The Humanist Dilemma: Should I Go to the Nearby Catholic Hospital?

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Close Call on Close Care? Right now I don’t have any pressing medical problems, but I’m wondering both about the ethics and the quality of the medical care at Catholic hospitals. I’m horrified at some of the things I’ve read about them, like refusing to provide birth control or withdrawing care in hopeless cases, and I just don’t like to support religious institutions as a general rule. But I happen to live close to a Catholic hospital that has a decent reputation. If I chose to go somewhere else, it would be a major trip and ill-advised in an emergency, not to mention inconvenient if a prolonged stay or series of visits were required.

I’d like to figure this out before I’m dealing with an actual medical crisis.

—Convenience or Principles?


Dear Principles,

This really isn’t an either/or. As you note, in an emergency, by all means go to the competent Catholic hospital near you. And if you encounter a situation where you have time to weigh the pros and cons, weigh them. The nearest secular institution may do leading-edge medicine in the specialty you require, or it may not be as good as your local facility for what you have. That would affect whether you decided to go to the one nearby or make a trip to a better place, even one a plane ride away.

It also depends on whether what you need is directly affected by Catholic doctrine. Certainly, a Catholic hospital is not the place to go if the need is abortion, contraception, end-of-life issues, etc. But you may also be able to take care of immediate needs at the hospital in your neighborhood and then proceed elsewhere for things they can’t or won’t provide.

Sure, it’s good to avoid a religious institution if you have reasonable alternatives. I know one family that is very religious, and when their seventh child’s ultrasound revealed abnormalities that would almost certainly prove fatal, a team of doctors urged them to abort, so they moved to a Catholic hospital. Their baby was born barely alive and immediately went into intensive care and life support for four months before succumbing. Without all that, the baby would have died a few minutes after birth. I suppose they expected God to swoop down and provide a miracle. They also wanted the mother to have a procedure at the time of delivery to prevent future high-risk pregnancies, which is a very efficient and customary practice at secular hospitals, but the Catholic hospital refused. So later on they went to a non-Catholic facility and took care of it, then resumed their stance against contraception and abortion. Go figure.

By the way, if you ever do find yourself in a religious hospital, there’s no need to allow anyone to pray over you. That’s also true in secular hospitals, where roving priests and rabbis pop uninvited into everyone’s rooms. Just tell them, politely but firmly, “No thank you.” My mom ended her life in a Catholic hospice. She had the crosses removed from her room and refused all prayers, including the rabbi’s (she was ostensibly Jewish). Yay, Mom!

Although it’s laudable to stand by your principles, don’t do so to your own detriment. There’s no nobility in bypassing the closest emergency room when you have a bleeding wound or heart palpitations just because you don’t agree with the management’s dogma. But if you need something that’s not an emergency, shopping around for a medically equal or better option is always an excellent idea. And if there’s any way you can support bringing a secular medical facility into your neighborhood (or getting your Catholic hospital taken over by a secular organization), pursue that.

You may also be interested in this article on the unmet need for secular chaplains in hospitals.