Catholic Healthcare West announced a restructuring Jan. 23 that will make it no longer an official ministry of the Catholic Church, while keeping it "rooted in the Catholic tradition."

Under the new governance structure, Dignity Health, as Catholic Healthcare West will now be known, will be a not-for-profit organization under which its Catholic hospitals "will continue to be Catholic, directly sponsored by their founding congregations and adhering to the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services," said the statement announcing the change. "Dignity Health's non-Catholic hospitals will continue to be non-Catholic, adhering to the Statement of Common Values."

The organization owns or operates 25 Catholic hospitals and 15 non-Catholic hospitals. The system includes 10,000 physicians and 55,000 employees at hospitals and clinics in California, Arizona and Nevada. It has operations in the California archdioceses of Los Angeles and San Francisco and dioceses of San Bernardino, Sacramento, Monterey, Fresno and Stockton; the Diocese of Phoenix; and the Nevada dioceses of Reno and Las Vegas. 

In the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, those facilities include Marian Medical Center, Santa Maria; St. John’s Regional Medical Center, Oxnard; St. John’s Pleasant Valley Hospital, Camarillo; St. Mary Medical Center, Long Beach; California Hospital MedicaL Center, Los Angeles; Glendale Memorial Hospital and Health Center; and Northridge Hospital Medical Center.

William Cox, president of the Alliance of Catholic Health Care, a membership organization for California Catholic hospitals, told Catholic News Service that the "primary rationale" for the change was to bring the Catholic hospitals in the Dignity Health system "into compliance with the moral and doctrinal tenets of the church."

The system includes some non-Catholic hospitals that permitted the direct sterilization of patients, he said, causing problems for Catholic hospitals under the former structure.

The new structure will allow "the identity and integrity of the Catholic hospitals to be protected and strengthened," Cox said.

The statement noted that the changes followed several years of conversations among the organization's sponsoring congregations, board of directors and management team about the future of health care.

San Francisco Archbishop George Niederauer granted his "nihil obstat" to the changes, affirming that the restructuring does not conflict with the teachings of the church. 

A statement from the archdiocese said Archbishop Niederauer was initially consulted about a year ago by the six communities of religious women who sponsor Catholic Healthcare West. As head of the archdiocese where the health care organization has its headquarters, it was his responsibility to evaluate the proposal in light of the norms of Catholic teaching and canon law, the statement noted.

Archbishop Niederauer consulted with other bishops and the Ad Hoc Task Force on Health Care of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and spoke with the leaders of the religious communities and with "leading Catholic moralists and authorities in church law who are expert in matters relating to health care," the archdiocesan statement added.

The statement from the health organization quoted its president and CEO, Lloyd Dean, as saying the new structure "supports our long-term plan to grow and coordinate care" and will allow it to "work across the spectrum of health care and expand partnerships."

The restructuring of the nation's fifth-largest health care organization comes after St. Joseph's Hospital in Phoenix was stripped of its Catholic identity by the local bishop because an ethics committee allowed an abortion to be performed there.

In May 2010, hospital administrators acknowledged publicly that an abortion had occurred at the hospital in late 2009. They said the woman was 11 weeks pregnant and suffered from pulmonary hypertension, which carried a near-certain risk of death for the mother if the pregnancy continued. The hospital and Catholic Healthcare West have maintained that the intention was to save "the only life that could be saved," the mother's.

Phoenix Bishop Thomas Olmsted revoked the hospital's permission to identify itself as Catholic in December 2010, prohibiting celebration of the Mass there and requiring the removal of the Blessed Sacrament from the hospital chapel.

Cox said the situation at St. Joseph's was "not particularly related" to the decision to restructure Catholic Healthcare West and that the new Dignity Health would remain a member of the Alliance of Catholic Health Care.

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