St. Joseph’s Hospital in Phoenix: ‘Catholic’ is More than a Name

Sister Margaret McBride, RSM

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof’s ran an excellent column yesterday on the rival religious approaches within the Catholic church. One approach focuses on dogma, sanctity, rules, and punishment of sinners. The other lifts up compassion for the needy, mercy for sinners, and a profligate invitation to the least, the lost, the left out.

Examining the battle between Phoenix’s Bishop Olmsted and St. Joseph’s Catholic hospital – particularly Sr. Margaret McBride, in Tussling Over Jesus, Kristof says:

The thought that keeps nagging at me is this: If you look at Bishop Olmsted and Sister Margaret as the protagonists in this battle, one of them truly seems to me to have emulated the life of Jesus. And it’s not the bishop, who has spent much of his adult life as a Vatican bureaucrat climbing the career ladder. It’s Sister Margaret, who like so many nuns has toiled for decades on behalf of the neediest and sickest among us. Then along comes Bishop Olmsted to excommunicate the Christ-like figure in our story. If Jesus were around today, he might sue the bishop for defamation.

There is nothing new in this dynamic. It’s the yin and yang of the world. Conservatives preserve institutions so that there is a mechanism for advancement from one generation to the next. Liberals draw from an original animating spirit and push the edges of what currently exists in order to allow it to fulfill it’s purpose in the present. In other words, liberals will say If the church isn’t truly the church in the here and now, then what good is it. And conservatives will say, If we don’t have a core belief system that is clear and transferable from one generation to the next then what good is it just acting on what we feel in the here and now.

The trouble is that conservatives tend to consolidate power and then that power bloc needs to be pushed back on so that it doesn’t become a dry and lifeless shell. St. Joseph’s Catholic hospital is one example of many where Catholics are pushing back. Kristoff writes:

Bishop Olmsted initially excommunicated a nun, Sister Margaret McBride, who had been on the hospital’s ethics committee and had approved of the decision [to terminate a pregnancy to save the life of the mother]. That seems to have been a failed attempt to bully the hospital into submission, but it refused to cave and continues to employ Sister Margaret. Now the bishop, in effect, is excommunicating the entire hospital — all because it saved a woman’s life.

Make no mistake: This clash of values is a bellwether of a profound disagreement that is playing out at many Catholic hospitals around the country. These hospitals are part of the backbone of American health care, amounting to 15 percent of hospital beds. Already in Bend, Ore., last year, a bishop ended the church’s official relationship with St. Charles Medical Center for making tubal ligation sterilizations available to women who requested them. And two Catholic hospitals in Texas halted tubal ligations at the insistence of the local bishop in Tyler.

The National Women’s Law Center has just issued a report quoting doctors at Catholic-affiliated hospitals as saying that sometimes they are forced by church doctrine to provide substandard care to women with miscarriages or ectopic pregnancies in ways that can leave the women infertile or even endanger their lives. More clashes are likely as the church hierarchy grows more conservative, and as hospitals and laity grow more impatient with bishops who seem increasingly out of touch.

Apparently, Bishop Olmsted thought that by excommunicating Sr. McBride – a Sister of Mercy – and then effectively excommunicating the hospital itself so that Mass can no longer be celebrated in the hospital chapel that he could somehow make the hospital “unCatholic.” What he fails to realize is that it’s not the name that makes the hospital Catholic, it’s the people serving in the ministry of Jesus and the tradition of the saints. Linda Hunt, the president of St. Joseph’s said, “St. Joseph’s will continue through our words and deeds to carry out the healing ministry of Jesus. Our operations, policies, and procedures will not change.”

Many ordinary Catholics have reached a breaking point and St. Joseph’s heralds a new vision of Catholicism. As Jamie Manson writing in the National Catholic Reporter put it: “Though [St. Joseph’s hospital] will be denied the opportunity to celebrate the Eucharist, the Eucharist will rise out of St. Joseph’s every time the sick are healed, the frightened are comforted, the lonely are visited, the weak are fed, and vigil is kept over the dying.”

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