Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Life Support

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Life Support

Article excerpt

In zoology, the limicoles are a class of birds that dwell on the shoreline- on that half -liquid and half-solid place, that jellied world between the water and the land. The word is an old metaphor, coined in French and derived from the Latin limbus. As an adjective, it means occupying the edge- and that is what the best- known Catholic institutions in America have always done: dwelt in that strange middle ground between the Church and the American state.

The Catholic schools, for instance- together with all the health-care facilities and Catholic charities- are not churches, but they operate at the edges of the Church, from which they feed spiritually and financially, all while serving the larger social ecosystem. The closing of St. Vincent's Hospital this year may mark something: As the well-known chronicler of Catholic New York, Terry Golway, remarked, the loss of St. Vincent's means that there is no longer a single Catholic hospital on the island of Manhattan. But, generally speaking, the Catholic institutions still populate the American scene, and they are, for the most part, still recognizably Catholic. Despite cultural, financial, and political incentives to secularize, they have not yet entirely done so- which is why the Catholic limicole institutions still provide much of the infrastructure necessary for Catholicism to occupy its current place in American civil religion.

The pressure, however, is building on all Catholic semipublic organizations. Lobbyists and a good number of those in Congress have long sought federal subsidies for abortion and the watering-down of conscience clauses for health-care professionals, which threatens the hospitals. Whether intended or not, the increase in federal regulation aims at a standardization that threatens compromise and outright secularization for Catholic primary and secondary schools. And as for Catholic charities, bishops as orthodox and dynamic as Archbishop Chaput of Denver have expressed wellfounded fears that dependence on government funding and secular-minded lay professionals is already making them vulnerable to a loss of religious identity.

No mortal threat yet exists, but, in the long run, how likely is resistance to succeed? No one knows for sure- who can say which way things are certain to break?- but it is worth noting that the catalyst for resistance has been emerging clearly ever since the American bishops began in the 1990s to take a harder line on the life issues.

Indeed, it's beginning to look as though the leadership will manage to preserve the Catholic identity of Catholic institutions only as followers of the Church at large on the culture-of-life issues- above all, abortion. Although abortion is by no means the only pertinent issue, the question of what to do about it in the public square is by far the most emotional- as it ought to be, given how many babies have been aborted since Roe v. Wade was handed down in 1973.

Hospitalizing the Hospitals

About the Catholic schools, we have written much and will, no doubt, have much more to say. But a word needs to be said about the other limicole institutions, as well. Religious identity remains somewhat stronger in Catholic hospitals than in the universities, but the hospitals have not been immune to secularization.

Since the 1920s they have operated, formally at least, under the "Ethical and Religious Directives" approved by the bishops and reflecting official Catholic doctrine. The most familiar concern is what is now termed "reproductive health": abortion, contraception, and sterilization. Since the 1960s, cases of Cadiolic physicians and hospitals providing access to contraceptives have been too numerous to recount; and Catholic hospitals are under significant economic pressure to offer sterilization procedures such as tubal ligation. Many Catholic health-care professionals who would not provide those services themselves quietly refer women to institutions that do.

The situation is no better with respect to the various techniques of artificial procreation developed since the 1970s, in vitro fertilization being the best-known, even though many Catholics are unaware that the Church actually forbids it. …

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