The National Catholic Review

When it rains, it pours. Just when I finish a blogpost about the - hmmmm, how to put this gently – the unspeakably stupid remarks being made about President Obama’s speech yesterday in Oslo, I find an even grosser example of intellectual idiocy over at Huffington Post. There, Barbara Combs Lee chastises the U.S. Bishops for their recent directive regarding End-of-Life Care at Catholic hospitals. Ms. Lee, who helped pass the Assisted Suicide Law in Oregon, commits so many ridiculous intellectual blunders in such a small space, it is difficult this early in the morning to know where to start.

She notes that people who are not Catholic may dismiss the new directives because these policies couldn’t apply to them. She writes, "’This won't affect my family,’ you may say to yourself. ‘We aren't even Catholic.’ That doesn't matter. Approximately 30% of Americans receive healthcare or reside in Catholic institutions, and this edict could affect any of them." That’s right. Almost a third of Americans turn to the Catholic Church for health care. Why expect the Church to know the first thing about the subject?

She continues, "A little known but far reaching aspect of the Church's organizational structure requires every hospital, nursing home, assisted living center, etc., with a Catholic charter to abide by a set of rules called "Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services." The 72 directives itemize exactly how the services you receive will conform to Catholic doctrine, as promulgated by the Holy See and enforced by its Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly known as the Holy Office of the Inquisition.)" In other words, the adjective "Catholic" in the term "Catholic hospital" has a meaning. Who knew? I shall note, without comment, the fact that Ms. Coombs thoughtfully introduces the Inquisition with a link to wikipedia which, I suppose, is the extent of her knowledge about it.

Ms. Lee wants a world in which the right of Catholics to be Catholic is trumped by whatever the right of patients to demand whatever procedures they may want. Seeing as she has made a name for herself leading a movement for assisted suicide, does she think Catholic hospitals should have to participate in that practive too? Do not the providers of health care have conscience rights too? And, if she doesn’t like the way Catholics do health care, go somewhere else. It’s a free country and there are no guards at the hospital doors. And, if there is no other hospital to go to, start one. Ms. Coombs’ rant is a little like my friend Christopher Hitchens’ anti-religious rant (without Hitch’s brilliance and wit, of course): Hitch corrrectly states that one suffering child should cause us to question the existence of a benevolent God, but he fails to acknowledge all that the Church does to actually help the suffering children of the world. Ms. Coombs doesn’t like Catholic health care, but I do not see her starting a hospital of her own.

Fortunately, Sister Carol Keehan, DC, has clarified the new bishops’ directives with a statement, posted at the Catholic Health Association website. Sr. Carol points out that the new directives simply clarify existing Church teaching, continue to draw important moral distinctions where appropriate, and do not require anyone – provider or recipient – to violate their conscience. During the debate over health care, Sister Carol has been the North Star for many of us trying to understand the Byzantine system we currently have and the positively Baroque legislative proposals that have been produced. Her latest statement about the bishops’ directives on health care provides a similar clarity.

These issues are not abstract for me. My mother had long suffered from Parkinson’s disease and had left explicit instructions about the care she wanted. She said she never wanted to be on life support. Then, she and my father were in a terrible car accident and the doctor in the emergency room asked about their end-of-life directives. Knowing that my mother’s wish had been expressed in the context of her slow decline from Parkinson’s and not this new situation, thinking there could be nothing worse than to request life-support for one parent and not the other, and finally knowing that every second my mother lived would make my father feel less guilty about the accident, I told the doctor to do everything possible to keep my mother going. Six months later, unable to keep down food and with a skyrocketing fever, the ethics board at the Catholic facility where she was recommended that we not reconnect the feeding tube because it was only going to cause her acute pain. I confess that even now I have a hard time navigating the ethical issues involved. At the time, with all the conflicting emotions one has when a loved one is in such a state, such navigation was impossible for me. But, it was a great comfort, to both my Dad and to me, to know that a Catholic ethics board at the hospital was guiding us, to know that they were drawing on a two thousand year tradition of moral reflection in offering their guidance, and that the Holy Spirit was at work in that guidance.

