A year ago, Pope John Paul II shook up U.S. Roman Catholic hospitals when he insisted food and water for patients in a vegetative state were "morally obligatory."
Hospitals struggled to reconcile the pope's declaration with America's diverse attitudes toward prolonging life for terminally ill or vegetative patients. The Rev. Michael Place, then president and chief executive officer of the Catholic Health Association, told Modern Healthcare, "The guidance contained in his remarks has significant ethical, legal, clinical and pastoral implications."
Late last week, the gravely ill pope, 84, suffered coronary failure that weakened his organs and left him conscious but near death, the Vatican said.
Under his papacy, Catholic doctrine emphasizing respect for life and care of the poor moved to the forefront of the church's teachings, said Gerard Magill, executive director of St. Louis University's Center for Health Care Ethics. "The Catholic tradition states with all vigor that access to healthcare is a right," he said.
The pontiff's beliefs sharply outlined priorities for Catholic healthcare providers, Magill said, citing the pope's 2004 remarks on hydration and nutrition as an example. "He promoted it very strongly, very strenuously," Magill said. Some 12% of the nation's community hospitals, or 611 hospitals, are Catholic, according to the CHA.
The Vatican under John Paul II not only affected the clinical practice of Catholic healthcare in the U.S. but its operations as well. Deals between Catholic and secular healthcare providers came under increasing scrutiny by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Intervention ended creative business arrangements between Catholic and secular hospitals in Arkansas, New Jersey and Rhode Island. The deals created conflict because of the church's stance against certain procedures performed by secular hospitals, such as sterilization, that the church deemed immoral.