Concerns arose among Catholics in Colorado and elsewhere after media outlets reported late last month that Colorado-based Catholic Healthcare Initiatives (CHI) had argued in court that unborn children aren’t persons, thereby suggesting that CHI might not endorse Church teachings affirming the human dignity of unborn children.

Lawyers representing CHI had made the claim in the context of a lawsuit filed by Jeremy Stodghill against St. Thomas More Hospital, arising from the death in 2006 of his wife, Lori, who was seven months pregnant with twin boys.

In the wake of the media reports, CHI executives discussed the matter with the Catholic bishops of Colorado — Archbishop Samuel Aquila of Denver, Bishop Michael Sheridan of Colorado Springs and Bishop Fernando Isern of Pueblo.

CHI, which operates 78 Catholic hospitals in 17 states, subsequently announced it would no longer advance this legal claim in connection with the case, which is now being considered for review by the Colorado Supreme Court following two lower-court decisions in favor of the hospital.

J.D. Flynn, chancellor of the Archdiocese of Denver, spoke Feb. 4 with Register Editor in Chief Jeanette DeMelo about what errors gave rise to the controversy, what measures were taken to correct the problem and what can be learned from what occurred.


Last week, various news headlines erupted with this story: “Colorado Catholic Hospital Says Fetus Not a Legal Person.” This headline obviously concerned many Catholics, but even the secular media saw the situation as hypocrisy. What’s the story?

In Colorado law, as is the law in most states, the unborn are a class of people who do not enjoy many legal protections. In the legal case that brought this up, the Stodghill case at St. Thomas More Hospital, the legal-defense team for the hospital argued that they couldn’t be held legally liable for the death of unborn people because unborn people aren’t protected by law in Colorado.

The problem with that, I think, for a lot of people, is it seemed like the Church was wanting to say, on the one hand, the unborn are people and deserve legal protection and, on the other hand, we shouldn’t be held accountable in law.

The truth is that any law that fails to protect the unborn is an unjust law, and so it is morally wrong for us to make recourse to a unjust law in order to defend ourselves.

Last week, the bishops of Colorado met with the executives of Catholic Health Initiatives, and they recognized that. And they really wanted to move forward with an understanding of just law and without making recourse to an unjust law.


Did the media initially misrepresent the situation?

The secular media reports contained a lot of things which were inaccurate. They accused Catholic Health Initiatives of garnishing and bankrupting Mr. Stodghill, which isn’t really rooted in fact. They took sophisticated moral questions and made them extremely simple in order to exploit this situation.

But the fact of the matter is: The kernel of what the media was doing wasn’t wrong, and we shouldn’t ignore that, and we shouldn’t make the media the bad guy. There were ways that the secular media responded which were inappropriate, not surprising but inappropriate, but we shouldn’t forget that there was a moral issue here which has been resolved — and that, ultimately, the greatest injustice is that the unborn are not protected by law in Colorado and in most states across the country.


In a statement today, Catholic Health Initiatives clearly declared their commitment to the Church’s teaching that life begins at conception. How did the attorneys for one of CHI’s hospitals come to argue differently?

Very honestly, I think the argument that St. Thomas More lawyers made would probably be a very common legal argument. They said that if a statute defines a person in the following way we should be held accountable to that standard. I don’t think that those attorneys realized or recognize that the Church doesn’t want to be held to standards of personhood that leave out people who haven’t been born yet.

When we begin to leave out the unborn from a standard of personhood, when we begin to leave out the elderly or the mentally incapable from standards of personhood, we go into a very dangerous place very quickly. I don’t think the attorneys recognized that perspective of the Church, but it is important for us to recognize it.


It wasn’t because of that argument that the case was thrown out.

No. Actually, the case didn’t get anywhere because St. Thomas More Hospital provided excellent medical care to Lori Stodghill. As soon as medical care commenced, tests were done that demonstrated that, unfortunately, Mrs. Stodghill’s twins had already passed away. Medical experts and medical records indicate that the hospital really did everything they could to care for her, and so there wasn’t causality in her death or in the deaths of her unborn children, who had died even before the doctor began to work with her.


What can we learn from this situation with the Catholic hospital?

We have to be very careful not to accept the social status quo of our culture. We have to be very careful to make sure that we are holding ourselves accountable to the, at times, very difficult teachings of our Church. And we have to make sure that before we act, or before people who are acting on our behalf act for us, we measure ourselves before the teachings of the Church.

I think it is especially important, though, for us to know that the world is watching to see what the Church will do. If we claim a truth, we need to bear witnesses to that truth in everything that we do. If we don’t realize the platform that we are on and the high standard that we are held to, we can not only fail to witness for ourselves, but we can fail to witness for Jesus Christ.


You are speaking about the Church, it seems, in a broad sense. But what’s the relationship between the local Church — that is, the Denver Archdiocese — and CHI?

Catholic Health Initiatives is a public juridic person. It is a certain kind of canonical institution, which, in this case, is overseen by the Office of Consecrated Life at the Holy See.

Public juridic persons speak and act in the name of the Church. Canonically, when Catholic Health Initiatives speaks, it is appropriate for us to say that the Church is speaking. 

But the relationship between CHI and the diocese is a complex one. CHI’s internal governance and policy are determined by its statutes and by its board of directors and is overseen by the Holy See. But its apostolates, its apostolic work and, in this case, its healing work those things are reviewed by the local bishops, are overseen by the local bishops to assure that the work that CHI is doing is done in accord with the teachings of the Church.


And when there’s a problem, what happens then?

When there’s a problem, things like this happen, ideally. What is remarkable about this situation from an ecclesial perspective is that the bishops had a concern; they reached out to CHI, and CHI was cooperative in working with us. 

The ministry of a bishop doesn’t have to be necessarily a punitive ministry, even when he is correcting. In this case, the bishop was correcting CHI and working with them [the officials] to help them see this moral wrong. But the bishops of Colorado didn’t want to do that in a way that was merely adversarial. They wanted to be collaborative, because to be collaborative in this way is to be evangelical.


An underlying part of this particular story is the personhood of the unborn. Has the Denver Archdiocese supported efforts to set up the legal personhood of the unborn child?

The archdiocese and bishops of Colorado have worked vigorously to support legal protections for the unborn in the state of Colorado and nationally. You can’t talk about this issue without the personhood legislation coming to mind. I think the bishops have said they don’t know whether personhood legislation is the answer to this question or not. But it is absolutely important that all of us put our abilities and our creativity and our resources at the service of working to legally protect the right to life of the unborn.