4 Feb 2011

Catholic Bishop evicts Jesus from church hospital that aborted fetus to save life of mother with four children

National Catholic Reporter - January 4, 2011

St. Joseph’s Hospital: A phoenix in the desert

by Jamie L Manson | NCR columnist

Just days before Christians celebrated Christmas, Jesus got evicted.

In a strange twist of fate, he was removed from a hospital named after his adoptive father, St. Joseph. The whole saga took place in a desert. Only this time it was in Phoenix, Ariz., rather than Egypt.

Because a mother of four had her life saved under harrowing circumstances, the sacramental presence of Jesus was forced to evacuate a Catholic hospital in the Valley of the Sun. It’s a sad loss, really, since the body of Christ dwelt peacefully at St. Joseph’s for over 115 years.

It would be impossible to count how many fears were comforted, mourners were consoled, and wearied staff were nourished by the Mass or by sitting quietly in front of the Blessed Sacrament.

Bishop Thomas Olmsted, the hierarch who made the decision to pull the Eucharist from the chapel at St. Joseph’s Hospital, has been called “ ‘a man of the rules and a company man’ who puts the institutional church ahead of people,” according to an NCR report early last summer.

But one wonders whose rules he was playing by when he chose to rip the Catholic designation from this hospital founded by the Sisters of Mercy.

St. Joseph’s committee of ethicists employed both reason and compassion when they made their recommendation on this sad case of a woman whose pregnancy was literally killing her. Both the mother and the fetus were dying. If the mother died, this pregnancy could not be brought to term. Only the mother’s life could have been saved.

Olmsted seems to have had all the regard in the world for the unborn child. But where was his regard for the woman, or for her four children who would have been left motherless? Where is the regard for her husband? Isn’t it ironic that a bishop who is aggressively trying to preserve the institution of marriage and the sanctity of the family would be so willing to force a father into single parenthood? Would the church have stepped forward to help this father care for these four young children? Would they have offered him child care or free housekeeping or the benefit of an additional salary for the next 18 years?

One cannot overlook the trauma that the bishop is inflicting on this mother and her family. As a mother of four, there is little doubt that this woman is grief-stricken over this tragedy. Olmsted’s actions have no doubt exacerbated her pain, and have created harmful and unnecessary shame for this family. Imagine living with the knowledge that the decision to save your life led to the highly publicized, permanent removal of the Eucharist from a hospital?

In addition to the bishop’s disregard for the mother and her family, this particular incident seems to be laced with misogyny. In removing St. Joseph’s Catholic designation, Olmsted disparages centuries of devoted sacrifice not only on the part of the Sisters of Mercy, but by all women religious throughout the world who have healed untold numbers of lives. Olmsted’s excommunication in May of Mercy Sr. Margaret Mary McBride, a hospital administrator who served on the ethics committee, appears particularly targeted. It has become all too typical of the hierarchy to stamp out an esteemed woman religious who dares to use her expertise and authority to make a moral decision about another woman’s life.

If anyone doubts that misogyny played a role in this case, one need only recall that Olmsted is the product of a Vatican that, in March 2009, defended a Brazilian archbishop who excommunicated the mother of a 9-year-old girl who received an abortion after being raped by her stepfather. The father faced no ecclesiastical punishment.

But in the midst of this darkness, there is an unexpected beam of hope. The response of the staff of St. Joseph’s has demonstrated as much moral courage as it has deep theological truth. Not only have they refused to allow the hierarchy to use the Eucharist to bully them into submission, they have reaffirmed the holiness of their daily work. “St. Joseph’s will continue through our words and deeds to carry out the healing ministry of Jesus,” said Linda Hunt, president of St. Joseph’s Hospital. “Our operations, policies and procedures will not change.”

The incident involving St. Joseph’s should be a moment of awakening for the hierarchy. Real division is emerging. The flight of Catholics from parishes over the past two decades has demonstrated clear unrest among the faithful. But now institutions are reaching a breaking point. Those who once trembled in fear when the hierarchy wielded its power now tremble in holy anger.

Though St. Joseph’s can no longer call itself Catholic, it heralds a new vision of church.

Its break with the diocese is a moment of groundbreaking promise. By continuing the heart of its mission, the hospital will practice as a true community living out the sacraments.

Though they will be denied the opportunity to celebrate the Eucharist, the Eucharist will rise out of St. Joseph’s every time the sick are healed, the frightened are comforted, the lonely are visited, the weak are fed, and vigil is kept over the dying.

[Jamie L. Manson received her Master of Divinity degree from Yale Divinity School where she studied Catholic theology and sexual ethics. Her columns for NCR earned her a first prize Catholic Press Association award for Best Column/Regular Commentary in 2010.]

