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a Christmas gift from Bishop Olmsted: bold episcopal leadership

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Dec 22, 2010

Yes, it’s a very busy time of the year. But if you can spare just a few minutes from your last-minute shopping and decorating and wrapping and cooking, watch the video of the press conference in which Bishop Thomas Olmstead of Phoenix explains his decision to strip St. Joseph’s Hospital of its “Catholic” designation. This is a wonderful, edifying example of a bishop taking his pastoral responsibility seriously. 

The entire video is about 25 minutes long, but you can safely skip over the first half if you have already read the text of the bishop’s formal statement. It’s during the question-and-answer session with reporters that Bishop Olmsted’s attitude becomes unmistakably clear.

No one who watches this performance could harbor the silly notion that Bishop Olmsted enjoyed laying down the law. He was clearly ill at ease, uncomfortable with the situation, but unable to find any honest and honorable way to resolve it without exercising his episcopal authority.

The case that triggered this controversy was not an easy one. A young woman, already the mother of four children, was facing the likelihood of death if doctors could not help her. Unfortunately the doctors decided that they could not help the woman without destroying her unborn child.

Anyone who recognizes the unborn child as a human being should recognize the moral difficulty in this case. The operation performed by doctors at St. Joseph’s Hospital was not intended to resolve the mother’s medical problems; it was intended to remove the baby. It was an unusual kind of abortion, but it was an abortion nonetheless. Bishop Olmsted drew the unavoidable moral inference: If the unborn child is a human being, it is wrong to destroy it—even if the procedure saves the mother’s life, even if the baby was otherwise doomed to perish with his mother.

As Bishop Olmsted carefully explained, doctors had a moral obligation to save the mother’s life. But they also had an obligation to save the baby’s life. They could not justifiably sacrifice the one to save the other. Sadly, that is what they did.

Now what could the bishop do, confronted with this case? He could ignore it. He could swallow hard and accept the argument that under some unusual circumstances, direct abortion might be morally acceptable. Or he could stand firm on principle, and hold fast to the teachings of the Church he is committed to lead.

Bishop Olmsted would be more popular in Arizona today, surely, if he had chosen either of the first two options. But he chose to stand firm, explaining humbly that his responsibility is to uphold the teachings of the Church. (Notice how the audience at his press conference reacted when he offered this explanation for his decision, about 24 minutes into the tape.) He lived up to his duty as a teacher of the Catholic faith, strongly underlining the reality that an unborn child is human and cannot be deliberately killed, regardless of the circumstances. He made a strong claim for the Culture of Life. As Christmas approaches, the bishop reminded Christians that we should always do our best to welcome a little child, even if he comes under difficult circumstances.

Naturally the bishop’s decision has been harshly criticized, by those who see no point in upholding moral absolutes. But consider, if you will, what might have happened if Bishop Olmsted had chosen either of those tempting ways of avoiding a showdown.

He could have ignored the problem. How many times in past years have bishops ignored a problem—particularly a problem involving sexual abuse? If those bishops who overlooked clear evidence of morally unacceptable behavior thought that they were sparing the Church some grief, they were very much mistaken. The problem festered, the morally repugnant behavior continued, and the Church is still paying the bill of damages.

When bishops failed to confront abusive priests, the molestation continued and other innocent children suffered immeasurable harm. By the same logic, if Bishop Olmsted had failed to act in this case, the hospital might have performed another abortion under similar circumstances in the future—and this time, the moral responsibility for the baby’s death would have been on the bishop’s conscience as well.

He could have accepted the arguments put forward by hospital administrators, and reconciled himself to the possibility that an abortion may, by some complicated logical process, be classified as something other than abortion. In other words he could have claimed to maintain the general principle (that direct abortion is never justifiable) while denying its application to this particular case. To do so, however, he would have been forced to deny clear evidence: to pretend that an operation performed to remove a child from the mother’s uterus is not an abortion.

Unfortunately we have seen bishops take this approach, too, all too often in the past. We have seen Church leaders argue that although it is undoubtedly wrong to rape children, priests who molest young people are not guilty of that sin because they are not fully responsible for their actions. We have seen bishops who assume that even after a priest has been accused of multiple instances of abuse, he should not be held under suspicion of misconduct when he seeks opportunities to be alone with boys. Even today we can find an example of a British bishop who claims that although homosexual acts are wrong, we should not assume that people who identify themselves proudly as homosexuals are likely to engage in homosexual acts.

Prudence enables an honest leader to see things as they are: to look at the available evidence without blinking, and recognize that things probably are what they seem, to resist elaborate excuses for suspect behavior. Confronting someone with the evidence of his misconduct may be painful, but the consequences of ignoring that evidence may be more painful still.

Bishop Olmsted did not ignore the problem, nor did he allow an elaborate explanation to disguise the essential facts. Now, by challenging the policies of St. Joseph Hospital and Catholic Healthcare West (CHW), he has forced other American bishops—most notably Bishop George Neiderauer of San Francisco, where CHW has its headquarters—to face the same tough questions squarely.

Near the conclusion of his press conference, Bishop Olmsted stressed that he wants very much to have Catholic health care available to the people of Arizona. But what he wants is distinctive, authentic Catholic health care—not the generic product, sold under the “Catholic” brand. If hospitals can continue to identify themselves as Catholic while failing to uphold the standards set by the Church, then “Catholic health care” becomes a phrase without meaning. By insisting that an institution which advertises itself as Catholic must adhere to the teachings of the Church, even in the toughest circumstances, he has taken a giant step toward ensuring that a truly Catholic approach to health care will survive. 

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Show 3 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: www.petersboat.net - Dec. 23, 2010 11:56 AM ET USA

    Saint Gianna Molla, pray for us!

  • Posted by: Te_Deum - Dec. 23, 2010 9:43 AM ET USA

    Above and beyond the abortion, is the question of what medical practitioners did to help the mother who stated 1 month earlier that she wanted to keep this baby, even after risks were explained. The next thing we hear is she was back in ER a month later. What did they do to help her to control the pulmonary hypertnsn? Did treatment in between differ on account of her insurance, or lack thereof? Obviously, she wasn't dying when they recommended the abortion a month prior because she came back.

  • Posted by: Obregon - Dec. 22, 2010 11:30 PM ET USA

    The questions from the media said it all! "Compassion" for them means "looking the other way" when evil takes place, and the guilty party here is the bishop, not the people who did the abortion in the name of Catholic ethics.

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