St. Louis U. Showdown Could Draw in Vatican

Article excerpt

Ecclesiastical tremors over the proposed sale of a Catholic university hospital in St. Louis give notice of increasingly strained relationships between the church's hierarchy and administrators of independent Catholic institutions -- warnings that suggest an unstable bridge on the verge of collapse.

The dispute over the proposed sale of the Jesuit St. Louis University Hospital to Tenet Healthcare Corp. has taken on national, perhaps international proportions.

Jesuit Fr. Lawrence Biondi, president of St. Louis University, argues that the hospital, under terms of the $300 million sale to Tenet, the nation's second-largest for-profit health care organization, will continue to carry out its Catholic and Jesuit mission.

Some say that's hard to imagine, given the strong vocal opposition not only of Archbishop Justin Rigali of St. Louis, but of three of the highest ranking members of the U.S. hierarchy.

Rigali wants the university to accept a lower offer of $200 million from a consortium of Catholic hospitals. Trustees have said the university needs the additional money to support its medical school.

Cardinals Bernard Law of Boston, James Hickey of Washington and John O'Connor of New York have backed Rigali in public statements. Experts familiar with the controversy -- most of whom requested anonymity -- say the cardinals' willingness to publicly denounce a decision of a Catholic university president outside their own dioceses hints strongly at possible Vatican intervention ahead.

A canon lawyer in New York cited a previous, recent incidence of Vatican intervention in negotiations aimed at merging a Catholic hospital with a non-sectarian hospital in New Brunswick, N.J. The merger was off after the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith expressed a deal-killing opinion, according to Fr. John Coughlin, a canon lawyer for the New York archdiocese. The two hospitals had been struggling to resolve differences over reproductive services.

If Biondi or the St. Louis University board refuses to budge in the St. Louis dispute, it could become a landmark case. Under civil law, St. Louis University is not church property. While Biondi would be subject to pressures from Jesuit superiors in Rome under his vows of obedience, church officials are limited to moral persuasion in their dealings with the board -- or to public statements suggesting that St. Louis University is no longer "Catholic." Few in St. Louis think Rigali would go that far.

On the ether hand. Vincentian Fr. Michael Joyce, a canon lawyer in St. Louis, said Rigali is "not the kind of man who rattles the saber." He would not have made his opposition public unless he were "very serious" about affecting the outcome, Joyce said.

"If nothing else, this is putting Catholic institutions in this country on notice that they have to be very careful about these procedures," he said.

The opposition from the hierarchy signals a broad, growing concern over Catholic identity of institutions founded by religious orders but now in the hands of independent, largely lay boards. The dispute underscores and potentially challenges the freedom from church control that many U.S. Catholic institutions apparently achieved when they transferred control in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

It also underscores the power of an idea -- in this case, a thesis set forth by the late Fr. John McGrath, a canon lawyer at The Catholic University of America -and of a federal court decision affecting funding for Catholic schools.

McGrath, beginning in 1965, assured Catholic college and university presidents that they did not need permission from the Vatican for changes they were making in governance. He set out his reasoning in a 1968 monograph, "Catholic Institutions in the United States: Canonical and Civil Law Status."

As for the court decision, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled in 1966 that grants to "legally sectarian" colleges were unconstitutional. …