It’s imperative that Catholic healthcare institutions have ethicists help them with thorny moral decisions…assuming the ethicist is properly formed by Church teaching and not operating from his or her own creative manipulation of it.
Or, to look at the problem from the other direction, a Catholic hospital would be remiss if it chose its associated ethicist on the basis of wanting clever, academic-sounding rationales for providing unethical procedures or disservices.
When one looks at the political contributions given by the Catholic Health Initiative (CHI) board, one sees a surprising percentage – considering that CHI is a multi-state, Catholic health care system – of money going to radically pro-abortion candidates. Who is the ethicist helping them to form their consciences?
In 2004, moral theologian Father Thomas Kopfensteiner provided it in an article arguing that while “it is true enough that life is a fundamental good….[it] is far from an absolute good; life can be sacrificed for higher goods such as one’s faith, defense of one’s country or the protection of one’s family and friends.” [“The Man with a Ladder,” America, 11-1-04]. Father Kopfensteiner serves as Vice President for Mission at Catholic Health Initiatives, which describes itself as a national non-profit health services provider based in Englewood, Colorado. He is a former chair of the Department of Theology at Fordham University.
From this edge, he takes a wild leap into the abyss: “The defense of life is not always the most urgent good. A woman on a fixed income may choose a candidate whose platform guarantees better medical care or prescription drug coverage…a community hard hit by job layoffs may choose a candidate with a plan to provide more immediate jobs to the area.”
Well, certainly citizens can and do vote this way but may a Catholic do so in good conscience if the candidate will surely promote pro-abortion legislation or fight pro-life legislation? Does the urgency of needing a job outweigh a child’s right to be protected from state-sanctioned murder?
Not too surprisingly, fellow moral theologians at the time vehemently contested Father Kopfensteiner’s conclusions. Monsignor Kevin McMahon (who served the Archdiocese of St. Louis as a consultant for moral and religious matters pertaining to health care and biotechnology) wrote: “When political activity comes up against moral principles that do not admit of exception, compromise or derogation, the Catholic commitment becomes more evident and laden with responsibility. In the face of fundamental and inalienable ethical demands, Christians must recognize that what is at stake is the essence of the moral law, which concerns the integral good of the human person. This is the case with laws concerning abortion and euthanasia (not to be confused with the decision to forgo extraordinary treatments, which is morally legitimate)…. However much a candidate may provide the best hope for improving health care, ending war, creating jobs and educational opportunities, eradicating poverty and crime, providing better housing, and protecting the environment, he is unsuitable for public office if at the same time he violates the common good by promoting the killing of the innocent and other gravely immoral practices.” [“Politics, Abortion, and Communion,” Voices, Pentecost 2006]
Monsignor McMahon dubbed Father Kopfensteiner’s argument as “proportionalist….which Pope John Paul II judged to be incompatible with Catholic moral teaching” in Veritatis Splendor (nn. 71-83). He goes on to say: “It is true that life is not an absolute good. But the norm proscribing the intentional killing of the innocent is absolute. The absolute norm against killing the innocent, particularly in abortion and euthanasia, has been infallibly taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium of the Church (see Evangelium vitae). Those who attempt to kill innocent human beings violate the absolute right of persons not to be killed.”
As for Catholic voters, they need to understand that, “in voting for this [pro-abortion or pro-euthanasia] candidate, they also endorse the evil he promotes.”
Ten years later, what has become of Monsignor McMahon and Father Kopfensteiner? Monsignor McMahon is the director of spiritual formation at the Pontifical College Josephinum, guiding young men to become the next generation of priests. Father Kopfensteiner, on the other hand, earns $800,000 in compensation for sitting on several related Catholic Health Initiative boards – one of them an organization run by the New Mexico Catholic Conference lobbyist – guiding them through thorny moral decisions.
Church teaching isn’t just academic.
Spero columnist Stephanie Block is the author of the four-volume 'Change Agents: Alinskyian Organizing among Religious Groups.