The Roman Catholic bishop in Providence, R.I., last week called off the proposed merger between St. Joseph Health Services, a two-hospital diocesan system, and the Providence-based Lifespan network because it did not meet newly tightened Vatican rules on deals between Catholic and secular provider organizations.
It's the second time since June that church leaders have killed a pending Catholic-secular combination over the issue of adherence to ethical and moral stances against abortions, sterilizations and other procedures that violate Catholic teachings.
In the process, it pushes aside the previous blueprint for acceptable mixed mergers -- a 1994 document issued by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.
It also establishes diocesan facilities as vulnerable to church intervention in such deals because of the hospitals' direct accountability to bishops who look to Rome for guidance.
St. Joseph Health Services, which includes Our Lady of Fatima Hospital in North Providence and St. Joseph Hospital for Specialty Care in Providence, was in the final stages of forging an agreement with Lifespan, a five-hospital regional system, that was designed from the beginning with Catholic church policy in mind.
The deal, in the works since March 1996, "was drawn from a careful review" of the 1994 directives, a diocese statement said. Using the directives as a guide, "the diocese and St. Joseph Health Services conducted comprehensive negotiation with officials of Lifespan to ensure that the affiliation would ensure preservation of St. Joseph's Catholic identity and its ability to provide healthcare that is consistent with Catholic morality and ethics," the diocese said.
In January both governing boards adopted a master affiliation agreement that followed those directives.
But after a Vatican authority nixed a merger last summer between St. Peter's Medical Center and Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, both of New Brunswick, N.J., Providence Bishop Robert Mulvee decided to re-evaluate the Lifespan arrangement, said St. Joseph spokesman Otis Brown.
The New Jersey decision, which Brown said was "unexpected," called into question a strategy of continuing to ban the procedures from Catholic institutions in a system and insulating Catholic facilities corporately from decisions to perform the procedures elsewhere.
The bishop spent about three months consulting with experts on canon law and moral theology, including a consultation with the Pope John XXIII Center in Boston, Brown said. The center's ordained and lay ethicists are considered experts on medical ethics.
The concern raised in the St. Peter's case and applied to St. Joseph was "whether or not we would be indirectly benefiting financially from procedures perceived contrary to church teaching," Brown said. "Based on the findings (of those experts) and their dialogue with the bishop, it was determined by the bishop that our agreement would not pass muster with the Vatican," he said.
Although the diocese could have taken its chances with Rome and gone ahead with the deal, it interpreted the New Jersey decision as a precedent forbidding indirect benefit, Brown said.
For now, Lifespan and St. Joseph have suspended rather than terminated the proposed full affiliation while they explore the new limits imposed on their relationship. That move preserves the regulatory and other groundwork they've laid during the past 21 months.
Instead, the two organizations decided to seek alternative cooperative arrangements short of a corporate affiliation.