FiveThirtyEight Smears Catholic Hospitals

A patient is comforted by her husband at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Tucson, Arizona, September 13, 2017. (Caitlin O'Hara/Reuters)
Its hit piece is a textbook example of religious intolerance, illiteracy, and, yes, bad faith.

This week FiveThirtyEight has made the shocking discovery that Catholic hospitals are, in fact, Catholic — and that Catholic teaching on human life remains the same as it always has been.

Media outlets tend to intermittently revive mild panic over the Church’s role in the U.S. health-care system. A couple of years ago, a piece similar to FiveThirtyEight’s appeared at ThinkProgress (I debunked that one, too). This latest smear campaign passes itself off as a news article, but its authors seem intent on raising the alarm over the apparently heinous fact that the Church continues to resist performing procedures that some people consider necessary: abortion, contraception, sterilization, euthanasia, and sex-reassignment surgery. Catholics, meanwhile, continue to consider these, to greater or lesser degrees, violations of human dignity.

Such an anti-Catholic attack is to be expected from ThinkProgress; it’s more alarming to see work like this in a mainstream outlet such as FiveThirtyEight.

It’s nearly impossible to take such attacks seriously, even on their own terms. For one thing, they consistently ignore or gloss over the fact that the Catholic Church has done more to provide people with health care than any institution in human history. This matters very little to the culture warriors who try to shore up each new frontier of the Sexual Revolution by forcefully conscripting everyone in sight.

FiveThirtyEight’s contribution to the ongoing skirmish with Catholic health care makes next to no effort at religious literacy. The authors write, for example, that “religious authorities have helped determine what kinds of care can be offered in Catholic institutions, based on theological concepts like the sanctity of human life” (emphasis added). But the dignity of human life is not a solely theological concept, though there is of course Catholic (and Jewish, and Islamic, and etc.) theology related to the concept that human life has unique and inherent value.

Secular philosophers, non-religious people, and religious people with little theological knowledge have articulated this notion for centuries. FiveThirtyEight’s snide use of “theological concept” gives a sinister ring to the Church’s defense of the “sanctity of life” — as if there could be no rational basis for the Church’s teaching on, for example, the immorality of abortion, a teaching based not on theology but on science and ethics.

The entire article is laced with subtle efforts to cast the Church in a menacing light. Most notably, the authors’ premise is that restrictions on particular procedures stem from Catholic bishops’ arbitrary decisions to enforce their personal morality through hospitals. In fact, the policies described in the piece stem from long-standing Catholic social teaching, which applies to the entire Church. This isn’t a shadowy cabal of old white men inventing subjective rules in secret to harm patients; it’s centuries-old Catholic teaching.

Conscience protections are portrayed as an aggressive onslaught against cultural norms, rather than as a defensive measure undertaken in a climate openly hostile to Catholic values.

Several sections of the piece are dedicated to explaining how a growing number of communities in the U.S. would have little to no access to hospital care at all if not for Catholic hospitals. Somehow, though, the authors spend the rest of the piece lamenting the fact that Catholic hospitals have stepped up to serve these communities, focusing entirely on how it’s therefore difficult for people in these regions to access the aforementioned procedures.

Along the way, the authors take a sideswipe at conscience protections that allow religious hospitals — as well as religious medical professionals at non-religious hospitals — to avoid providing procedures they find morally objectionable: “The growth in the number of Catholic facilities coincided with a slow push, starting in the 1970s, to create legal carve-outs for health professionals’ moral or religious objections to providing some services.”

The sinister “slow push” and “carve-outs,” of course, coincided with court decisions that instantiated rights to birth control and abortion, necessitating First Amendment protection for Christians with moral objections. That fact goes unmentioned. Instead, conscience protections are portrayed as an aggressive onslaught against cultural norms, rather than as a defensive measure undertaken in a climate openly hostile to Catholic values.

The authors seem to have endless sympathy, meanwhile, for the beleaguered medical professionals working in Catholic hospitals who have been restrained from performing certain procedures as a result of their hospital’s creed. One doctor complained that a bishop’s decision not to permit tubal ligations was “at best intrusive, and at worst life-threatening.” But these practitioners could choose not to work in Catholic hospitals if they find Church teaching so onerous — the FiveThirtyEight writers fail to note this. They also make no mention of the medical professionals who value working in a system that provides the holistic health care they believe is best for the human person.

FiveThirtyEight’s weak effort at reporting — a thinly disguised hit piece — is evidence not of how the Church is harming Americans, but of society’s antagonism toward to the Church and to the morality that makes it distinctive. It’s evident, too, in the growing push to shutter Catholic adoption agencies that refuse to place children in homes with same-sex couples. Left by the wayside is the liberal vision of civil society as a patchwork quilt, flourishing as a result of distinctive institutions, not in spite of them. Catholic hospitals won’t respond to the onslaught by ceasing to be Catholic; they’ll cease being hospitals. For the most hostile culture warriors on the left, perhaps that’s the goal.


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