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Column: Balancing the Demands of Our Spiritual and Professional Worlds

Being both Catholic and a lawyer imposes a difficult burden. While I’m usually able to reconcile my professional life with my spiritual obligations, there are those gray areas where the mandate of the law pulls me in an opposite and irreconcilable direction from the obligations of my faith. It’s not an easy line to tread, as Saint Thomas More realized. The patron saint of lawyers made the supreme sacrifice for our church, refusing to obey an edict to which his secular office demanded acquiescence but which would have denied the legitimacy of Catholicism and the pope. Half a millennium later, the sacrifice of his life stands as a breathtaking example of courage.

Most of us are never going to be faced with More’s excruciating choice between life and conscience. But many of us have lesser battles to fight on the terrain of our eternal souls, and a demoralizing number fall short of the mark, myself included. You don’t need to be a lawyer for this to happen, either; doctors, teachers, pharmacists and — as we are now beginning to see under the Affordable Care Act — even small business owners are faced with the dilemma of making a decision (providing health insurance, say) that puts you squarely between God and Caesar (or as the case may be, Obama.)

Ironically, even the church is not immune from such crises of conscience. And like every entity that strives to live between two separate worlds, the secular and the spiritual, it sometimes makes serious mistakes. One instance is the sex abuse scandal about which much has been written, not always accurately. Crimes were committed, punishments are being meted out, and if there is any hypocrisy involved it’s shared between those who speak for the children (but have their own agendas and grievances against the church) and those who cared more for appearance than justice.

Another example surfaced last month, when a wrongful death case out of Colorado seemingly put the Catholic Church on the side of those who think life is without value until it can be touched, seen and experienced outside of the womb. In other words, the abortion rights crowd. And that revelation justifiably sent shockwaves around the country.

The facts are simple, and tragic: Lori Stodghill was seven months’ pregnant with twin boys when she suffered a pulmonary embolism and died of cardiac arrest at St. Thomas More hospital in Canon City, Colo. Even though the babies might have been saved if a cesarean had been performed, no one tried to operate on them. Stodghill’s husband sued, and one of the Catholic hospital’s defenses was that under state law, a fetus is not a “person” until it is actually born. Therefore, said the hospital, the case should be thrown out.

The judge bought the argument, as he had to under the ruling precedent, and dismissed the lawsuit. That decision was affirmed on appeal. Stodghill has since taken his case to the Supreme Court, where it is currently pending. None of this would have emerged had the church, which must be distinguished from the Catholic health system running the hospital, not been actively involved in several “personhood” initiatives in Colorado, arguing that all life is precious from the moment of conception.

On radio last week, my co-host Rich Zeoli and I discussed the ethics of this case. As a Catholic, I am appalled that a Catholic organization would align itself with those who think that a 7-month-old fetus is not a “person.” As a lawyer, I realize that the organization is entitled to the same legal protections as any other defendant that gets haled into court. As a Catholic lawyer, I think that there were better ways to fight back against a wrongful death claim than to simply bend so cowardly toward Caesar.

A lawyer who has worked tirelessly for pro-life causes for 30 years called in and suggested that the church was forced to go along with the legal defense chosen by its insurance company. I respectfully disagree. To paraphrase Matthew, what profit the hospital to gain a favorable judgment, but lose its institutional soul?

I understand that exposing the hospital to a civil judgment in this case could possibly result in the closure of hospitals across the state. This, in turn, could result in loss of jobs and a reduction in the critical care provided by these valuable institutions. It also seems unfair to deny the church the same legal protections available to similarly-situated organizations.

Only, that’s the point. Catholic hospitals are different from other organizations. Their mission is not only to heal the body but to comfort the spirit. They, like the martyred More, are bound by a higher obligation.

Fortunately, the powers-that-be had an epiphany. On Monday, the hospital pledged not to pursue the defense that deprived those 7-month-old babies of their inherent humanity.

It seems that the blood of St. Thomas was not shed in vain.

Christine M. Flowers is a lawyer and columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.