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May 16, 2010

Nun rebuked, reassigned for allowing abortion

A nun and administrator at a Catholic hospital in Phoenix has been reassigned and rebuked by the local bishop for agreeing that a severely ill woman needed an abortion to survive, the Associated Press reports.

Sister Margaret McBride was on an ethics committee that included doctors that consulted with a young woman who was 11 weeks pregnant late last year, The Arizona Republic newspaper reported on its website Saturday. The woman was suffering from a life-threatening condition that likely would have caused her death if she hadn't had the abortion at St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center.

Hospital officials defended McBride's actions but confirmed that she has been reassigned from her job as vice president of mission integration at the hospital. They said in a statement that saving the mother required that the fetus be aborted.

"In this tragic case, the treatment necessary to save the mother's life required the termination of an 11-week pregnancy," hospital vice president Susan Pfister said in an e-mail to the newspaper. She said the facility owned by Catholic Healthcare West adheres to the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services but that the directives do not answer all questions.

Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted, head of the Phoenix Diocese, indicated in a statement that the Roman Catholic involved was "automatically excommunicated" because of the action. The Catholic Church allows the termination of a pregnancy only as a secondary effect of other treatments, such as radiation of a cancerous uterus.

"I am gravely concerned by the fact that an abortion was performed several months ago in a Catholic hospital in this diocese," Olmsted said in a statement sent to The Arizona Republic. "I am further concerned by the hospital's statement that the termination of a human life was necessary to treat the mother's underlying medical condition.

"An unborn child is not a disease. While medical professionals should certainly try to save a pregnant mother's life, the means by which they do it can never be by directly killing her unborn child. The end does not justify the means."

Olmsted added that if a Catholic "formally cooperates" in an abortion, he or she is automatically excommunicated.

Neither the hospital nor the bishop's office would say if Olmsted had a direct role in her demotion. He does not have control of the hospital as a business but is the voice of moral authority over any Catholic institution operating in the diocese.

The patient, who hasn't been identified, was seriously ill with pulmonary hypertension. The condition limits the ability of the heart and lungs to function and is made worse, possibly even fatal, by pregnancy.

"This decision was made after consultation with the patient, her family, her physicians, and in consultation with the Ethics Committee, of which Sr. Margaret McBride is a member," the hospital said in a statement issued Friday.

A letter sent to Olmsted Monday by the board chairwoman and the president and CEO of CHW asks Olmsted to provide further clarification about the directives. The pregnancy, the letter says, carried a nearly certain risk of death for the mother.

"If there had been a way to save the pregnancy and still prevent the death of the mother, we would have done it," the letter says. "We are convinced there was not."

McBride declined to comment.

Posted by Matthew Hay Brown at 5:00 AM | | Comments (9)


If wiser minds prevail this can be remedied by absolution. It is very clearly an injustice to Sister McBride as well as to the patient. Without the abortion the patient would have died.

The non-catholic public should understand that excommunication a jure (by law) is automatic under certain circumstances, and participation in the procurement of an abortion is one of those cases. On this subject the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “The Church does not thereby intend to restrict the scope of mercy. Rather, she makes clear the gravity of the crime committed, the irreparable harm done to the innocent who is put to death...” (CCC 2272)

The downside is that the Bishop is not exactly a friend of liberal religious folk, so I doubt he will want to serve justice through an absolution. I'm not sure if he would have to be the one to do so, since the excommunication was automatic.

My hope is that Peter will chime in here and offer his expertise.

What a lovely site this is, Dana. It is beautiful to be "invited" to give my considered opinion by a committed Catholic. I can't help but reflect how different it is here compared to when I was engaging in commentary on the Smirking Chimp. I guess you might say, duh! Peter, to that. But for me it is a significant trajectory. It shows me that a site dedicated to serious dialogue on matters of faith can reach some common ground and not just trading harangues.

Well, Dana, this case sort of sums it all up, doesn't it. Let me lay my cards on the table here. I do think that casual abortion can be a grave evil. To stop the
affirmation of life, namely a "life" itself, is something that should never be entertained for mere expedience. And I think this very serious stance is not to be impugned by those who in effect do not have a stance but a moral reflex. To say that all morality is circumstantial is NOT the same as saying that morality is relative. I belong to an organization that, to my mind, takes a much more unrelative view of morality than most religions do. There is no toleration for breaking the ultimate matters of morality. Period. So I will not be accept that organizations that ultimately have used and prostituted the beautiful virtue of "forgiveness" have the final right of deciding these grave matters.

That is all by way of preamble to say this about this case. One's heart goes out to everyone in this case, including of course the mother. But this case also shows how the Catholic Church is mistaking the gravity by which these things should be parsed for morality itself. This leads them in some specific cases, and I will not say all, to trade simple fanaticism for morality . Plain and simple. Consider the great pain of the the loved ones of the mother here, and compassion will lead you to one surmise. The position of the Bishop towards all these people, including the Nun, is simple heartlessness. This case proves something I have long thought. That every single element of authentic religiosity can with time become a perversion of itself. When asked for my own religious views, I usually say "I am a follower of the beatitudes." That is I TRY to follow them, but of course often don't succeed. But even the beatitudes, complexly reinterpreted in the conundrums of each age, could be turned against themselves if held to monolithically. This is why Jesus, the Marginal Jew preached against the letter of the law, and for the spirit of the law. Because the "letters" are very liable to be scrambled in translation as every age seeks to understand them with changing idiom. Again, this is NOT relative morality. It is based on the absolute truth that language --including the "language" of science --changes in every age. Only de facto flat- earthers would deny this. But the spirit never changes.

