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"At the very heart of human freedom is the right to religious freedom, since it deals with man’s most fundamental relationship: his relationship with God." - Pope John Paul II, Address to Diplomats, January 2005

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Social Inertia and Ideology Threaten Conscience Rights in Catholic Health Care

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June 23, 2016

Each year dioceses around the country arrange special events to highlight the importance of defending religious freedom.  The Fortnight for Freedom is from June 21—the vigil of the Feasts of St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More—to July 4, Independence Day.  In this analysis, we take a look at how trends in society are impacting Catholic health care ministries in the United States:

In recent years, a movement has been growing to subvert the right to conscience and religious liberty of Catholic, religious and other health care providers to the desires of patients seeking abortions, sterilizations and other procedures. Despite the evidence that Catholic hospitals cause no significant impact on the availability of these procedures, advocates of these “rights” are rigorously advocating for statutes and judicial opinions that would legally compel Catholic providers to violate their consciences.

In California, for instance, the Department of Managed Health Care overstepped its authority by issuing a regulation ordering all health insurance plans in California to cover all abortions for any reason, calling it basic health care coverage. This attempted rulemaking, however, is unwarranted and legal cases continue to question the DMHC’s action.           

Other civil lawsuits are appearing around the State and nation, aimed at the same goal of forcing compliance.  The lawsuits have inevitably failed because the evidence just does not support the effort.  In reality, the common good is best served when the dignity of each person is upheld and defended as it is in Catholic health care and other faith-based organizations.

Catholic health care is a formidable force which benefits the communities it serves. Independent studies[i] have shown that Catholic and church owned institutions provide better and more efficient medical service and care than investor-owned public or non-profit alternatives.  Furthermore, Catholic hospitals are distinguished in their palliative care, pain management and end-of-life hospice care for the chronically and terminally ill.

The core values of human dignity and care for the most vulnerable – which are at heart of Catholic health care’s mission –  are major factors in these outcomes. In short, Catholic health care not only helps countless individual patients in need, but contributes significantly to the common good by operating out of core values and a properly informed conscience.

However, a movement has taken root – both in California and nationally – to bring political and legal pressures on Catholic health care institutions forcing them to either comply with the personal desires of patients for so-called medical and morally problematic procedures or be rendered ineligible for federal or state funds. Opposing organizations claim, without presenting supporting evidence, that the unavailability of these procedures at Catholic institutions poses a significant obstacle to people seeking them. Studies, however, show that this is not the case.

In the State of Washington, for instance, where Catholic health care makes up a large and growing percentage of the available health care services, a study conducted by the state’s Healthcare Research Group, Forecast and Research Division found that the assessment “do[es] not appear to suggest that communities predominately served by religious hospitals are experiencing barriers to care.” This same study shows that communities in which religious hospitals are located show the same as or greater access to these procedures, showing the claims to be without substance.

As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “man has the right to act in conscience” in order to make moral decisions freely, authentically and without undue extrinsic coercion, “especially in religious matters” (CCC 1782). Furthermore, not only is this one right among others, rather it is central to human dignity itself, for “the dignity of the human person implies and requires uprightness of moral conscience” (CCC 1780). Seeking, knowing and freely choosing the good (and thus ultimately God who is all good) is at the heart of human nature made in God’s image and likeness. From this flows our core dignity, worth and inviolability as persons and children of God, material beings animated by an immaterial spiritual soul. To deny this proper, free and responsible obedience to one’s properly formed conscience is to deny the very heart and purpose of the human person and subject one person’s dignity to another’s demand for convenience. Indeed, principles such as these are likewise enshrined in our nation’s constitution.

The common good can never be served by forcing a person or group to do what they consider to be intrinsically morally objectionable, and to penalize or attempt to eradicate Catholic health care with this intention in mind would be a horrible blunder and tragedy for the common good.

With the recent enactment of the “End of Life Option Act” legalizing euthanasia in California, the pressure may only increase if the protections of conscience included in the Act are not enforced, maintained and thoroughly defended. Therefore, this movement against the consciences of religiously and morally guided objecting institutions and individuals must be opposed rigorously. For no less is at stake than the health and wellbeing of countless individuals, the common good of society and human dignity itself.

For more information:

Legislation pending in the United States Congress, H.R. 4828, would give Catholic health care institutions and others the right to defend themselves in federal court against governmental mandates to provide, cover and refer for elective abortions.  Conscience Protection Act of 2016, H.R. 4828:

Faith in the Public Square -

Links to articles with related information from

Redding Case Link at SF Superior Court (Chamorro v. Dignity Health):

USCCB Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care: )


[i] According to Truven Health Analytics: “Not-for-profit, church-owned hospitals save more lives, release patients from the hospital sooner and have better overall patient satisfaction ratings.”