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Catholic Culture Liturgical Living
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CHA, in apparent reversal, affirms bishop’s authority in health-care ethics

February 01, 2011

The local bishop is the “authoritative interpreter” of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Ethical and Religious Directives for Health Care Services, the president of the Catholic Health Association affirmed in a recent letter to Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York.

Sister Carol Keehan’s January 18 letter to the USCCB president represents an apparent reversal of an earlier statement in which she defended a Phoenix hospital’s decision to permit an abortion. Sister Keehan had said on December 22:

St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix has many programs that reach out to protect life. They had been confronted with a heartbreaking situation. They carefully evaluated the patient's situation and correctly applied the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services to it, saving the only life that was possible to save.

In accord with traditional Catholic medical ethics, the US bishops’ directives distinguish between abortion, which is gravely immoral, and cases such as the removal of a cancerous uterus from a pregnant woman, in which the unborn child is not directly killed but dies as a result (nos. 45, 47). The Phoenix hospital, backed by the Catholic Health Association, had argued that the abortion that took place-- in which an unborn child was killed to save the life of the mother-- was permitted by the directives.

Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix, on the other hand, made clear that the abortion violated the directives and that he was the directives’ authoritative interpreter in his diocese. When the hospital persisted in its defense of the abortion, Bishop Olmsted declared that the hospital was not Catholic. In her January 18 letter, Sister Keehan said that

CHA has always said to sponsors, governing board members, manager and clinicians that an individual Bishop in his diocese is the authoritative interpreter of the ERDs. We explain that a Bishop has a right to interpret the ERDs and also to develop his own ethical and religious directives if he chooses.

CHA has a sincere desire to work with the Church and individual Bishops to understand as clearly as possible, clinical issues and bring the majesty of the Church’s teaching to that. We are absolutely convinced that the teaching of the Church, in combination with a clear understanding of the clinical situation serves the people of God very well. CHA has consistently worked to help its members and others have a general understanding of the ethical and religious directives, while at the same time, noting that the local bishop is the authoritative interpreter in that diocese of the directives.

Archbishop Dolan responded on January 26:

Your acknowledgement that the local bishop is the authoritative interpreter of the Ethical and Religious Directives in his diocese is a welcome and crucial component in understanding what is authentic Catholic moral teaching … Any medical case, and especially one with unique complications, certainly requires appropriate consultation with medical professionals and ethical experts with specialization in the teaching of the Church.

Still, as you have reasserted, it is the diocesan bishop’s authentic interpretation of the ERD’s that must then govern their implementation. Where conflicts arise, it is again the bishop who provides the authoritative resolution based on his teaching office. Once such a resolution of a doubt has been given, it is no longer a question of competing moral theories or the offering of various ethical interpretations or opinions of the medical data that can still be legitimately espoused and followed. The matter has now reached the level of an authoritative resolution. Thank you for making clear that the CHA and the bishops both share this understanding of the Church’s teaching.


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  • Posted by: hartwood01 - Feb. 01, 2011 9:18 PM ET USA

    Oh puleeze, Sr.Keehan, you no more intend to adhere to the Catholic Church's teaching than resign your post. You just felt the heat of Catholic dismay at your twisted ethics. Nice try with the apology and carefully couched words. You fool no one.

  • Posted by: DrJazz - Feb. 01, 2011 2:53 PM ET USA

    Sparch is right: The question is how CHA will respond to a similar situation in the future. By Sr. Keehan apologizing now, she gets the Bishops off her back for a while. The next abortion decision will tell whether she and CHW have had changes of heart -- if the Bishop finds out about it, that is.

  • Posted by: Hal - Feb. 01, 2011 10:41 AM ET USA

    Humph. I think Sister's statement is much less than should be expected.

  • Posted by: sparch - Feb. 01, 2011 10:21 AM ET USA

    Of course they will affirm the Bishops after the fact. Wait for another crisis and see where they stand. I am willing to bet that these people will defy the bishops again by claiming moral high ground. Incredulous.

  • Posted by: samuel.doucette1787 - Feb. 01, 2011 8:08 AM ET USA

    The CHA blinked thanks to the steadfast adherence to truth on the part of courageous bishops like Thomas Olmsted. See bishops, if you grow a spine and stand tall in the truth, good things happen!