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The Wave of the Future

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 12, 2008

I was too busy at the time to comment on it, but in February Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor may have started the wave of the future for the Catholic Church in the First World. He dismissed the entire board of directors of the hospital of St. John & St. Elizabeth in London. I believe this marks the end of an era.

It isn’t fair to concentrate only on the failures of those in high ecclesiastical positions, though I spend enough of my time doing it. There are many good things going on, and I sincerely meant it when I said in my column on papal discipline that things have gotten ever so slowly better over the past thirty years. Cardinal Murphy O’Connor’s decisive action is a striking example.

A chorus of complaint had arisen about the lack of fidelity to Catholic moral teachings at the hospital, particularly in dispensing contraceptives and referring patients for abortion. An independent review arranged by Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor confirmed that the hospital was not living up to its own code of ethics. In April 2007, the Cardinal ordered the hospital to stop providing contraceptives, in vitro fertilization, sex-change operations, and abortion referrals. He appointed Auxiliary Bishop George Stack to implement a reform.

The result was that by the end of the year two members of the hospital’s board had resigned in protest, one of whom recommended that the Church should get out of health care “as it appears to be unable to reach the degree of tolerance that has been reached elsewhere in the world.” When rumors began “circulating” that the hospital was going to be sold, Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor had had enough. He demanded the resignations of every member of the Board in February, appointing a new Chairman to recruit directors who are willing to uphold the hospital’s Catholic mission.

There are several things we can say about this, all of them highly relevant. In a negative light, we can see that Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor didn’t investigate the situation at St. John & St. Elizabeth until he was asked to do so by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. But making the same light positive, we also notice what can happen when a bishop receives the slightest encouragement from the Vatican to restore Catholic discipline in his jurisdiction. Another key point is that demand for authentic Catholic health care is almost certain to rise in the foreseeable future. As ordinary hospitals increasingly become killing fields, the time is not far off when a great many people will prefer to be treated at Catholic hospitals—if our hospitals become known for moral service to their patients.

Even more important in the short run is the precedent established by Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, whose status as a cardinal should enhance its force. He has demonstrated that it is possible to say “no” to accommodation and temporizing, to make a clean sweep, and to get on with the job of being Catholic. Hopefully we are on the edge of something great, something prepared by God Himself in response to the suffering prayers of countless faithful. It shouldn’t take too many more successful Murphy-O’Connors to start a trend. Perhaps one day soon we’ll refer to other courageous and decisive acts of episcopal leadership by saying a bishop has “pulled a Murphy-O’Conner”. I hope so. For if other bishops will but see it, the wave of the future has formed. Even now it is beginning to scour the shore.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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