Sister Margaret McBride and Solidarity (or its absence)

This morning Nicholas Kristof writes about the recent and sudden excommuni- cation of a catholic nun in the diocese of Arizona. Why would a nun devoted to caring for others and described by many as "saintly" be excommunicated? It must have been something truly horrid, for, as we know, wayward priests rarely receive this, the ultimate punishment within the church. Priests who fail to keep their vows: not so bad. Priests who question church doctrine: disciplined, but not excommunicated. Pedophile priests: it seems they typically get a job transfer. Those higher ups who tolerate pedophile priests: retirement in Rome. What did the devout nun do? She, as part of a group decision, gave the ok to an abortion that was deemed necessary to save the life of an 11 week-pregnant woman. (The woman is the mother of four children.) Sister Margaret served on the bioethics committee of St. Joseph's hospital in Phoenix and, according to Kristof, the committee's "decision was made after consultation with the patient, her family, her physicians, and in consultation with the Ethics Committee." An abortion is a tragic event, and many believe there are circumstances when it can plainly be viewed as killing an innocent life. But imagine the circumstances faced by the young woman in Phoenix. She is suffering from pulmonary hypertension and her pregnancy may kill her. She can have an abortion and live. Or she can move forward with the pregnancy and risk death, and by extension the death of the fetus her own life is suppossed to be sacrificed for, or, if ( a very big if) the pregnancy is sufficiently advanced and there is lots of luck, perhaps save the life of the fetus, who would then be born orphaned. One can easily see the terrible nature of this ethical dilemma.

If the reporting about this story is accurate, one can safely assume that had St. Joseph's hospital denied the patient abortion services, she would have been quickly transferred to another hospital for the procedure. That's important: once the patient and her physicians had agreed on a course of action, the abortion was going to take place. But in the event, Sister McBride, according to the Arizona Republic, was the Ethics Committee member on call at the time a "last minute, life and death" decision had to be made. She gave the ok to a decision already made by the mother, in consultation with family and physicians. Can anyone possibly blame a woman for wanting to live? A mother of four? Sister Margaret must have understood, must have been thinking about that mother and those children, about life.

When Bishop Thomas Olmsted learned of the case, he immediately excommunicated the nun, "automatically." The automatic nature of this spiritual death is fascinating. (Remember, an excommunicated catholic cannot receive communion and is, thus, to a great degree cut off from God. So, I don't believe calling this a "spiritual death" is overstating the gravity of the punishment.) Most significantly, it suggests that the particular circumstances are irrelevant. That is, even had the doctors been certain that failure to abort would result in the imminent death of mother and fetus, it would still have been cause for excommunication. No discussion, no need for an Ethics Committee. The lack of any openness to nuance, to the particular tragedies of real life are of no interest to the men in black when it comes to core doctrine. And so the church moves boldly backwards, in this case, cutting off a, by all accounts, faithful and "humble servant". Margaret McBride has dedicated her life to serving the sick and poor as a nun of the Sisters of Mercy order. (This is a nineteenth century order founded in Ireland, not to be confused with the Religious Sisters of Mercy, a Vatican II order founded in Alma, Michigan.)

It is astounding. The church hems and haws for years about what to do with the pedophiles among them, knowing that in the meantime these perverts are traumatizing the lives of their victims. Consider the treatment accorded Bernie Law. Awful men getting privilegd treatment by other seemingly awful men. In steps a woman, who, however you feel about abortion, owned up to the circumstances. She acted, according to her own statement to the Bishop, in a good faith effort to follow Catholic doctrine. But no, no discussion: out, out, out. Strange. Where's the solidarity? Why hasn't some priest offered communion to Sister Margaret in defiance of his bishop? Would he too be excommunicated? How many priests would the church be willing to lose over this case? Do they care? Are they willing to put it on the line? That's the question that really interests me: when are the rank and file priests going to put it on the line? They hold the power.

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