Franke: The Importance of Faith-Based Hospitals

October 26, 2022

by Mark Franke

If a group of people get together for the purpose of providing a needed social service for their fellow citizens, is this a good thing? Even if they are religious folk undertaking this work as an outward expression of their inward faith?

Of course this is a good thing, isn’t it? The community benefits by being able to count on this important work and much of the time and treasure is offered by the believers living their faith.

In any normal world this social work would be welcomed and appreciated. But this is no longer a normal world.

Recently the Washington Post ran an article decrying the number of Roman Catholic hospitals in the nation. This is a serious problem, we are told, as one in seven hospital beds are “controlled” by Catholics living out their faith according to a U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops directive that uses such terms as “human dignity,” “natural law” and “sacredness of every human life.” The overarching principle is reverence for the sanctity of life, and you know what ideology that offends.

The procedures at question are optional ones relating to pregnancy, birth control, sterilization, abortion and, I presume, euthanasia. We are not talking about emergency room care, cancer treatment or major surgery. I am not minimizing the importance for any given individual who struggles with these decisions, but clearly moral principles are at play here for both the patient and the health provider.

Should healthcare professionals in these hospitals be coerced into performing procedures in violation of their consciences? Maybe, according to the Community Catalyst, a left-wing advocacy group cited in the Post story. At a minimum the hospital should provide referral information. Think about the moral inconsistency of this: I can’t in good conscience do what you ask but supposedly I can in good conscience send you to someone who will. Should one conscience have absolute authority to overrule another? Philosophers have addressed this question over the centuries. I find Augustine’s guidance on conscience spot on, even today.

If it weren’t for religiously founded hospitals, where would health care be? Let’s look at my hometown of Fort Wayne for a case study. For most of my life, Fort Wayne has been served by three major hospitals.

St. Joseph’s was founded in 1869 by the Roman Catholic Church as the city’s first hospital. It was followed by a city hospital that struggled financially and had to rely on support from local Protestant congregations and Jewish synagogues to survive. Eventually this hospital was absorbed by Methodist Hospital of Indianapolis and functioned under the oversight of the local Methodists. I was born there while it was still called Methodist Hospital.

In 1904 local Lutheran congregations associated to start another Fort Wayne hospital. Lutheran Hospital, where my children were born, began in part to offer affordable health care. Yes, health care was expensive even back then but note that this was addressed by private, religious charity rather than a mandatory government program. This puts the lie to charges that religious dogma is “threatening individual patient ability to obtain timely, affordable health care,” as the Community Catalystreport charges. Check the history.

If you needed hospitalization when I was growing up, you chose either the Roman Catholics, the Lutherans or the Methodists to provide it. Rather, your doctor chose where to practice and you went there. Each church’s hospital served everyone as part of its social gospel mission.

Even though these hospitals have passed from direct church control, Christians in Fort Wayne still lend a helping hand in providing health care. Matthew 25, a free clinic where I serve as a board member, offers free medical and dental care to the uninsured poor. No government or insurance funding is accepted; all costs are paid by contributions from individuals and foundations, including the ones associated with the three original hospitals or their successors. And, significantly, with the help of hundreds of volunteer professional health care providers and people of faith.

So what’s the problem? My simple math skills tell me that, assuming the Post reported this correctly, that six of seven hospital beds are not controlled by the Roman Catholic Church. This certainly offers choice, a word loved by the Community Catalyst and others of like mind. And how many of the morally infused procedures are performed in clinics rather than hospitals? I think they “doth protest too much,” to steal from Shakespeare.

The moral question is not new to our generation as these words from Hippocrates’ famous oath attests: “[N]either will I administer a poison to anybody when asked to do so, nor will I suggest such a course. Similarly I will not give to a woman a pessary to cause abortion.”

We’ve come a long way since the fourth century BC. But have we traveled in the right direction?

Mark Franke, M.B.A., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review and its book reviewer, is formerly an associate vice-chancellor at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.


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