Bishop Thomas Olmsted

I have written before about the holy war that flared up last year between Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix and St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center. (See the stories here and here.)

The trouble brewed over an emergency procedure the hospital staff performed. It terminated a pregnancy, but saved the life of the mother. Instead of the reaction you might expect—sorrow for the loss paired with praise for the medical team—we were witness to the bishop’s recriminations and ultimate statement that a Catholic sister who had participated in the decision to save the mother’s life was essentially excommunicated.

The firestorm that grew up nationwide surprised many. And perhaps most surprising was the support that the hospital received. Now stripped of its “Catholic” status (but keeping its oh-so-Catholic name), the facility continues to serve a community it has served for generations.

Today, New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof examines the debate anew. In “Tussling Over Jesus,” he dissects the jarring intersection of world views that played out in Phoenix. Most interesting, he points out that the clash is nationwide, and growing in frequency:

“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.”

Nicholas D. Kristof

When I wrote about this in December, I pondered on a simple and pragmatic question: What care would I receive if I were admitted to a Catholic hospital? Given that I had always indicated on my insurance data that St. Joe’s was my hospital of choice, should I reassess? Would they give me not the best care possible, but just the best Catholic care possible?

“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.”

Kristof read my mind. His column today includes these startling sentences:

“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.”

As the “health care debate” rages around the country, it is striking that we have a health care debate of our own right here in town. This debate goes back centuries, but its resolution may say a lot about modern-day America.