Bishop Thomas Olmsted

This month, the Catholic bishop in Arizona has given people a lot to think about. And that may not be a good thing.

A controversy began brewing December 15, when the Arizona Republic reported that the Phoenix diocese’s bishop, Thomas J. Olmsted, had mailed a letter to the hospital administrators. He told Catholic Healthcare West—parent company of St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center—that its “Catholic status” was hanging in the balance. To ensure that status continued, the hospital must accede to the bishop’s demands.

The conflict began over a medical procedure. At least, the people who run the hospital’s operations thought it was a medical procedure. But it turns out that it was a spiritual procedure.

The Republic described the November 2009 genesis of that debate:

“A pregnant woman at the hospital suffered from pulmonary hypertension, a condition that limits the ability of the heart and lungs to function and is made worse, possibly fatal, by pregnancy. After consulting with Sister Margaret McBride, a member of the hospital’s ethics committee, doctors terminated the pregnancy.”

“Olmsted condemned the surgery as an abortion, which is prohibited by church doctrine, and at the time said the decision effectively meant the excommunication of McBride, a St. Joseph’s vice president.”

The bishop is no shrinking violet—first he issued a sort-of excommunication, and then a demand letter. His correspondence to the hospital pulled no punches in setting out his terms:

In order to retain his support, he said, Catholic Healthcare West must:

  • Acknowledge he was right and the hospital was wrong in its interpretation of a church health-care directive regarding so-called indirect abortions.
  • Submit itself to a diocesan review and certification ‘to ensure full compliance’ with Catholic moral teachings. Olmsted wrote that the certification would be similar to other accreditations that hospitals seek.
  • Agree to give its medical staff ongoing training on the Ethical and Religious Directives, a document from the national bishops council that explains Catholic moral teachings for health-care providers.

“‘Failure to fulfill these requirements will lead me to decree the suspension of my endorsement of St. Joseph’s Hospital, forcing me to notify the Catholic faithful that St. Joseph’s Hospital no longer qualifies as a ‘Catholic’ hospital,” the bishop wrote.

He was right and they were wrong. What could be clearer than that?

There may be legal remedies each party may pursue, but it appears the bishop is within his rights in the hierarchy to require his demands be enforced.

The conflict has spurred a national debate. We also learned that the bishop extended the deadline by which Catholic Healthcare West must reply (from December 17 to December 21).

And then at about 6:00 p.m. Monday, word came out that the diocese would be holding a press conference Tuesday morning at 10:00 a.m.

Of course, the press conference is almost immaterial, because in this canonical dustup, the bishop has already won. He has communicated what he sought: The hospital is under his control, through and through.

And that’s why many people may rethink their health care choices.

In my own case, I have always indicated on all my insurance information that St. Joe’s is my choice in the event of an emergency. It’s close to my house, it’s been around forever. And it has—had—a good name.

But I am reassessing that choice.

You see, when it comes to doctoring around with the human body, I may be like a lot of people: I prefer the scientifical over the pontifical. Health care decisions are supposed to be about a lot of things, but they are not supposed to be about who wears the bigger hat.

So as I said, the bishop has already won. No matter what response the hospital makes—and you know they do not want to anger this bishop—many people may now be sufficiently wary about how medical decisions are made in that institution. If they are cautious about their health, and not privy to hospital–church backroom negotiations, they may move their body-business elsewhere, if they have the opportunity. I know I will.

Even if the hospital takes a strong public stand, there is no doubt that the administrators were shaken by the bishop’s power play. So how will that affect patient care? For us average patients, will your doctor–priest at St. Joe’s provide full disclosure of every option they could provide—if you were at a medical hospital—but that they are not—because you are at a religious hospital?

The diocese may say that this was a single procedure, hardly a blip on the mass of procedures the hospital performs every day.

But it was a procedure that saved a woman’s life, which the bishop has deemed an “abortion.” Now there are suggestions that tubal ligation, no matter the reason performed, will be prohibited. So it’s not one thing, but potentially many.

Perhaps the diocese has a problem with any procedure that comes into close proximity of reproductive organs.

Well, Bishop Olmsted, to quote a fellow traveler: Don’t touch my junk.

One biographical note that counts as full disclosure:

In the 1940s, my wife’s grandfather was driven up to St. Joe’s with a serious injury. I’m sure he was confident that the Sisters of Mercy would take good care of him. But after taking one look at the Japanese American man, the sister on duty did her duty—and turned him away. So I suppose being a discriminating provider is not such a new thing. But at least that nun’s judgmental nature, which also trumped best medical practices, was right up front. This month’s process has been more behind the scenes.

We’ll see what edict is handed down this morning. In the meantime, I may change my insurance forms to indicate Good Samaritan Hospital as my first health care choice.