AUSTIN, Texas (ChurchMilitant.com) - A Texas prelate is breaking with fellow Lone Star State bishops, refusing to sign a statement that would strip hospital patients of their protections. His act has exposed a growing rift within the U.S. hierarchy over fundamental Catholic teaching on protecting life.
Bishop Joseph Strickland of the diocese of Tyler won't back a declaration by the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops (TCCB) that calls on Gov. Greg Abbott to lift penalties against healthcare rationing at hospitals amid the growing viral pandemic. In essence, the declaration would give hospitals carte blanche to decide who gets to live and who gets to die among coronavirus-infected patients, regardless of their reasons for choosing one patient over another.
Published Friday, the "Statement on Scarce Healthcare Resources" declares that "critical medical triage decisions are best left to the professional judgment of healthcare providers."
"In order to encourage this sound practice of medicine, the Bishops support the Governor waiving regulations and statutes which could result in fines civil liability, and even criminal charges for decisions related to the allocation of resources during this declared disaster," the statement continues.
Pro-life observers note that to the uninitiated, the statement may read as reasonable — but the devil is in the details. One analyst who asked to remain anonymous told Church Militant Saturday that the TCCB wants to remove legal protections that hold physicians accountable — measures designed to ensure doctors practice good medicine. The ability to sue helps keep bad behavior in check, stressing that patients and their families must have legal recourse, especially in times of crisis, as now.
Strickland's stand is being applauded by pro-life advocates. In a statement published Saturday, Texas Right to Life observed that "Bishop Strickland's absence from, if not opposition to, this overreach by the TCCB is in line with national health officials and the White House."
The group noted that world-renowned global health expert Dr. Deborah Birx, Coronavirus Response Coordinator for the White House, "clarified on Thursday that hospitals and medical professionals in the United States do not need to suggest to the public that any rationing of ventilators or care is currently necessary ... ."
Texas Right to Life went on to slam the TCCB for its stance:
The TCCB is the administrative and lobbying arm of the Texas bishops and holds no canonical authority as an entity. The TCCB's recent suggestions would effectively suspend all patient protections currently in law, violating the constitutional rights of vulnerable patients. Regrettably, this action is consistent for the TCCB, which holds interests in hospitals and has opposed patient protections and needed reforms to medical ethics laws for each of the last 12 sessions of the Texas Legislature.
The group added, "Waiving all laws and standards of care does not further protect patients, but rather fosters quality of life value judgments about who should live and who should die, spreads anxiety and fear, and jeopardizes the lives of those needing care at hospitals.
"[D]uring a global pandemic, when pro-death forces are advocating for anti-Life solutions, the leadership of our state, our medical field, and our churches must remain resolute to protect all vulnerable patients," it continued.
The "Statement on Scarce Healthcare Resources" is the latest sign of what many pro-life advocates say is, at best, a milquetoast commitment to the defense of human life.
Critics point to the bishops' support of end-of-life directives that allow Texas hospitals to dispose of patients much the same as U.K. hospitals did to toddlers Charlie Gard, who was euthanized in 2017, and Alfie Evans, who was killed the following year.
For example, the TCCB backs the Texas Advance Directive Act (TADA), which allows hospitals — not patients or family members — to decide when to withdraw life-sustaining care from patients if doctors judge continued care to be futile. More often than not, those decisions are not based on the best interests of the patients, as required by law, but by other utilitarian factors.
"Human intervention that would deliberately cause, hasten or unnecessarily prolong the patient's death violates the dignity of the human person," the bishops declared in 2017. "TCCB strongly supports §166.046 as indispensable for ensuring dignity at end of life."
Owing largely to the bishops' stance, many pro-lifers argue, sick Texas toddler Tinslee Lewis continues to be at risk of forcible euthanasia. Lewis was born with congenital heart and lung defects and requires a ventilator to assist with breathing. In November, a panel with Cook Children's Medical Center in Fort Worth decided that Lewis fails to meet the quality of life threshold needed to continue treatment, and decided to remove her breathing tube. A last-minute court injunction spared her life, but legal wrangling continues.
Bishop Strickland's refusal to sign the TCCB statement isn't the first time he's stood alone in defense of Church teaching. Earlier this month, while other U.S. bishops stayed silent, Strickland publicly called for an investigation into Catholic Relief Services (CRS), after Michael Hichborn of the Lepanto Institute released a report spotlighting CRS documents encouraging the use of condoms as a means of combating sexually transmitted diseases.
For faithful Catholics, the bishop's uncompromising defense of orthodoxy is inspiring. But some expect Strickland to be targeted by fellow bishops for his stance.
One Texas Catholic told Church Militant, "They're going to barbeque Strickland over this. He's going to need strong support from the laity moving forward."
To underscore her point, she pointed to the close of the TCCB declaration, which spotlights Bp. Strickland's dissent:
This statement is signed by all the Catholic Bishops of Texas with the exception of Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler. The Diocese of Tyler includes 33 counties in east Texas. Bishop Strickland has expressed the opinion the development of Mass Critical Care Guidelines is not appropriate for the residents of the Diocese of Tyler.
Jim Graham, executive director for Texas Right to Life, echoed this concern for Strickland in a statement to Church Militant.
"What we're seeing play out here is a civil war in the episcopacy. This is a microcosm of the struggle between good bishops and bishops engaging in politics and power instead of spiritual activity," he explained.
"The chasm is growing between those men who are fighting for souls and the men on the other side who are men seeking power and authority," Graham continued. "I think this is going to provide an opportunity for the true shepherds to rise up and show who they are."
"In this moment of darkness descending right now, several great lights will arise — we will have a few good shepherds to lead us. But this will prove to be the age of the laity," he forecast.
"Bishop Strickland's supporters are worried that he and others like him will be singled out and attacked by establishment bishops and removed from their bishoprics," Graham warned. "So it's up to the laity to back them. Catholics are going to have to come to the defense of the few orthodox bishops in America."