Catholic Health Care and Religious Freedom Are Under Attack
The fight against the culture of death is a fight for lives and for souls. However, it is also a fight for the freedom of Christians to live their lives and raise their families in accordance with their beliefs, and to participate on equal terms in the public square.
The further our culture moves away from the old Judeo-Christian consensus of the so-called “moral majority,” the more pressure will be brought to bear on the faithful Christian holdouts to conform to the new paradigm.
As the needle moves, what used to be viewed as good old-fashioned decent behavior or moral common sense will gradually become categorized as “discrimination” and “hate.” And once that happens, it is only a matter of time before governments, legislators, judges, employers, and other officials decide that such behavior or beliefs are simply not to be tolerated and must be eradicated from the public square.
As I described a couple of weeks ago, that’s precisely what’s been happening in the case of Catholic adoption agencies. In but one example, after the UK passed the so-called “Sexual Orientation Regulations,” which required adoption agencies to adopt children to same-sex couples, every Catholic adoption agency in the country was forced to shut its doors rather than violate Catholic teaching on marriage and family.
Of course, the real losers in that situation were not the Catholic adoption agencies. The real losers were the children whom those adoption agencies served by finding willing and available families and matching the children with those families. But for progressive ideologues, that’s just a small price to pay for expunging every vestige of traditional Christianity from the public square.
University of California Attack on Catholic Hospitals
Right now, a similar battle is brewing over the issue of health care, with the progressive left turning up the heat on Catholic health care workers and institutions to provide forms of “health care” that violate Catholic moral teaching, or else.
In the United States, Catholic health care institutions and networks are guided by the “Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services.” This document, recently updated in 2018, lays out a clear vision for Catholic health care, noting that Catholic health care is founded on a concern “to respect the sacredness of every human life from the moment of conception until death.” Clearly, this puts Catholic health care on a collision course with the anti-life secularism that guides so many of our public institutions, including universities.
For example, one battle is happening right now at the University of California (UC), where the Board of Regents recently passed a number of amendments that, if they become finalized, would restrict the university from partnering with hospitals and health care systems that do not provide every procedure that the university deems they should. Naturally, this includes medically unnecessary, and often explicitly harmful procedures and “services” such as abortion, contraception, sterilizations, “sex-change” procedures, and euthanasia.
Over at National Review, bioethicist Wesley J. Smith, one of the leading experts on the growing attacks on the conscience rights of health care workers, points to an article in the Sacramento Bee, which says that the amendment is meant to ensure that hospitals associated with the university, “provide procedures to all people on a non-discriminatory basis, meaning that a transgender person can receive the same exact services that any other person would receive.”
“Time out!” retorts Smith. “This is entirely misleading. Transgender patients can and do receive the exact services ‘any other person would receive’ in Catholic hospitals. Their broken legs will be set. Cancer surgeries will excise tumors. Diabetes will be treated.”
Moreover, Catholic hospitals will not excise healthy organs such as genetilia [sic] or uteruses from anyone — gay or straight, transgender or binary, etc. For example, any biological female who presented for removal of a healthy uterus would be refused based on Catholic moral teaching that prohibits the removal of organs without serious pathology and taking actions that sterilize the patient, again absent pathology. That’s not discrimination. It’s a consistent policy that applies to all patients who enter a Catholic hospital.
Penalizing Patients in the Name of Ideology
As in the case of the attack on Catholic adoption agencies, the negative impact of this policy will not be felt by the comfortable, well-heeled bureaucrats responsible for passing it.
In a statement following the passage of the amendments, the Alliance of Catholic Health Care noted that the only effect of the new policy will be to harm patients, particularly poor patients. “All across California, Catholic health care providers are partnering with others like UC Health to deliver care to patients that other providers don’t or won’t serve, with services other providers don’t or won’t offer, in parts of the state where other providers don’t or won’t have a presence,” the Alliance said. “Dissolving these partnerships would disenfranchise health care access for millions of health inequity-impacted Californians, doing an enormous disservice to our state’s goal of expanding health care access for the underserved.” (But no institution is perfect, and reading through the Alliance’s statement, unfortunately it appears there may already be some questionable services provided that may not be aligned with Catholic teaching.)
Even the president of the University of California, Michael Drake, gets it, and is asking the regents not to sever the partnership with the Catholic hospital system, “because they help provide mutual access for University of California Healthcare and people in more rural locations distant from the chain’s medical centers,” as Catholic News Agency (CNA) reports.