For more information on the Phoenix hospital and Bishop Olmsted, see NCR's continuing coverage:
No direct abortion at Phoenix hospital, theologian says, Dec. 23
Phoenix hospital to continue 'faithful mission', Dec. 22
Catholic Health Association backs Phoenix hospital, Dec. 22
Phoenix bishop removes hospital's Catholic status, Dec. 21
Phoenix bishop gives ultimatum to hospital, Dec. 16 and 17.
Bishops' doctrine committee: 'direct abortion always wrong', June 24
Canon lawyers assess ‘automatic’ penalty for nun who approved an abortion, June 22
Ethicists fault bishop’s action in Phoenix abortion case, June 8
Thomas J. Olmsted: Portrait of a 'policy-driven' bishop, June 3
Shades of grey in a world of apparent absolutes, May 26
Nun excommunicated for allowing abortion, May 18

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New York Times - January 26, 2011

Tussling Over Jesus

By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF | Op-Ed columnist

The National Catholic Reporter newspaper put it best: “Just days before Christians celebrated Christmas, Jesus got evicted.”

Yet the person giving Jesus the heave-ho in this case was not a Bethlehem innkeeper. Nor was it an overzealous mayor angering conservatives by pulling down Christmas decorations. Rather, it was a prominent bishop, Thomas Olmsted, stripping St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix of its affiliation with the Roman Catholic diocese.

The hospital’s offense? It had terminated a pregnancy to save the life of the mother. The hospital says the 27-year-old woman, a mother of four children, would almost certainly have died otherwise.

Bishop Olmsted initially excommunicated a nun, Sister Margaret McBride, who had been on the hospital’s ethics committee and had approved of the decision. That seems to have been a failed attempt to bully the hospital into submission, but it refused to cave and continues to employ Sister Margaret. Now the bishop, in effect, is excommunicating the entire hospital — all because it saved a woman’s life.

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.

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.

Catholic hospitals like St. Joseph’s that are evicted by the church continue to operate largely as before. The main consequence is that Mass can no longer be said in the hospital chapel. Thomas C. Fox, the editor of National Catholic Reporter, noted regretfully that a hospital with deep Catholic roots like St. Joseph’s now cannot celebrate Mass, while airport chapels can. Mr. Fox added: “Olmsted’s moral certitude is lifeless, leaving no place for compassionate Christianity.”

To me, this battle illuminates two rival religious approaches, within the Catholic church and any spiritual tradition. One approach focuses upon dogma, sanctity, rules and the punishment of sinners. The other exalts compassion for the needy and mercy for sinners — and, perhaps, above all, inclusiveness.

The thought that keeps nagging at me is this: If you look at Bishop Olmsted and Sister Margaret as the protagonists in this battle, one of them truly seems to me to have emulated the life of Jesus. And it’s not the bishop, who has spent much of his adult life as a Vatican bureaucrat climbing the career ladder. It’s Sister Margaret, who like so many nuns has toiled for decades on behalf of the neediest and sickest among us.

Then along comes Bishop Olmsted to excommunicate the Christ-like figure in our story. If Jesus were around today, he might sue the bishop for defamation.

Yet in this battle, it’s fascinating how much support St. Joseph’s Hospital has had and how firmly it has pushed back — in effect, pounding 95 theses on the bishop’s door. The hospital backed up Sister Margaret, and it rejected the bishop’s demand that it never again terminate a pregnancy to save the life of a mother.

“St. Joseph’s will continue through our words and deeds to carry out the healing ministry of Jesus,” said Linda Hunt, the hospital president. “Our operations, policies, and procedures will not change.” The Catholic Health Association of the United States, a network of Catholic hospitals around the country, stood squarely behind St. Joseph’s.

Anne Rice, the author and a commentator on Catholicism, sees a potential turning point. “St. Joseph’s refusal to knuckle under to the bishop is huge,” she told me, adding: “Maybe rank-and-file Catholics are finally talking back to a hierarchy that long ago deserted them.”

With the Vatican seemingly as deaf and remote as it was in 1517, some Catholics at the grass roots are pushing to recover their faith. Jamie L. Manson, the same columnist for National Catholic Reporter who proclaimed that Jesus had been “evicted,” also argued powerfully that many ordinary Catholics have reached a breaking point and that St. Joseph’s heralds a new vision of Catholicism: “Though they will be denied the opportunity to celebrate the Eucharist, the Eucharist will rise out of St. Joseph’s every time the sick are healed, the frightened are comforted, the lonely are visited, the weak are fed, and vigil is kept over the dying.”


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