Phoenix’s Augean stables

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Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix, Arizona has been at the center of a roaring controversy for his decision to remove the Catholic status from St. Joseph Hospital in Phoenix. The hospital may no longer refer to itself as a Catholic institution, Mass may not be celebrated there, and the Diocese of Phoenix will not give it any further support. The decision came as a result of an abortion procedure performed at the hospital, and the repeated violations of Catholic moral teaching that the hospital had perpetrated over the years.

The manner in which the media has been reporting Olmsted’s actions makes it seem like Olmsted removed the hospital’s Catholic status because of one complicated, difficult situation in which an abortion took place. In reality, the hospital has been flaunting the Church’s moral teachings since before Olmsted was made the Bishop of Phoenix in 2003, prescribing contraceptives to patients, performing abortions, and performing sterilization procedures. The abortion was merely the straw that broke the camel’s back; faced with an unfixable Augean stable, Olmsted stated that he simply couldn’t continue allowing the hospital to use the Catholic label.

Olmsted’s actions bring to light a strange conflict that is beginning to take place in the Church in the United States. With the election of Pope Benedict and the awakening of a more vocal orthodoxy among the long-mute bishops of the United States, more and more attention is being drawn to older, longstanding American Catholic institutions that have gone completely off the rails of Catholic teaching.

One of the major instances of this conflict between newly orthodox bishops and traditional, liberal structures took place in the spring of 2009, after the University of Notre Dame invited President Obama to give the commencement address and receive an honorary doctorate. The American hierarchy exploded at this decision, which was in direct opposition to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ policy that Catholic institutions should not give honors to pro-choice politicians. Some 80 bishops — approximately one-third of the entire conference, including its then-president Cardinal Francis George of Chicago and current president Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York — issued public statements rebuking the university for its decision.

However, this is hardly a new scenario. Catholic schools have been honoring pro-choice figures, giving them platforms to speak, and more widely abandoning their Catholic identities ever since the 1960’s and 70’s. At Notre Dame, there are entire departments of the university that have no connection to Catholicism beyond the crucifix on the classroom wall. The Catholic bishops were mostly silent or even supportive of this liberalizing trend when it began, and it now seems nearly irreversible. There was no outcry from the hierarchy (except from the late, great Cardinal John O’Connor of New York) when Notre Dame allowed former New York Governor Mario Cuomo to give a speech in 1984 in which he publicly dissented from Church teaching on abortion. It took them a quarter of a century, but it seems the American episcopate is beginning to develop something resembling a spine.

This focus on older institutions is long overdue. Renewed scrutiny has been focused on various Catholic charitable organizations that have been promoting left-wing political agendas. The St. Vincent de Paul society had an embarrassing episode last year when they issued support for the healthcare reform bill, which included funding for abortion and which the bishops opposed. They quickly retracted their support after an outcry arose. The Catholic Campaign for Human Development, a charitable campaign operated by the USCCB, has also come under fire for the numerous pro-choice and ACORN-affiliated groups to which it gave and continues to give financial support.

Olmsted’s case, however, is the first, or at least the most notable, instance of a bishop publicly taking on a Catholic hospital for its departures from Catholic moral practice. Some Catholic hospitals throughout the country have been ignoring Catholic teaching, providing contraceptive services and even referrals to abortions. They have differentiated themselves from secular hospitals in no way beyond their name.

Olmsted’s decision particularly puts the somewhat weak-willed Archbishop John Niederauer of San Francisco into a bind. St. Joseph’s is part of the Catholic Healthcare West chain of hospitals, which is based in San Francisco and is the 8th-largest hospital chain in the nation. Various CHW hospitals have a history of performing abortions, providing contraceptives, providing a healthcare plan that covers elective abortion, and even (in the case of one hospital) supporting Planned Parenthood right on the hospital’s website. Archbishop Niederauer has pledged “to initiate a dialogue” with the leadership of the hospital chain. Let’s hope it’s not the kind of “dialogue” he has undergone with Nancy Pelosi, where he meekly asks her to change her views on abortion and she totally ignores him.

Olmsted’s actions highlight the crisis the Catholic hierarchy is going to have to face in the upcoming years regarding these large, well-established, Catholic institutions. Some of them are so far removed from their Catholic roots that the question arises of whether they can ever be saved. Some prelates, like Notre Dame’s former bishop John D’Arcy, attempted to work with institutions to improve them, with some level of success. Olmsted has taken the other route of concluding that the institution is so wayward as to be practically irredeemable, and removed its Catholic status. The question of whether to rehabilitate or to cut losses is one that more and more bishops will have to make.

John Gerardi is a student at Notre Dame Law School. He writes on topics relating to religion and society.