The church’s morality of convenience
Last week, the Obama administration proposed a further tweak to its rules about insurance coverage of contraception, trying to quiet religious organizations’ complaints that the edict tramples on their beliefs. Roman Catholic officials have been especially vociferous. Their moral conviction, they insist, cannot be slave to secular convention.
Except, that is, when it works to their advantage. When it profits them. And this two-tracked approach was illustrated by another recent news story, one that flickered onto and then off the public’s radar more quickly than it should have, and deserves a closer look.
The news story brought to light a wrongful-death suit by a widower, Jeremy Stodghill, in regard to his wife and the twin 28-week-old fetuses inside her when she died in a Catholic hospital, St. Thomas More, in Canon City, Colo.
The hospital’s lawyers argued that the woman’s death couldn’t have been prevented. As to whether proper medical attention might have yielded the delivery of two healthy baby boys, lawyers argued that the question was ultimately irrelevant, because wrongful death can apply only to people and, legally speaking, fetuses aren’t human lives.
This isn’t how the Catholic Church is supposed to see things. It’s the opposite. The church staunchly opposes abortion, holding that life begins at conception, and has even raised concerns about the morning-after pill. And the fetuses inside Lori Stodghill, 31, were four weeks past what’s generally considered viability.
Lawyers by nature use the best strategies available to them, in a brutal arena where failing to do so puts clients at a disadvantage. And the Colorado litigation is just one case involving one Catholic hospital, which may not have gotten any green light for its arguments from high-ranking church officials. In fact, Colorado’s three Catholic bishops on Monday released a statement that articulated their objection to the hospital’s legal approach and said it should be abandoned henceforth.
But the hospital isn’t some random outlier. It’s run by Catholic Health Initiatives, which operates 78 hospitals in more than a dozen states. And a habit of clinging to a religious identity one moment and abandoning it the next is visible beyond this case, especially in the church’s management of its child sexual abuse crisis.
We’ve been getting a fresh and galling peek into that with the court-compelled release of documents from the Los Angeles Archdiocese, which engaged in a pattern of willful blindness and outright cover-up so egregious that the current archbishop, Jose Gomez, took the shocking step last week of publicly reprimanding his predecessor, Cardinal Roger Mahony.
The documents show that Mahony and his lieutenants repeatedly failed to report allegations to law enforcement officials and urged accused priests to leave or stay out of the state, lest they face prosecution. They decided, in short, that the church’s representatives and reputation mattered more than justice: that the church could hold itself above laws that governed everybody else.
This was hardly isolated behavior. Around the country, the church has beaten back lawsuits by priests’ victims and tried not to furnish information about priests’ wrongdoing by claiming that such scrutiny violates the free exercise of religion, said Jeffrey Anderson, a Minnesota lawyer who has represented hundreds of victims over three decades.
“It’s audacious, it’s bold and it’s across the board,” he said.
But the church has simultaneously reserved the right to behave just like any other institution, leaning on legal technicalities, smearing victims and demonstrating no more compassion than a tobacco company might show.
“In the name of Jesus,” Anderson told me, “they do things that Jesus would abhor.”
They do things erratically, that’s for sure. From my extensive reporting on the sexual abuse crisis in the 1990s, I don’t recall any great push to excommunicate priests who forced themselves on kids. But when Sister Margaret McBride, in 2009, was part of a Phoenix hospital’s decision to abort an 11-week-old fetus inside a 27-year-old woman whose life was gravely endangered by the pregnancy, she indeed suffered excommunication (later reversed).
So a fetus matters more than the ravaged psyche of a raped adolescent? And McBride deserved harsher rebuke than a rapist? It’s hard not to conclude that a church run by men shows them more mercy than it does women (or, for that matter, children).
And it’s hard to keep track: Just when is the church of this world, and when not? It inserts itself into political debates, trying to shape legislation to its ethics. But it also demands exemption: from taxes, from accountability, from health care directives.
And in the Colorado wrongful-death case, the hospital suddenly adopted the courts’, not the church’s, definition of life. Only now, with that argument already made, is Catholic Health Initiatives saying it made a moral error.
A district court rejected Jeremy Stodghill’s wrongful-death claims. He and his lawyer, Beth Krulewitch, have appealed to the state’s Supreme Court.
One final verdict is already in. On the charge of self-serving hypocrisy, the church is guilty.
Frank Bruni is a columnist for The New York Times.