Joe is off on a much deserved break, so I’m helping out along with our web/video crew to continue documenting things Fr. Bryan Hehir has said that we here at the blog see as objectively problematic. No one in an official capacity from the archdiocese has responded to us about the last post and video of Fr. Hehir saying the doctrinal questions around women priests need to be worked through by the Church—a contradiction of the infallible teachings of the Catholic Church. So today we move to the topic of Catholic conscience protections and abortion.
We considered reporting on this back in April after Fr. Hehir spoke at Boston College on “A Matter of Conscience,” though Diogenes, the long-term anonymous blogger at CatholicCulture, and Throwthe BumsOutin2010 covered it very nicely at the time. But since abortion is a key issue of our time—especially in light of the healthcare debate and pending sale of Caritas Christi—we are revisiting it. And since this blog has come under criticism by the Archdiocese of Boston for saying things they feel are untrue, degrading, and defamatory about Fr. Hehir which we feel are in fact accurate, we hope that the video footage documenting exactly what was said will make it easy to find common ground with our critics with the objective truth.
If you feel you know everything you need to know about conscience clauses, skip down to the video. For anyone who wants a refresher on the Catholic teaching regarding conscience clauses, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says,
1782 Man has the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions. “He must not be forced to act contrary to his conscience. Nor must he be prevented from acting according to his conscience, especially in religious matters.
The first recorded claim of conscience rights for medical personnel is the 4th Century B.C. Hippocratic Oath: “I will follow that system of regimen which, according to my ability and judgment, I consider for the benefit of my patients. … I will give no deadly medicine to any one if asked, nor suggest any such counsel; and in like manner I will not give to a woman a pessary to produce abortion.”
The right of conscience is recognized in the U.S. Constitution, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the World Medical Association’s Code of Medical Ethics, and in 47 states, laws protect the conscience rights of healthcare providers.
Here are statements by various U.S. bishops on the same issue.
So Fr. Hehir participated in a panel discussion at BC on April 10, 2010 called “A Matter of Conscience: Religious Exemptions and the Healthcare Debate.” You can watch the whole event here. (Fr. Hehir’s comments are between about 6:45 and 25:00)
Below is about 5 minutes of video footage, including opening comments excerpted from the moderator (Eric) where he defines a conscience excemption, excerpts from what Fr. Hehir said, and brief commentary from a representative of the “Catholic militants of Boston.” (Video credit to BHE team member LastCatholicinBoston). The most controversial part of Fr. Hehir’s comments starts at around 2:40 and runs to around 4:30.
Before we review Fr. Hehir’s comments, we should note that next to him on the panel was Mass General Hospital Director of Obstetrics, Dr. Michael Greene, who is on the record as working around the legal ban on partial-birth abortions by “injecting fetuses with lethal drugs before procedures” to avoid any chance of partially delivering a live fetus. The Boston Globe quoted Dr. Greene in “Shots Assist in Aborting Fetuses: Lethal Injections Offer Legal Shield” saying “No physician even wants to be accused of stumbling into accidentally doing one of these procedures…in the experienced hands of hospital staff, the injections add no risk and are “trivially simple.” To avoid partially delivering a live fetus, then intentionally causing its death and violating the law, now for abortions done after 18-20 weeks gestation, a lethal injection of digoxin or potassium chloride (a potentially poisonous salt also used in state executions) is done beforehand and is carefully documented so as to preclude an accusation and prosecution. Patients “all are appreciative of what we do for them and understand the circumstances under which we work,” Greene said in the Globe. But I digress–this was never mentioned during the panel and Fr. Hehir did not mention “abortion” by name, so allow me to get back on topic.
As Joe said in the last post, what Fr. Hehir did not say is almost as important as what he did say. To be fair, Fr. Hehir started out by paraphrasing what the moderator, Eric, said in defining what a Catholic conscience exemption is—namely a “standard of civil law which protects the right of a professional or institution from performing a legal act because of either personal, moral , or religious conviction.” He said it was fair to argue there are deep cultural moral fragmentations in American society.
At about 2:40, Fr. Hehir says,
“There are tensions when you try to provide public service but don’t always live under laws you necessarily agree with. In terms of choosing our future, we need to ask the question what could be lost if we can’t find a fair adjudication of this issue? The issue by definition is shot through with tension. If you think of the conscience clause protecting the professional, then you have to think about access to service on the part of clients of various kinds, patients, or clients of social service agencies.
Just to be clear, this “access to service” described by Fr. Hehir means abortion, but for some reason, he never states that. The Catechism, Pope, and teaching authority of the Catholic Church are clear that the Catholic Church opposes killing the unborn. So, it’s troubling to this writer and others faithful Catholic who watched the video to hear from a senior Archdiocesan official that Catholics should “have to think” about how the woman will get access to abortion services.
