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Hospital decided it could not meet the Catholic standard
In the course of the past several weeks I have focused on what it means for individuals and institutions to be Catholic. I have done this, in part, because of a concern about Catholic colleges and hospitals in general but also, in part, because of very specific discussions I have been having with the administration of St. Charles Medical Center, a Catholic health care institution, in Bend. Over the course of the past several years I have struggled with the difficulty of trying to reconcile some practices ongoing at the medical center with clear Church teaching. In January I wrote: “It is not uncommon for faithful Catholics to question the Catholicity of these public institutions especially when they seem to be expressing and holding public views which are, or strongly appear to be, contrary to the clear teachings of the Church. At what point are these institutions no longer ‘in the communion of the Catholic Church on this earth?’” I have come to the very difficult conclusion, after much discussion and discernment, that it is time to acknowledge that which has become very clear to me, namely, that St. Charles is a community hospital and should no longer be identified as a Catholic institution.
A little history: In the 1970s St. Charles became a community nonprofit organization with the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Tipton, Indiana as the Catholic Sponsors. In 1992 an Association of the Christian Faithful was established with the specific goal of “preserving the unique Catholic character of St. Charles.” This was done because the Sisters determined that they could no longer provide Catholic Sponsorship. Most notable among the Sisters was Sister Kathryn Hellmann, who personally oversaw the progress of St. Charles for many years. In 1992, the Sisters transferred control of the hospital to the board of directors and the Sisters were instrumental in helping establish the Association of the Christian Faithful as the vehicle by which the hospital’s Catholic sponsorship could be maintained.
A specific part of the role of the Association of the Christian Faithful was to assure that there was a clear adherence to both Catholic principles and approved Catholic practices at St. Charles. These specific practices, as well as a summary of the principles, are contained in a document published by the Catholic Bishops of the United Sates titled: “Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services” (ERDs). The adopted statutes of the Association of the Christian Faithful, however, did not allow sufficient control over the implementation of the directives at St. Charles and thus the association had no real means of insisting upon adherence to the ERDs. Consequently, the ERDs were viewed as “guidelines” or “suggestions” and compliance with them was understood by the board as both voluntary and optional.
In 2007 the diocese was presented with a report on the level of compliance with the ERDs and that report indicated that there were a couple of areas of grave concern. While the commitment to adhering to Catholic principles was clearly present the same could not be said about adherence to or avoidance of certain immoral medical practices.
I have noted elsewhere that while adherence to the principles in a general way is commendable, that alone does not identify an Institution as Catholic. There must also be an adherence to those practices which are also a part of what it means to be a Catholic institution. Sadly, after having functioned in a particular way for a large number of years the board did not see how it could now align the medical practices of the hospital with the ERDs to a degree that would justify an ongoing sponsorship relationship between the Diocese of Baker and St. Charles.
As bishop, I am responsible for attesting to the full Catholicity of the hospitals in my diocese, a responsibility I take very seriously, and I have reached the conclusion that I can no longer attest to the Catholicity of St. Charles. The board is responsible for the operation of the medical center and for its compliance with the ethical guidelines it deems suitable for St. Charles. The question the board faced was whether it could alter its present practices to the degree required for continued identification as “Catholic.” It was the board’s determination that it could not meet that standard.
I see before me two distressing options. I must either condone all that is being done at St. Charles and its affiliates by continuing a sponsorship relationship or I must recognize that those practices are absolutely contrary to the ERDs and distance myself from them. It would be misleading to the faithful for me to allow St. Charles to be acknowledged as Catholic in name while, at the same time, being morally certain that some significant tenets of the ERDs are no longer being observed there.
This is not a condemnation of St. Charles. It is a sadly acknowledged reality.
I believe the board has acted in good faith over the years because of its understanding that the ERDs were voluntary. The diocese has always presumed full compliance with a proper interpretation of the ERDs until the revelations of the 2007 report.
St. Charles has gradually moved away from adherence to the requirements of the Church without recognizing a major possible consequence of doing so. That consequence is a loss of Catholic sponsorship. Since I see no possibility of St. Charles returning to full compliance with the ERDs and since such full compliance with the ERDs is essential to “Catholic Status,” St. Charles will now be considered solely as a community nonprofit organization, not a Catholic one.
In practical terms there should be very little change in how St. Charles presently functions. One major shift will be the absence of the Blessed Sacrament at the hospital. The chapel will no longer be a Catholic chapel and Mass will no longer be celebrated there. In our secular culture most do not recognize the extreme grace of our Lord’s Real Presence but I suspect his absence from the chapel will be deeply felt.