Catholic health care remains steadfast to its roots

By  Angelica Vecchiato, Register Correspondent
  • February 22, 2023

With political and legislative talk over Bill C-7 renewed following momentum to expand MAiD access across the country, Ontario Catholic health-care organizations are standing firm to their spiritual tradition. 

Organizations like the Catholic Health Sponsors of Ontario (CHSO) and St. Joseph’s Health Care Society are preserving their Catholic roots — respecting the dignity of every human life from conception to natural death — in face of prevailing government legislation and widespread cultural opposition.

The revised Bill C-7, which received royal assent in 2021, outlines the federal government’s framework for legalized euthanasia. To be eligible for MAiD (medical assistance in dying) a patient must satisfy certain criteria, including having a “grievous and irremediable medical condition.” Recently, there has been considerable impetus to amend the bill to allow MAiD for those whose sole condition is a mental illness, though that has been pushed back until at least March 17, 2024 with the passage of Bill C-39 Feb. 15. 

The Sisters of St. Joseph originally arrived in the London area in 1868 and founded numerous hospitals across Ontario, including Toronto’s St. Michael’s and St. Joseph’s Hospitals. The sisters founded St. Joseph’s Health Care Society in 1993. The modern-day play out of the sisters’ founding mission, explains St. Joseph’s Health Care Society CEO Richard Corneil, takes shape through sponsorship. 

“The sisters set up the St. Joseph’s Health Care Society as a public juridic person to act as a sponsor,” he said. “Sponsorship ensures a Catholic organization faithfully carries out the healing ministry and upholds its Catholic identity and integrity in all it does, according to its mission, values, ethical tradition and code of conduct.”

As was the case for both the CHSO and St. Joseph’s Health Care Society, the founding sisters continued ministering in their hospitals until the 1990s, when with the increased availability of universal health care in Canada and declining numbers of vocations to religious life, they sought lay people to continue the Catholic works they had begun. 

Based in southwestern Ontario, St. Joseph’s Health Care Society provides high-level oversight for three sponsored organizations. As a sponsor, it can appoint local boards and CEOs, ensure their member organizations provide high-quality care as outlined in Accreditation Canada guidelines and approve any changes to mission statements or philosophies.

The core principle of Catholic health care derives from the parable of the Good Samaritan, which is anchored in the “inherent dignity of every human being.” According to Corneil — the former principal of the Catholic Assumption University in Windsor, Ont. — this idea plays an important role in the province. 

“Catholic health care is a significant partner in the provincial system and provides mission-driven, high quality, compassionate care to all people without regard or judgment about an individual’s race, faith or circumstances. In Catholic health care, ethics permeates culture with a focus on making decisions,” he said.

With a pontifical mandate from the Catholic Church, the CHSO has provided sponsorship to 22 member organizations across the province. 

“We are focused on caring for the marginalized. We are open to everyone, despite their background,” said Beth Johnson, the CHSO’s CEO. “We are always here for people, which is an idea that builds off the legacy of the founding sisters who cared for people in positions of vulnerability.”

At Marianhill, which provides a “continuum” of care to seniors in the Ottawa Valley and Renfrew County, CHSO’s guidance proves to be very helpful on the ground, said CEO Linda Tracey. 

“The CHSO helps us especially in the context of our heritage. In providing overarching oversight, they really are what the Grey Sisters of the Immaculate Conception were when Marianhill first started. On the more tangible level, we have an annual report to show what we have done with mission integration. This is done so that Catholic principles are kept at the forefront.” 

Under guidance of the CHSO, Tracey says Marianhill would never permit or promote MAiD, though no material actions like seeking legal counsel or political lobbying have been taken in face of amendments to C-7. 

“We believe in the human dignity of every person. We will not abandon anybody.”

The consensus among health care sponsors is to remain steadfast to the Catholic principles. 

“Catholic health facilities do not provide MAiD and Bill C-7 does not change this position. More broadly, Catholic health care promotes the dignity of the person, and is founded on the belief that all life is sacred. It believes that there is an essential ethical difference between allowing death to occur and intentionally ending a person’s life,” said Corneil.

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