Catholic Hospitals and the Intent to Kill

Judie Brown
Reproduced with Permission

Below is the complete text of St. Joseph's Hospital's statement issued in response to Bishop Thomas Olmsted's decree. Our analysis follows.

St. Joseph's Resolved in Saving Mother's Life,
Confident Following Bishop's Announcement

World-renowned hospital will remain faithful to its 115 year tradition of care

Phoenix, AZ - December 21, 2010 - The leadership of St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix is saddened today following Bishop Thomas Olmsted's announcement that he has revoked his endorsement of the hospital as "Catholic." At his direction, the hospital will remove the Blessed Sacrament from the chapel and will no longer celebrate Mass there.

"Though we are deeply disappointed, we will be steadfast in fulfilling our mission," said Linda Hunt, President of St. Joseph's. "St. Joseph's hospital will remain faithful to our mission of care, as we have for the last 115 years. Our caregivers deliver extraordinary medical care and share an unmatched commitment to the wellbeing of the communities they serve. Nothing has or will change in that regard."

Hunt emphasized that the hospital will not change its name or its mission, which were both established by the Sisters of Mercy in 1895. "St. Joseph's will continue through our words and deeds to carry out the healing ministry of Jesus," Hunt said. "Our operations, policies, and procedures will not change."

The announcement by Bishop Olmsted follows months of complex talks between the Phoenix Diocese, the hospital, and the hospital's parent company, Catholic Healthcare West. At issue is the life-saving care delivered to a pregnant patient in November 2009 at St. Joseph's. In that case, a decision was made to terminate an 11-week pregnancy in order to save the mother's life.

"Consistent with our values of dignity and justice, if we are presented with a situation in which a pregnancy threatens a woman's life, our first priority is to save both patients. If that is not possible we will always save the life we can save, and that is what we did in this case," said Hunt. "We continue to stand by the decision, which was made in collaboration with the patient, her family, her caregivers, and our Ethics Committee. Morally, ethically, and legally we simply cannot stand by and let someone die whose life we might be able to save."


The release presents the hospital's position as compassionate while taking issue with Bishop Olmsted's actions. When a self-serving message begins with a description of the organization's "world-renowned" identity rather than its life-affirming mission, I am suspicious. Saving face must never trump honest introspection after an alleged error in judgment is made, particularly when the result is the death of a patient.

Bishop Olmsted issued a decree regarding the hospital's Catholic identity; he did not merely remove an "endorsement." As the leader of his diocese, his moral obligation consists of ensuring that entities defined as Catholic are, in fact, functioning in accord with Catholic doctrine.

The hospital's commitment to well-being may sound appealing, and we are not questioning its history, but the broader reason for its existence should be to rigorously treat those entering its portals in a manner consistent with Catholic medical ethics. We see no mention of such ethics in the statement.

The hospital's statement employs nuanced rhetoric to describe the actions taken to provide care to the expectant mother by terminating an eleven-week pregnancy in order to save her life. Note that the hospital does not address the two patients involved in the decision, but rather relegates the preborn child to the status of a problem that required a surgical intervention.

A doctor can terminate a relationship with a patient; when a patient's life is taken, that's another matter.

The ultimate contradiction in St. Joseph's Hospital's statement occurs in the closing paragraph. Dignity and justice exist when the value of the two persons at risk is acknowledged; in this case the dignity of the preborn baby was dismissed. That is not justice.

Secondly, as has been the traditional teaching of the Church, when a physician does all he can to save the life of both patients, and one of them dies, that is a tragedy, not a direct abortion. On the other hand, when a plan is pursued with the distinct goal of "terminating" one of the two patient's lives, the intention is to kill. That is what occurred in this case contrary to what M. Therese Lysaught, Ph.D. states in her opinion defending the hospital's actions.

While the debate on the morality of the hospital's decision will continue and "mainstream" theologians will agree with Lysaught, we remind the reader that Lysaught's carefully nuanced months-after-the-fact 24-page opinion is just that - an opinion. It is Bishop Olmsted who, from the moment this situation came to his attention, did all he could to understand what had happened, to speak with those intimately involved and to ultimately deal with it in accord with Catholic doctrine.

To our way of thinking it is Bishop Olmsted's judgment that carries the greater weight in this case, not the several-months removed verbal jockeying of those approving the act.

Bishop Thomas Olmsted deserves our undying gratitude for his deliberate evaluation and subsequent action in defense of truths that will never change.