CNA also notes that the policy change proposed at the University of California is representative of a larger, more comprehensive movement to force Catholic hospitals to provide procedures that are medically unnecessary, and that violate Catholic teaching.
State Sen. Scott Weiner, D-San Francisco, has introduced the so-called “Equitable and Inclusive University of California Healthcare Act, S.B. 379.” If passed, this bill would institute the same discriminatory policies being pushed at UC, but across the entire state. No longer would Catholic hospitals and systems be able to partner with Californian universities to serve needy patients in accordance with Catholic teaching.
Preserve Catholic Health Care
This move to squeeze Catholic hospitals out of the public space is deeply sinister. For untold centuries, the Catholic Church has been one of the primary providers of health care, often to the poorest and most desperate people, all over the world. In the United States currently, some one in six hospital beds are within Catholic hospitals. In the old days, many of these hospitals were staffed by the huge numbers of Catholic religious sisters, who offered their labors as nurses gratis, simply for the love of Christ and their neighbor.
As the U.S. bishops note in the “Ethical and Religious Directives,” providing health care is something Christians have always done in direct imitation of Christ, who spent so much of His earthly ministry healing people of their physical diseases.
“The mystery of Christ casts light on every facet of Catholic health care,” the bishops write. “[T]o see Christian love as the animating principle of health care; to see healing and compassion as a continuation of Christ’s mission; to see suffering as a participation in the redemptive power of Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection; and to see death, transformed by the resurrection, as an opportunity for a final act of communion with Christ.”
However, the secularist ideologues seem to care nothing for this. As the Catholic hospitals in California have noted, there is nothing stopping university personnel from transferring patients to other hospitals for procedures that violate Catholic teaching. But this isn’t good enough for the ideologues. In their view, the hospitals must be forced to offer them, and if they do not, then they must be accused of “discrimination.”
Wesley Smith rightly notes in his article that one of the reasons this clash is happening now, is because secular health care has increasingly embraced a new paradigm that rejects the age-old principles of the Hippocratic Oath. Rather than vowing to “do no harm,” modern health care has moved towards embracing clearly harmful, and sometimes outright murderous, procedures, as in the case of abortion or euthanasia.
Clearly, this form of health care is incompatible with the Catholic vision. “Catholic health care ministry is rooted in a commitment to promote and defend human dignity,” note the bishops in the “Ethical and Religious Directives.” “[T]his is the foundation of its concern to respect the sacredness of every human life from the moment of conception until death.”
This, of course, goes back to what I was saying at the beginning of this piece. The culture is shifting. Our basic moral presuppositions are changing. More and more people are accepting killing, or mutilation, as forms of health care. While it is possible, using legislation and lawsuits, to carve out space and to protect the freedoms of religious health care workers and institutions to provide health care in accordance with their conscience, more is necessary.
“This much is sure,” Smith writes, “The pressure for religious health-care institutions and individual medical practitioners to conform to secular values is only going to increase in coming years, particularly as the Biden administration and Democratic Congress continue to push hard aport on medically related issues.”
This is why we must fight not only to preserve religious freedom, but also to change hearts and minds, because it is only when our culture changes that the pressure will let up. We must work to convince people of the humanity and right to life of the unborn child, of the dignity of the dying, of the meaning to be found even in suffering, and of the truth about marriage, gender, and sexuality.
The Catholic vision of health care is the most humane vision, rooted in a rich and holistic understanding of the human person, one that acknowledges the dignity of every individual, and the truth about life, gender, and sexuality. We have reason to be proud of our health care tradition, and we must fight to preserve the place of Catholic hospitals within our nation’s health care system.
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Father Shenan J. Boquet was ordained in 1993 and is a priest of the Houma-Thibodaux Roman Catholic Diocese in Louisiana, his home state, where he served before joining HLI as its President in August 2011. Father Boquet earned a BA from Saint Joseph Seminary College, a Master of Divinity (MDiv) from Notre Dame Seminary Graduate School of Theology, a Certification Program in Health Care Ethics from the National Catholic Bioethics Center, and a Master of Science in Bioethics (MSBe) from the University of Mary in Bismarck. In 2018, Father Boquet was awarded an honorary visiting professorship by the Benedict XVI Catholic University in Trujillo, Peru. He is available for interviews and bookings on behalf of HLI by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.