Will Catholic Hospitals be the Next Target?

In an incisive talk in Des Moines August 24, Ted Cruz covered the issue of religious liberty in the United States. He was quite aware of the persecution of Christians in the Near East under Islamic regimes. He had a moving chat with the wife of an evangelical pastor imprisoned in Iran. He stated that, if he were elected president, the first thing he would do is to call the Justice and other government departments to order them to stop persecuting Christians.

A systematic, more and more obvious persecution of Christians has been going on for some time. Its briefest statement is that no one can be a citizen of this country and a practicing Christian at the same time. Persecution is now so obvious that it needs little emphasis. Yet, most of our citizens refuse to acknowledge it or do anything about those elected and unelected officials, from the president on down, who carry it out in increasingly ominous ways. This country itself was designed to prevent precisely this sort of public persecution. We suddenly realize that the constitutional mechanism to prevent this persecution is not working but is being used to foster, indeed justify, the persecution.

Recently I commented on the case of a Colorado baker who was penalized by a state court for not baking a wedding cake for a gay “couple.” I had mentioned that the baker was required to give his employees sensitivity training sessions to explain the law. I understood these requirements to mean that in this country, no personal or religious disagreement with a civil law will be tolerated even if the law itself violates religious freedom and reason itself. The baker solved his problem by no longer making wedding cakes, in other words, by accepting financial loss for his beliefs. That is, he was not allowed to be in business if he would not sell a wedding cake to a gay couple. The court could imagine no “reason” that would mitigate the law. Even worse, it seems to have thought it necessary to cleanse minds that might think otherwise.

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Beginning with florists, bakers, and photographers, we see an ever increasing legal demand that no opposition will be tolerated to government rules whatever their reasons, especially if they are religious reasons. At one time, we thought that, if religion had a problem with something, it was probably that there was something wrong or dangerous about it. We read Scripture as instructing us on how to live.

Now, almost the opposite is the case. If it is in Scripture, it must be wrong. So we need to eliminate from the public order any influence from this source, no matter how “reasonable” unless it agree with the civil law. What is new is that we now see active, legal, and penal steps to enforce this position. The things of God are now wholly subject to Caesar. And what is worse, we see in “hate-speech” type legislation that we are not even allowed to present the case against such views. Its very statement is said to be unjust. It violates another’s “dignity.” People have a “right” not to hear it even mentioned.


In Redding, California, the lone hospital is Mercy Hospital. It belongs to Dignity Health Care, a group of some 29 hospitals in the state. The article in the Redding paper discussing this case is listed under the heading “Health Care,” a phrase that covers a multitude of sins. The hospital’s normal practice is not to allow sterilization procedures. The reason for this prohibition is not arbitrary. It is an unnecessary mutilation of a normally functioning human organ and is use simply as another form of birth control. If the organ were diseased, another kind of reasoning would apply.

In principle, a hospital that identifies itself as “Catholic” indicates what it is and what it stands for. No one is forced to go there, even when it is the only hospital in town. The public has an interest in letting such a hospital be what it says it is. Many people choose such a hospital precisely because it adheres to certain specified and articulated ethical standards that are in fact in the best objective interests of patients and the medical profession itself. Patients at Catholic hospitals, along with doctors and nurses who work there, should not have to worry about basic questions about the worth of life and integrity of natural death, of what is good for a person and what is not.

A doctor, as Plato saw long ago, cannot deliberate about the purpose of his profession, about whether human life is a good or whether death is something he can cause. He deliberates only about the means to achieve the health of each particular patient. If my doctor has some doubt whether human life is worth living, I want to find another doctor. It is essential to the common good that such places where human life is upheld exist. They are not opposed to the common good when they refuse to perform unethical practices. They uphold it. They are contributors to what the common good ought to mean, a real good communicable to everyone.