Fr. Hehir continued saying,
My sense is what could be lost is on one hand is damage to profession involved, what also could be lost is this characteristic of social system where it is pervaded by non-profits, using a pluralism of actors in the system. Unless we choose well on this, we could harm the profession, the social system. And clearly, if we don’t choose well, we could harm the individual who needs precisely the service.
Not to be redundant, but once again, “service “means abortions. Was Fr. Hehir concerned about harming the woman who needs the abortion service to have her unborn baby killed? Or was he concerned about harming the baby who needs the service to be aborted? He emphasizes the possible harm to the profession, the pluralism of actors in the social system and the individual who needs the abortion service, but says nothing about the risk to the individual conscience of the medical professional.
Near the conclusion we get Fr. Hehir’s own redefinition of the conscience clause, which is objectively nothing like what Eric the moderator or Fr. Hehir said earlier. A conclusion of a talk is usually what the speaker wants to drive home, to have the audience remember most. The takeaway. The “whole Enchliada” as it were, summed up in the bottom line:
My basic position is, conscience clauses provide an essential political legal component to adjudicate deeply held convictions and positions in this pluralistic society. I think the resolution requires defining the issues broadly. You’ve got to pay attention to all the actors, their beliefs, their interests, and the duties involved and recognize that conscience clauses will limit the rights of others to some degree.
After hearing Fr. Hehir’s comments, a listener does not come away with the conclusion that Catholics should focus our attention and efforts in public policy on lobbying to limit the availability of abortion, to limit government funding of abortion or to ensure Catholic healthcare professionals can be exempt from taking part in the moral evil of abortion. Instead, the average listener will likely come away hearing that we should pay attention to ALL the actors and our duties to provide these services, lest we compromise the social service system.
In Fr. Hehir’s final conclusion, he asked:
How do you deal with that tension. Conscience clauses should be claimed only for essential issues – not capaciously. If conscience clauses were eroded, the effect could be that you use the power of the law to drive a wedge between professionals deepest convictions and their ability to provide effective public service on the other.
After listening several times, our team found it difficult to understand what Fr. Hehir believes, what he wanted the audience to conclude, or what he wanted the Church, citizens and the government to do. Carol McKinley at ThrowtheBumsOutin2010 raised a similar question. “You have the State take away the rights of the individual person to make a judgment about a moral evil and assert their constitutional rights themselves–and replace it with public policies that make decisions for the individual about what moral evils are protected with conscience clauses and which ones are not. But then you can’t have it both ways, can you? Either every person whose conscience is formed has the right to make a judgment on their own and assert their rights to make decisions about their salvation, or they have a society that takes those judgments away. What form of governance takes away individual rights to make decisions about your salvation? It isn’t democracy.”
As fraternal correction, I would offer that Fr. Hehir should have mentioned the word “abortion” and said clearly that it was considered a gravely moral evil by the Church. Fr. Hehir said nothing about how an erosion in conscience clauses would result in many medical professionals abandoning their profession, thus limiting the quality of medical care for everyone. As the Cardinal’s Cabinet Secretary responsible for pro-life programs, he should have offered a strong pro-life voice. The USCCB has posted on their website, comments from bishops including Archbishop Hughes of New Orleans who said, “It is imperative that the rights of doctors, nurses and all medical professionals be protected and free from discrimination based upon their religious beliefs, morals and ethics.” Or, he could have cited Archbishop O’Brien of Baltimore who said healthcare professionals must exercise their consciences regularly in matters of life and death. “They are called to be guardians and servants of human life. This noble vocation invites moral, cultural, and legal pressures into its everyday practice. Freedom of conscience is essential to facing these pressures and responding to them “with an impassioned and unflinching affirmation of life,” as Pope John Paul II called for in The Gospel of Life.”
Diogenes at CatholicCulture sounded similar criticism of Fr. Hehir when he commented on a Boston College Magazine article about the event, saying: “…we put at risk the health-care profession, the patient requesting the services, and the role of non-profits in the social welfare system,… What’s missing from that list of endangered values? The individual conscience: which was, you may recall, the subject of the evening’s panel discussion. Father Hehir’s concern about health-care institutions and non-profit agencies was expressed clearly enough to make an impression on the Boston College Magazine reporter. His concern for individual Catholics who might be compelled by law to perform immoral actions wasn’t so memorable.”
We know we sound like a broken record on this but we have to keep coming back to the comment by Cardinal O’Malley on his blog back on April 30. Fr. Hehir “has brought a vast understanding of the important place our Church has in society and inspires us with his compassion, vision and fidelity to the work of the Church. His voice brings clarity to our message and mission in serving the Catholic community here in Boston.”
Does someone else objectively see and hear in this Boston College video (or in Fr. Hehir’s other public comments or actions) what Cardinal said he sees?