Phoenix bishop extends deadline on threat to hospital’s Catholic identity

WASHINGTON – Citing “ongoing communication and attempts to rectify the situation,” Phoenix Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted extended from Dec. 17 to Dec. 21 a deadline he had set for a local Catholic hospital to comply with three demands related to the church’s ethical directives for health care.

The bishop set the new deadline for Catholic Healthcare West, the San Francisco-based health system that includes St. Joseph’s Hospital in Phoenix, to agree that the termination of a pregnancy at the hospital in late 2009 violated the “Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services” and “so will never occur again” there.

The other requirements outlined in a Nov. 22 letter were for Catholic Healthcare West to agree to “a review and certification process” concerning its compliance with the ethical directives and for the medical staff of St. Joseph’s to receive “ongoing formation” on the directives, overseen by the National Catholic Bioethics Center or the diocese’s medical ethics board.

If the requirements were not met by Dec. 17, Bishop Olmsted said in the November letter, he would be forced “to notify the Catholic faithful that St. Joseph’s Hospital no longer qualifies as a ‘Catholic’ hospital because of its failure to acknowledge the bishop’s right and duty to judge whether the (directives) are interpreted and implemented correctly.”

After the letter from Bishop Olmsted to Lloyd H. Dean, president of Catholic Healthcare West, was published Dec. 15 by the Arizona Republic newspaper, the Diocese of Phoenix neither confirmed nor disputed the contents of the letter, saying it was “considered to be private and confidential.”

“The bishop and his staff are working together with Catholic Healthcare West and St. Joseph’s Hospital to find the best way to provide authentic Catholic health care in accordance with the church’s teaching,” the Dec. 15 statement said.

The case under discussion in the dispute involved a woman, who has not been identified, who was 11 weeks pregnant and suffering from pulmonary hypertension, a condition that the hospital said carried a near-certain risk of death for the mother if the pregnancy continued.

A nun who concurred in an ethics committee’s decision to abort the child was “automatically excommunicated” by her action, Bishop Olmsted said in May.

Mercy Sister Margaret Mary McBride also was reassigned from her position as vice president of mission integration at the hospital after news surfaced about the abortion. She remains at the hospital but has declined to comment on the case.

St. Joseph’s Hospital said in a Dec. 15 statement that dialogue with the bishop was continuing “and we hope to achieve a resolution.”

“We believe that all life is sacred. In this case, we saved the only life we could save, which was the mother’s,” the statement added.

The withdrawal of a hospital’s Catholic identification would not be unprecedented.

Bishop Robert F. Vasa of Baker, Ore., announced in February that St. Charles Medical Center in Bend had “gradually moved away” from the church’s ethical directives and can no longer be called Catholic.

As a result of that decision, Mass is no longer celebrated in the hospital’s chapel and all items considered Catholic were removed from the hospital and returned to the church. The hospital retained the St. Charles name and a cross remains atop the building.

In his November letter, Bishop Olmsted outlined similar consequences.

“A revocation of my endorsement of St. Joseph’s Hospital would necessitate the following actions:

– “Removal of the Blessed Sacrament from all chapels and tabernacles at St. Joseph’s Medical Center.

– “Prohibition of all Masses celebrated in chapels within St. Joseph’s Medical Center.

– “Public advisory from the bishop’s office issued through the Catholic Sun newspaper and website that St. Joseph’s no longer qualifies as a ‘Catholic’ hospital.”

Bishop Olmsted said “priestly ministry and other ministry to the sick will most certainly continue with St. Joseph’s Hospital, as it does in any hospital when the sacraments or pastoral care are requested by patients.”

Although the correspondence from Dean to Bishop Olmsted was not made public, the bishop indicated in his response that Dean had included a lengthy moral analysis of the case by moral theologian M. Therese Lysaught of Marquette University with his Oct. 27 letter to the bishop.

“Undoubtedly, the assessment from Dr. Lysaught is extensive and I appreciate the diligence with which it was drafted,” Bishop Olmsted wrote. “At the same time, however, I disagree with her conclusion.”

“In effect, you would have me believe that we will merely have to agree to disagree,” the bishop told Dean. “But this resolution is unacceptable because it disregards my authority and responsibility to interpret the moral law and to teach the Catholic faith as a successor of the apostles.”

Bishop Olmsted also cited problems with Chandler Regional Hospital in Chandler, Ariz., which is not Catholic but is operated by Catholic Healthcare West. He said he found it “deeply troubling” that voluntary sterilizations were performed at Chandler.

“I recognize that my objections to how Chandler Regional operates are more involved, but I would foresee us needing to address those directly in the near future,” he said.

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.