Catholic Hospitals Reach Agreement With Bishops

Both Affirm Episcopal Authority in Moral Questions

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WASHINGTON, D.C., JAN. 31, 2011 ( Sister Carol Keehan, who garnered widespread attention with her support of Barack Obama’s health care reform proposal in the face of the U.S. bishops’ opposition to it, is acknowledging the authority of the local bishop in resolving moral and ethical questions for Catholic hospitals.

In a statement released today, Sister Keehan, who is the president of the Catholic Health Association (CHA), showed a united front with the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, in affirming the authority of the local bishop to interpret the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services.

These directives, now in their fourth edition, were released by the bishops in 2001 as a guideline for Catholic health care providers.

A statement from the USCCB announced that conversations have been ongoing between Sister Keehan and Archbishop Dolan in response to questions raised about the authority of the local bishop in the interpretation and implementation of these directives (ERDs). The conference published a letter exchange between the two that reflects their shared conclusions.

«I was happy to have the opportunity to assure you that publicly and privately, 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,» Sister Keehan wrote in a Jan. 18 letter. «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.» 

Archbishop Dolan’s response from last Wednesday explains the context of this authority. 

He noted that «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.» 

One voice 

The USCCB president noted that the future shows «many moments on the horizon that could present a challenge to both Catholic health care and to the USCCB.» These, he added, are opportunities to reaffirm the Church’s commitment to the poor and respect for the right to life. 

«It will be very important for the Church to speak with one voice on those occasions, and I would welcome the continued support of the CHA for these issues,» the archbishop said. 

He mentioned two areas already: the Pitts-Lipinski Bill on government funding for abortion, and the issue of conscience rights. 

Regarding the bill, Archbishop Dolan welcomed the support of the CHA, which has already been expressed. 

Regarding conscience protection, he noted: «[T]here are increasing political and social pressures that are trying to force the Church to compromise her principles. The Church has felt these pressures in many areas, but for the present I am gravely concerned about the problem of illegitimate government intrusion in our health care ministries. 

«For example, significant and immediate concerns exist regarding the threats to conscience that we already identified while the Patient Care Act was under consideration. These were unaddressed in the final law.» 

The archbishop affirmed that the prelates have «some specific ideas on how to address this problem,» and he assured Sister Keehan that her suggestions are also welcome. 

«For the sake of the common good and to assure the moral and doctrinal integrity of the exercise of the apostolate,» the archbishop stated, «we should work together to confront this and similar threats to conscience.» 
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Full statement with texts of letters:

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