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Too many riles exhaust the family


Advocates of married priests have put forward reasonable arguments in support of such a change: that priests could marry in the early church, that many priests find celibacy intolerable, that the church in recent years has welcomed married men ordained by other churches.

Here’s another argument, a bit quirky perhaps, but worth some thought. If members of the Roman curia were married people with children, they would have learned centuries ago that it’s counterproductive to make too many rules.

A front-page article in the Feb. 4 issue of The Wall Street Journal prompted this reflection. The article carried these headlines: “Their Role Growing, Catholic Hospitals Juggle Doctrine and Medicine. They Make Fine Distinctions on Issues Like Abortion, Consulting ‘the Moralist.’ ”

Many Americans worry that availability of reproductive procedures is jeopardized by mergers between Catholic and non-Catholic hospitals around the country. Bishops often insist in such mergers that Catholic directives for health care be followed. The directives forbid practices that violate church teaching, such as abortion, sterilization and in vitro fertilization.

As it turns out, though, there’s a lot of wiggle room. Want a tubal ligation? A vasectomy? An abortion referral? Listen to what moral theologian Fr. Gerard Magill, director of the Center for Health Care Ethics at St. Louis University, has to say. “This may shock you,” he told a Wall Street Journal reporter, “but the Catholic church is very keen on finding practical solutions to complicated problems. We certainly will not do immoral acts, but we can come to arrangements. That is what ethicists bring to the common discourse,” he said: “the ability to make fine distinctions.”

Among possible arrangements is moving forbidden procedures off-site, perhaps to a related facility that isn’t owned by the Catholic hospital. In some cases, procedures short of direct abortions can even be arranged on-site. That is what happened in Murfreesboro, Tenn., where, following a merger, sterilizations were shifted to a facility in-house but qualifying as “separate” because it is operated by a different corporation and has its own driveway.

With help from ethicists, Catholic facilities can arrange for contraceptives to be prescribed or dispensed. Ethicists can guide local bishops who want to authorize sterilizations in Catholic facilities, perhaps because managed care contracts make it financially burdensome for people to go elsewhere.

While abortion and assisted suicide are nonnegotiables at Catholic-owned facilities, even here, Magill said, distinctions can be made. In fact, demand for solutions is so “colossal” that Magill is drawing up plans for a business. It would offer service contracts for ethical assistance to Catholic hospitals at $150,000 a crack.

If this sort of enterprise makes anyone a little uncomfortable, well, hey, Catholic health care is big bucks, and its success often depends on bending the rules.

Dominican Fr. Charles Bouchard, president of Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis, thinks that’s too cynical a view. Some religious orders are deeply sincere about keeping the health care ministry alive, he told NCR, “and sometimes that means slicing it very fine” when it comes to moral distinctions. To operate in the real world, institutions have to make compromises, he said.

And, on the positive side, such distinctions reflect the high value Catholicism puts on human reason. As early as the fourth century, St. Augustine developed the “just war” theory, constructing a moral argument that allows Christians, under certain conditions, to engage in war. It is, after all, the Catholic intellectual tradition that mitigates against the fundamentalism that infects so much religious thought today.

So what’s the problem?

Even a couple ethicists I know were scandalized — or maybe embarrassed is a better term — by what one termed the “low-level sophistry” that is becoming increasingly common on the U.S. Catholic medical landscape. To the public at large, unaccustomed to back-room deals in the name of morality, they seem to make a joke of Catholic teaching. To people who don’t get it, and even to some who do, they make the church look like a place where well-trained hired guns (usually priests, it turns out) and a healthy piece of change will pretty much get you what you want.

The problem in health care could be, as NCR suggested in 1995: When Catholic health care struggles to survive in a brutally competitive market, it stands to lose its soul. Maybe. And is it possible that the problem is more fundamental: The Catholic hierarchy simply makes too many rules.

As good parents know, their credibility lies partly in enforcing the rules they make. Compliance has to be monitored, penalties imposed, exceptions justified. Such rule-dependent regimens use up enormous time and energy. The end result too often is fearful conformity or rebellion as trust and personal responsibility are undermined.

Then again, if rules are made and ignored, or if exceptions become the norm, the rules — and the parents — become a joke.

So, good parents learn what the curia in Rome has not learned: that they teach best by inspiration and positive reinforcement. That rules work best when they are few and limited to the nonnegotiables.

It’s worth noting that in Eastern Orthodoxy, where Fathers are also fathers, ideals are high but rules are few.

The Catholic hierarchy, in contrast, has developed a complex paternalistic system that keeps a lot of celibate insiders very busy: One group to make the rules, another to interpret them, another to justify exceptions, still another to rationalize it all for people left confused.

It’s a mean substitute for family life.

National Catholic Reporter, February 19, 1999