For the first time, U.S. Catholic bishops last week officially addressed how church-sponsored healthcare facilities should do business within local dioceses.
The National Conference of Catholic Bishops/U.S. Catholic Conference approved a new version of guidelines for Catholic healthcare providers and changed the rules' title to Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services. The directives were last revised in 1975.
"This is not an authoritative document by any means," said the Rev. Joseph Kukura, vice president of the division of theology, mission and ethics Religious hospitals for the Catholic Health Association. "If the local bishop is responsible for all the church's ministries, then he should be kept informed of what the Catholic healthcare facility is doing."
As market pressures fuel unprecedented numbers of mergers, Catholic healthcare facilities collaborating with facilities not sponsored by the church face challenges in blending business and church concerns.
The directives pertain primarily to medical issues, such as forbidding sterilizations, abortions and in vitro fertilizations. They also become business guidelines for bishops in each diocese.
Many bishops have already dealt with such matters by keeping the church assets separate from a non-Catholic facility's assets. Catholic facilities must also distance themselves from services that compromise church missions.
"When a venture may involve a Catholic healthcare institution in activities judged morally wrong by the Church, the Catholic institution should limit its involvement," the directives said.
With more than $32 billion in annual revenues, the nation's 570 Catholic hospitals are the largest not-for-profit force in healthcare other than government-owned hospitals.
The new directives come at the end of a six-year revision process.
The bishops also issued a strong statement against euthanasia just weeks after Oregon voters approved physician-assisted suicide. The bishops said Catholic healthcare facilities "may never condone or participate in euthanasia or assisted suicide in any way."