Wisdom is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. I found it in the wonderful people at St. Joseph’s Living Center who cared for my Mom. I find it in Sister Carol’s explanation of the new directives on Enf-of-Life care. By contrast, Ms. Coombs’ diatribe lacks even the most basic journalistic standards of honesty and intellectual integrity. I am glad that when my Mom was ill, Ms. Coombs was not in a position to guide us and the good sisters who ran the hospital were.

Comments

Michael Maiale | 12/12/2009 - 12:23pm
Anne, I think Mr. Winters addressed your final paragraph pretty well with his personal story.  Church teaching doesn't demand that you be artificially animated for decades with no hope of recovery.
The question we must answer is if the healthcare system is one where parties arrive at mutually agreeable solutions, or if healthcare providers are to have their interests, including the supremely important right to conscience, trampled in favor of supposed patients rights in areas where it's hazy what that latter category entails.
J B | 12/12/2009 - 9:50am
The writer overlooks the fact that in emergencies, the patient usually has no choice of hospitals - he or she will be taken to the closest emergency room.  He also overlooks the fact that some communities have only one hospital - and if that hospital happens to be Catholic, the patient's own preferences may be overruled in favor of Catholic teaching.
If a Catholic hospital is serving the general public, rather than an exclusively Catholic population, it should be morally and legally required to honor the decisions of the patient or patient's representative according to the patient's written or spoken directives - rather than those of the church.   If I have a choice at the end of my life, even though I am Catholic, I will know to direct that my end of life care be undertaken at a hospice or hospital that isn't Catholic.    How sad.
I do not understand why a church that claims to believe that the next life is with God, and which fights modern birth control because it is ''against nature'', denies the natural progression towards death that comes with some disease or trauma.  After reasonable attempts are made to save life using modern medicine and technology have not worked, it would seem that faith would agree to allowing matters to progress ''naturally''.  Keeping someone hooked up to machines for, say,  17 years following trauma, seems to be a denial of faith.
Anonymous | 12/11/2009 - 4:39pm
Many people don't have a real choice about what hospital they end up at.  My mother, who wasn't Catholic, was in a Catholic hospital because that's where her doctor practiced.  I'm wondering if Catholic hospitals have the legal right to dismiss people's living wills?
Chris Duckworth | 12/11/2009 - 1:07pm
You wrote:
''And, if she doesn’t like the way Catholics do health care, go somewhere else. It’s a free country and there are no guards at the hospital doors. And, if there is no other hospital to go to, start one.''
Ouch!  Is it that easy?  Really?
At times the Church advocates for people, particularly the poor and marginalized, to have access to public services, even public services provided by private providers.  Yet when the Church is the service provider, its cries take on a different tone.
Catholic hospitals have become, for better or worse, part of our nation's public health system.  If a hospital that provides a near monopoly of health-care in a particular region refuses certain procedures because of religious beliefs, then that area has no institution to provide those services.  If the state or a health care netowrk were to erect a new hospital to provide those services, taxes/fees would increase to fund the creation of this hospital, placing a burden on the public in this underserved region.  Inevitably the second, state-of-the-art hospital would create competition for the established religious hospital, drawing patients, doctors, and donor dollars from the religious hospital to the hospital. The religious hospital cries foul, faces decreased funding, and perhaps even closes down.
While I respect and honor the role of religious providers of health, education, and social services, it is not good for society (or a given region) if they are the only provider.  Choice - as the church advocates for education - is good for all.
Brad Roberts | 12/11/2009 - 1:25pm
I could probably leave it to others to respond here, as I'm sure they will.

But the things Barbara Combs Lee is talking about here aren't "health" services - they're ways to kill people. It is not the role of a *Catholic* hospital - as dedicated to life and its value as they are - to provide "services" that end lives.

I work in the health industry and agree that a hospital should offer comprehensive health services, but hospitals exist to help people become healthier and generally to improve the quantity and quality of life, not to end lives and that's what she's advocating. I completely agree that it's hard to know exactly where the line is on things like feeding tubes for the very elderly - if they didn't want those interventions that would be a big factor, too. I make no judgment on those very hard choices.

But it is impossible, an utter oxymoron, that a hospital that offers abortion or assisted suicide to name 2 such "services", could continue to call itself "Catholic."
Jeffrey Miller | 12/11/2009 - 1:09pm
"example of intellectual idiocy over at Huffington Post"
Gee that is like finding water in a lake.  The Party of Death just keeps on finding more ways to advocate for death.