Tuesday, June 21, 2011

I Told You So: Catholic Church Comes After Catholic Bioethicists

Cross-posted from The Revealer, a publication of The Center for Religion and Media, NYU.

I shouldn’t take any credit for predicting the actions of the most predictable institution on the globe, but I’ll take it anyway. I made the case at The Nation last week that the USCCB’s recent statement on aid in dying would lead to broader crack-downs on end of life rights, privacy, and awareness. I was right. According to a new report at Crisis Magazine and a press releasefrom the bishops today, they’ve targeted Catholic professors at four universities: Georgetown, Marquette, Santa Clara and Boston College. How did the bishops identify the academics they wanted to discredit? Writes Patrick J. Reilly at Crisis:

The professors’ efforts came to light during a Cardinal Newman Society investigation in 2005, following news reports of a legal brief filed by 55 bioethicists in opposition to “Terri’s Law,” a Florida measure that empowered Gov. Jeb Bush to ensure that the comatose Terri Schiavo received water and nutrition. As reported in “Teaching Euthanasia,” an exclusive report in the June 2005 issue of Crisis, multiple professors at Catholic universities had taken positions on end-of-life issues that seemed to conflict with Vatican teaching.

That’s right. Conscience aside, if you don’t exactly teach–or even in your personal life espouse– the Vatican line, you’re not Catholic. And it’s a seething mission among Catholic Church leadership to reign in not only Catholic bioethicists and professors but also Catholic hospitals. Only two years ago, the USCCB changed the Ethical and Religious Directives that are used to manage all 625 of their hospitals to limit a patient’s ability to be removed from artificial nutrition and hydration.

These actions are a direct response to the Terri Schiavo fiasco — which I’ve written about at Religion Dispatches and AltNet — and the Church’s desire to more directly guide health care policy in the US. The USCCB is still smarting over dissent of nuns and the Catholic Health Association during the recent health care debate. By rooting out dissenters, they hope to present a more unified voice on issues of the body.

Who’s their next target? It’s hard to say. While the church cleans out universities, hospitals, agencies and schools, “pro-Life” organizations prepare their on-the-ground election-time efforts and renewed pressure.

The Catholic Church well knows that even a statement addressing “assisted suicide” will serve as a political map for “pro-life” activists and their allies who have long seen “euthanasia” as one item on their platform. Think legislation governing advanced directives (already moot at Catholic hospitals if you’ve got a feeding tube, where a webwork of conscience clauses prevents them from complying with state and federal laws), hospice and palliative care regulations, inheritance laws for families of suicides, drug regulations….

I hope Church leadership is overreaching. While their fight against abortion is aided by the fact that women’s reproductive rights have been shamed and ghetto-ized since time began, seniors vote. And the US population resoundingly supported the Florida decision in 2005 to remove Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube.

Yet, the Church is particularly skilled at over-representing its influence and voting base. Again and again, health care rights for women have been bargained away with deference to the Church. Why not seniors’? Neither party seems willing to press for a meaningful Patients’ Bill of Rights or real health care reform. And the obstacles to nuanced conversation about death are myriad; they include an uninterested, misinformed, or easily-distracted press.

Whether you think aid in dying should be legal or not, whether you abide by Catholic doctrine or the light of the moon, you should still question the health of a democracy where a church’s laws dictate the actions of the pluralistic societal body.

Cross-posted from The Revealer, a publication of The Center for Religion and Media, NYU.

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