I received a response today from Bishop Anthony Taylor of the Catholic Diocese of Little Rock to a followup question I posed after Jo Ann Coleman shared an e-mail she received from the bishop about the proposed combination of St. Vincent Infirmary and UAMS for a range of health network services.
Coleman asked the bishop his thoughts about St. Vincent cooperating with an institution that provides services — sterilization to name only one — contrary to church health directives, as UAMS currently does. Though the bishop doesn’t exert direct control over the hospital or its Catholic-affiliated management company, the wishes of church leaders are important in operation of such facilities. He slowed a hospital merger in Hot Springs where a Catholic-affliated hospital was to be sold to a group that might allow abortion and sterilization, for example. The bishop also expressed concern there about continuing service to the poor.
He told Coleman he wouldn’t approve any joint governance that resulted in “material cooperation” with “immoral medical practices” listed in Coleman’s inquiry, from abortion training to emergency contraception for rape victims.
By e-mail, I asked this followup question:
Does this mean you disapprove of a cooperative venture with UAMS even if it offered such enumerated services independently and outside of the collaborative network proposed this week in draft form for the two institutions?
His response by e-mail to me today:
I do not automatically oppose as a matter of principle every conceivable model of affilliation between Catholic and secular hospitals, but only those which would implicate the Catholic hospital in violations of the Ethical and Religious Directives (ERDs) for Catholic Health Care Services, issued by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops USCCB). These are available on the USCCB website at www.usccb.org. You will see that though material cooperation with the immoral medical procedures about which Jo Ann Coleman asked me would be the gravest violation of the ERDs, they are not the only matter of concern. Catholic Hospitals have the mission of continuing the healing ministry of Jesus Christ, so anything in a model of affiliation that would violate or undermine the Catholic identity of a Catholic Hospital like St. Vincent’s would be unacceptable. A model of affiliation between St. Vincent and UAMS that does not violate the ERDs or otherwise undermine the Catholic identity of St. Vincent’s could be acceptable, though of course the “devil” (so to speak) is always in the details…and that discussion has only just begun.
Many other followups are suggested, mostly of a hypothetical nature. One is this: In a jointly governed hospital, where it’s understood that a patient might want or need a referral to a nominally independent affiliate of one partner for a service the other partner won’t provide as a matter of religious belief, wouldn’t such a referral be ‘material”? Or, maybe more problematic for the public institution, this question: What if such referrals couldn’t or wouldn’t be made within the blended operation for fear of establishing “material cooperation.”
Tough questions, I think. But the bishop has provided at least a little space, it seems, for cooperation.
UPDATE: Saturday evening, I received an e-mail from a spokeswoman for St. Vincent in response to a request for a comment related to the bishop’s first reported statement yesterday. From Margaret Preston Dedman:
Since the beginning of our discussions with UAMS in August 2012, we have been clear that we will not enter into any affiliation model that impacts our Catholic identity or UAMS’ identity as a public, academic institution. That has not changed and will not change. As a Catholic ministry, we work closely with Bishop Anthony Taylor, the Catholic Diocese of Little Rock, and other Church leaders on all aspects of our strategic development. We require that at least one representative of the Church is a member of all of our governing bodies (fiduciary and advisory). We received a first draft of a proposed affiliation model from UAMS yesterday and will be actively negotiating with UAMS over the next month or two. We will be simultaneously engaging Bishop Taylor, the Diocese, and other Church leaders in our review and approval of potential models. Again, St. Vincent Health System will engage in no activities that compromise our Catholic identity.