However, this being said, under threat of a suit inaugurated by the ACLU, the hospital in Redding reversed its normal policy. It allowed the tubal ligation requested by one Rachael Miller. A headline in one of the papers or blogs that I saw read as follows: “If You Want to Be Sterilized in a Catholic Hospital, Institute a Lawsuit.” And that, of course, is why this Redding case fits into the other recent cases like the one of the baker in Colorado. Only in this case, unlike the baker, the hospital capitulated. Instead of taking the case to court and perhaps losing, it did something that it itself held to be wrong. Religious consciences and religious sponsored institutions are increasingly required by law to perform acts that they consider immoral.

Some of the comments in the Huffington Post account of this case wanted to know what business religion had to do with hospitals anyhow? The fact that hospitals were practically invented by religion, that the sick and poor needed care when no one thought it was needed, is practically unknown or unacknowledged. It is interesting to recall in this context the remarks of Benedict XVI in Deus Caritas Est on the reasons why state bureaucracies even at their best are not enough. There is an element of personal care for the individual that must be present. For some time, the consequences of theories of euthanasia, abortion, and the non-sacredness of any human life that hospitals can easily become the opposite of what the old Hippocratic Oath used to affirm—“Do no harm.” Perhaps nothing in the history of medicine was more ominous than the change in the wording of this simple oath to allow medical actions that in fact did “harm” the particular patient.

Another group of comments on the Redding case maintained that the relation of patient and doctor was none of a hospital’s business. A hospital is merely a place to facilitate what doctor and patient want to do. It does not take a genius to imagine where such a principle can lead us or what suits the hospital that practiced it would incur. Already doctors and hospitals live in fear of legal suits about their practices, skills, and their successes or failures, not to mention how they deal with those who cannot pay.

The most important thing a patient needs to know, however, about a doctor or a hospital (or government support of both) is not the skill or technical level of either. Skill is something learned in medical school and practice. But what one needs to know is a doctor’s or hospital’s philosophy. If a doctor has no problem with euthanasia or abortion, if he will perform any operation that a patient requests, whether good medicine or not, we had best find another doctor or hospital. What the Redding case suggests is that places where state policy is not enforced are fast becoming extinct. A doctor who refuses to abort or euthanize or sterilize will not be allowed to practice, no matter how skilled he is. These practices are, after all, “human rights.”

Since some 600,000 of such sterilizing operations are performed yearly in the United States, what is the big deal? If it is so common, it must be good medicine. It is rather like saying there are forty million abortions performed in this country, so what is the problem? The “big deal,” of course, is logic. Why the Redding case is so important to the government is that it shows how to force or entice Catholic or other objectors to capitulate on principle. If it is done once, it can be done hundreds of times with the same logic. This kind of yielding is precisely what opponents to any remaining classic ethic seek because it is a sign of complete victory.


Several years ago, I recall Dr. Edmund Pellegrino remark that for many in modern medicine today, there is no such thing as human nature. The function of the doctor is not the good health of the patient, but to be a servant to what the patient wants. If a man comes in and says he wants to be a woman, the doctor does not tell him that this is silly or impossible. He tells him that “We’ll see what we can do.”

The modern doctor, in other words, is like Max Weber’s famous distinction between fact and value. “Values” are private choices of ends. As such, they cannot be rationally judged, only arbitrarily chosen. What the expert does, be he doctor, lawyer, or Indian chief, is to devise means to achieve what the person wants. Since the end is whatever it is, the means can be fit to the end. Good medicine implies that human beings are not just things thrown into the world with no purpose or order. Doctors do not, in the end, cure us. Nature cures us. All doctors do is facilitate what nature carries. There is a standard of what it means to be human. The fact that this standard is frequently violated does not change its status.

What the Redding case implies is that medicine is not primarily governed by what is good for the patient. Rather it is a mechanism to give the patient what he wants, whether or not it be good medicine. The government now conceives its purpose not to foster good medicine or the common good to which medicine contributes by its standing for what is right. It functions to enforce its own laws that allow us to do what we want. Today, increasingly, the only kind of good medicine is bad medicine. It is all very logical and reasonable once we grant the principle that there is nothing right or wrong by nature. In the end, as we are seeing, everything is right but what is right.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is Mercy Hospital in Redding, California.


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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