time, the strategy of threatening to get out of this or that service in the face of immoral laws is problematic. It is certainly more honorable than finding dubious ways of complying with the law, as some service providers have done with respect to gay adoption, but it is not as aggressive as challenging the law as Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor is doing in England.

One sympathizes with the dilemma, of course. The ideal solution is for Catholics to keep practicing medicine (or providing social services) while refusing to comply with immoral laws. Unfortunately, this position places the burden on the practitioners, and it may in fact be impossible to run an existing medical or social service of any significant size if employees must choose between losing their jobs for complying with government regulations or suffering criminal penalties for failing to comply.

Where are the religious orders when we need them? It would take a remarkably cohesive group of laymen to continue to operate—morally to a man—under threat of public prosecution, and while such organizations may eventually emerge, it will take time. In former times, a strong religious order which ran its own hospitals could have more easily presented a united front. The presumed inability to retain staff under threat of prosecution may be a major factor behind the decision by several bishops to threaten to shut down services, rather than to threaten to continue services in opposition to the law. The former threat may actually have considerably sharper teeth.

Nonetheless, the time is coming when the world will desperately need not only Catholic leaders who will refuse to comply with unjust laws but Catholic leaders who will refuse to comply while continuing to provide outstanding services. Increasingly, we need to find new models of association and expertise in which the participants are willing, as a group, to take that next step. The first Catholic organization to succeed at this level of commitment will put the government in the position of forcibly shutting down its services. Politically, that’s a very different thing from passing bad laws and then blaming the opposition for refusing to help the community.

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