The Bishop’s Role in Catholic Health Care? – Absolute Moral Authority

On January 31, 2011, the United States Conference of Bishops released a statement saying that the “Catholic Health Association Affirms the Role of the Local Bishop in Catholic Health Care.”  (The role of the bishops had come under fire when people questioned how and why a bishop could criticize and then excommunicate a nun for authorizing a life-saving abortion at a hospital in Arizona.)

What’s fascinating about the statement is that it makes clear that the local bishop is not only the authoritative interpreter of the Ethical and Religious Directives, but also has the right to develop “his own ethical and religious directives if he chooses.”

Which means that whenever a hospital or medical facility says that it follows the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care (and all Catholic health systems do), it means that the local bishop effectively determines what those directives are.  He is the supreme “moral authority.

Imagine a situation where a Pastafarian highway contractor said “We follow the Pastafarian Ethical and Religious Directives for Bridge Building and our local bishop decides what those rules are.”  Perhaps the Pastafarian bishop doesn’t believe in the use of steel, or thinks that God should determine what the maximum loads are by allowing the bridge to fail if it becomes overstressed.

Or maybe the bishop for a religion that receives tax dollars to run private prisons believes White prisoners should be shackled while Black prisoners go free.  (Keep in mind that the Mormon Church had race-based restrictions until 1978.)

Should a government entity ever contract for highly regulated public services where the entity says, “A religious leader determines what our rules and policies are and has the right to make up and implement new rules whenever he wants to.”  Adherents of the Flying Spaghetti Monster would have fun with that.

In 2006, the ACLU reminded people that “The government has long granted tax dollars to religious social service providers that agree not to discriminate in hiring or providing services, and that operate their social services in a secular manner. These types of religiously affiliated charities do not deny people employment based on faith, nor do they mix religious activity in with their government-funded services.

According to the bishops’ own directives, the Catholic Church and its identity is never separate from the doctor/patient relationship.  Nothing that happens in a Catholic hospital is separate from the Church.  In a brochure about ethics positions within Catholic health care organizations, the question is asked: “Will the culture of the organization and the ministry be informed by the values and beliefs of the Gospel and of the sponsors, or will the culture instead predominantly reflect the values, beliefs, practices and dynamics of the marketplace and the broader American culture?”

So once again we’re back to the central questions:

“Why do we allow taxpayer funding of Catholic health care ministries?”


“Why do we allow taxpayer funding to any entity that gives supreme moral authority for health care decisionmaking to a religious cleric?”




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One thought on “The Bishop’s Role in Catholic Health Care? – Absolute Moral Authority

  1. KAC

    An illustration of the perils of an authoritarian, hierarchical governance structure with little or no accountability, save to those closer to the apex. This arrangement simultaneously allows diversion of blame to lower levels (Pope to Bishop, for instance) whilst simultaneously absolving the lower echelon official to claim “I was just following orders” from up above. A clever but mendacious structure indeed, but one widely adopted by many organizations. Test the theory at the airline ticket counter sometime or, at your local Catholic medical facility.


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