WASHINGTON, D.C., February 2, 2011 ( – The local bishop has the final word on the morality of medical practices at Catholic institutions in his diocese, insisted Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, head of the U.S. Bishops Conference, in a letter last week to Catholic Health Association President Sr. Carol Keehan.

Following a dialogue with the prelate, Sr. Keehan had written him on January 18th to affirm CHA’s belief that “the local bishop is the authoritative interpreter in that diocese of” the U.S. bishops’ ethical and religious directives (ERDs) for Catholic health services.

CHA’s respect for the bishop’s authority had been called into question in December when they sided with a Phoenix hospital after Bishop Thomas Olmsted revoked the hospital’s Catholic standing because it had performed a direct abortion in violation of the ERDs.  Keehan wrote that the hospital had applied the ERDs “correctly” in the face of a “heartbreaking situation.”

However, in her January 18th letter, Keehan told Dolan that “publicly and privately, CHA has always said to sponsors, governing board members, manager and clinicians that an individual Bishop in his diocese is the authoritative interpreter of the ERDs.”

In his January 26th response, Archbishop Dolan welcomed CHA’s renewed commitment to “to fulfilling the Church’s healing ministry in complete fidelity to Catholic moral teaching and practice.”

“As you have reasserted, it is the diocesan bishop’s authentic interpretation of the ERDs that must then govern their implementation,” he wrote.

“Where conflicts arise, it is again the bishop who provides the authoritative resolution based on his teaching office,” he continued.  “Once such a resolution of a doubt has been given, it is no longer a question of competing moral theories or the offering of various ethical interpretations or opinions of the medical data that can still be legitimately espoused and followed. The matter has now reached the level of an authoritative resolution.”

The prelate emphasized the importance for the Church to “speak with one voice” in the near future as they continue the battle to ensure no tax dollars are used to fund abortions in the federal health care legislation.

CHA famously lent crucial support last year to the health care reform law in defiance of the U.S. bishops, claiming – contrary to the assertion of the bishops and every major pro-life group – that it did not include funding for abortion. 

Last week CHA came out in support of Rep. Joe Pitts’ Protect Life Act, a bill aiming to ensure that federal funds won’t be used to fund most abortions, while at the same time affirming their original position that the health law won’t fund abortions.

Archbishop Dolan also noted that the federal health care bill contains threats to conscience that CHA and the bishops must work together to address.  “For the sake of the common good and to assure the moral and doctrinal integrity of the exercise of the apostolate, we should work together to confront this and similar threats to conscience,” he wrote.


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