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Catholic hospitals and the fight for medical standards

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Jan 14, 2016

For the foreseeable future, political pressure on the Catholic Church in the US will be concentrated on medical issues. If you doubt that, join me on a quick tour through some of this week’s significant newspaper items:

  • A Los Angeles Times columnist encourages readers to be afraid—be very afraid—of the rising proportion of American health-care facilities that are operated under the auspices of the Catholic Church. “That wouldn’t be cause for concern,” opines Michael Hiltzik, “if not for these hospitals’ practice of placing non-medical concerns ahead of those of patients.” He is alluding, of course, to the US bishops’ Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, which forbid involvement in practices such as abortion, euthanasia, and—in the particular case that rouses Hiltzik’s ire-- sterilization. The columnist’s complaint is that a Catholic hospital declined to perform a tubal ligation for a woman who did not want to have any more babies. That is, the hospital staff refused to perform a surgical procedure that was not medically necessary, would not address a disease or deformity, and would actually stop the healthy functioning of healthy organs. The real complaint against the Church-run hospital, stripped of ideological armor, is that the institution does base its policies on medical concerns, prompted by the time-honored, common-sense understanding that “medical concerns” involve eliminating diseased tissues and organs, and helping healthy tissues and organs to function as they should. The 20th century (the deadliest of all centuries) introduced the perverse notion that “medicine” should sometimes involve the mutilation, and even sometimes the death, of a patient. Now Catholic institutions are under pressure to conform.
  • Which brings me to my second example, the pressure being applied to Belgian Catholic institutions to join in the national enthusiasm for euthanasia. Archbishop Jozef De Kesel, newly installed in Brussels, is fighting for a “conscience clause” exemption that would protect Catholic institutions from being required to put patients to death on request. Again, the “service” that is requested cannot rightly classified as “medical” care; medicine involves healing—or, if the patient’s condition is hopeless, easing the pain. Medicine never involves the deliberate taking of human life. Yet now in Belgium, doctors are expected to kill on demand. By the way, notice that a “conscience clause” such as the archbishop requests would apply only to Catholic institutions; the mandate for death-on-demand could still apply to individual Catholic doctors not working in Church-run hospitals. It would certainly apply to non-Catholic doctors working in non-Catholic hospitals, so acceptance of his policy entails rejection of the Hippocratic Oath. Again the Catholic Church takes a lonely stand for the practice of medicine based on “medical concerns” rather than a heartless utilitarian calculus.

  • As the medical establishment becomes ever more powerfully influenced by the Culture of Death, what options remain for believing Catholics? One possibility would be founding a community of like-minded people, where the institutions would reflect the moral beliefs of the citizens. Tom Monaghan, the founder of Domino’s Pizza and later of Ave Maria University, had such a vision for a town in Florida. The community surrounding Ave Maria, he said, would be free of pornography and contraceptives. Business Insider worries that, at least to date, Monaghan’s vision is a reality: there are no abortion practitioners in Ave Maria, Florida, nor doctors who prescribe contraceptives. The ACLU is outraged by this fact, but “no case has been successfully filed against Monaghan or Ave Maria.” (Since it’s quite easy to file a lawsuit, one wonders whether perhaps none has been “successfully filed” because no resident of the town wants an abortion or a contraceptive.) Business Insider notes that some critics of the Ave Maria experiment see constitutional issues here. But the absence of abortion clinics and condom machines is not mandated by law. There is no supply because there is no demand: an economic reality that a publication like Business Insider should understand. Should a predominantly Catholic community be required to provide access to goods and services that most residents consider immoral, and nobody wants?

These three odd and disturbing stories illustrate the steps being taken to change the understanding of medical care, and thereby break down resistance to the Culture of Death.

First we are asked to accept the notion that non-medical procedures—procedures that “first of all, do harm”—qualify as medical treatments. Once that notion is accepted, it seems to follow that insurers and taxpayers should subsidize those treatments. One step further, and pundits will inveigh against doctors and nurses who will not offer those treatments.

Next that new definition of medicine is stretched to the maximum, to include the efficient termination of life: killing quietly, in sterile surroundings. American society has accepted legal abortion; the battle on the euthanasia front is only now beginning.

Third—and in some ways most ominously—the pockets of resistance are broken down. Even if there are plenty of doctors willing to perform abortions and sterilizations and “mercy” killings, steadily mounting pressure is applied to those who opt out. It doesn’t matter, really, whether the doctors’ services are required; this is the lesson to be learned from the Ave Maria example. What matters, from the ideologues’ perspective, is that these doctors are resisting the redefinition of medical services. With their appeals to conscience, they are reminding the world that some people consider these procedures immoral. They are fanning the dying embers of the belief that medicine should only heal and help: a belief that must be extirpated if the new, utilitarian view of medical services is to reign unchallenged.

Make no mistake: this is a battle to the death. It will continue until one side or the other is eliminated. Proponents of the Brave New World approach to medicine will keep up the political pressure until all resistance, Catholic and otherwise, is crushed. When they allow “conscience clauses,” they will do so only as a temporary measure, to neutralize opposition; eventually those clauses will be narrowed, then closed.

For Catholics, the fight for a “conscience clause” is at best a strategic retreat, never an acceptable long-term strategy. A “conscience clause” only preserves some people—for a while—against an immoral policy; it does not challenge the policy itself. Catholics cannot rest at ease until the proper understanding of medicine is recovered. We are fighting for medicine, because we are fighting for life.

In happier times, ordinarily people might have found the preceding sentence puzzling, because to them the practice of medicine was the fight for life. That’s the understanding that we must restore.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: wtchurch5213 - Feb. 11, 2016 4:42 PM ET USA

    My wife is an OB/GYN who, a dozen years ago, anwered God's call to stop performing tubals, IUD's and prescribing birth control. After much turmoil and persecution she was forced to find a new employer. After an extensive search she came to the conclusion that Catholic hosptials are the worst offenders fo conscience clauses and most of them insist their OB/GYN's provide for contraception. To hear of one that stands by Catholic medical bioethics is refreshing indeed!

  • Posted by: Jim.K - Jan. 16, 2016 10:50 PM ET USA

    Of course we must fight for medicine because it affects everyone in our society. Just as we must fight for our business ethics for the same reason. And for our laws and our lawmakers - our politicians. And mostly for our Church, Bishops and priests - especially those who are leading us astray. This "fight" includes PRAYER and WORKS; i.e., ACTION. We must stay involved in our society. We must be "in the world but not of the world." We must not hide our light under a basket. Dropouts never win!

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Jan. 16, 2016 11:16 AM ET USA

    Is now the time to start praying for martyrdom?