But the spirit can depart an organization. The sad part is that with all the sincere people who are Catholics left in the world, the"spirit" of truth has been covered over with the
gauds and glamour of their putative splendor of truth. Proof of the very mutability I have previously mentioned. I pray for their conversion to the spirit of the beatitudes.

The Catholic Church does have a heart in the matter and while it understands the difficulty of the above scenario it speaks with a wisdom that is consistent over 2000 years. The above scenario is not new in our lifetime. In fact a question was put to the Holy Office in the 1800's, and re-affirmed numerous times, asking whether it was permissable to procure an abortion to save the life of the mother. The response was (and remains) in the negative. That one can never directly procure an abortion to save the mother. An exception was given similar to the example above regarding radiation treatment that indirectly kills the unborn child. The Church recognizes the life of the child from the moment of its conception and does not allow evil that good may come of it. This further goes to prove that this is not some modern political issue as some would characterize it by their use of conservative/liberal labels. The Church has compassion but it is not the human, emotional compassion so prevalent in our modern world but the Divine compassion of its Founder who understands that at times things might be difficult to accept but nevertheless demands our humble acceptance. That what we see in time, He sees in eternity.

Keep in mind that Jesus whom Peter wrongly calls the "marginal Jew" was unequivical in his demand that unless "one eat His Body, etc." they would not enter the Kingdom. . . Many went away who found that too difficult to accept. Yet the prescription remained and Jesus did not change this requirement.

Saint Gianna Beretta Molla pray for us and all who face the difficult decision that you did in affirming life.

John, I agree entirely with your view that “The Church … does not allow evil that good may come of it.”

That said, canon law allows for absolution in all cases. As for the mother, she could seek absolution from her parish priest. I don't know what rules apply for a woman in a religious order. But my guess is that would be a recourse open to her since her excommunication was latae sententiae. I can almost agree that that this “is not some modern political issue,” as you say, save for the fact that Bishop Olmsted has shown distinctly political motivations in the past.

My prayer is that he will see past that the political. From all accounts it seems to most of us that Sister McBride was motivated by respect for human life, not lack of same. If her understanding was thus motivated it is the obligation of the law (Canon Law) to bring her back into full communion with the universal Church.

It's role is not to punish, but to preserve the Faith. Like you I would prefer it not to become a political debate. But that has already occurred. Let us not let this become what Peter Fuchs warned; a situation that “leads ... them to trade simple fanaticism for morality.”

Since John has invoked the much vaunted consistency of the Roman Church "over 2000 years," then history itself must be important to him in some way. The simplest way to show this vis-a-vis abortion is not by getting mired in the exact problematic of translation I mentioned in relation to the language of science, a quicksand his words are meant to tempt one to. Rather, simple massive evidence from broader history. To wit: The Church repeatedly excommunicated individuals and even large groups of people "over 2000 years". This excommunication was very often interpreted by Popes and Curia to mean that the excommunicated party had lost all rights. They could have property taken away, be imprisoned if caught, and put to death or assassinated without incurring sin. Pope Julius, a favorite of mine, excommunicated the entire populace of Venice and other spots. This meant that ANY person in such a place could have been put to death. That includes, naturally, pregnant women and their unborn children. Get it? Now in point of fact, this rarely happened. But the point is, it would have been sanctioned if it did happen by the prevailing interpretation of canon law and moral theology. This is not an opinion. This is a simple fact of history, even history one can find in classic tomes of Catholic Church History. So to claim consistency for a tradition that would have theoretically condoned the killing, by its own edict of excommunication, of many pregnant women and unborn children, is purest folly. The gravity of the moral issue of abortion is one matter. But basing it on a putative consistency "over 200 years" is just a chimera.

I agree Peter. I'm interested to see where John takes this with the issue of reconciliation.

The Church is always looking to forgive a repentant sinner so long as they seek forgiveness. A perfect example is the case of Peter and Judas. Both equally guilty but Peter repented, Judas did not. If either the mother, Sister McBride or other parties repents they will be reconciled. You say it shouldn't be about politics Dana but you continue to suggest a political motivation for Bishop Olmsteads actions. Or that somehow he would refuse absolution to someone who requestd it? What Sister McBride did was wrong and she deserved to be removed from her position. If she repents her soul is clean but she has shown herself not worthy of the position she held as an ethical advisor. Similarly if a member of the clergy or religious were guilty of abuse their sins could be forgiven if they sought the Sacrament of Penance. However I don't think you would suggest that since their soul was now clean they could be returned to their previous position would you?

From all accounts it seems to most of us that Sister McBride was motivated by respect for human life, not lack of same.

"L'enfer est plein de bonnes volontés et désirs" (Hell is full of good wishes and desires). St. Bernard

It is very clearly an injustice to Sister McBride as well as to the patient. Without the abortion the patient would have died.

How? As I addressed in my post what she/they did was wrong.

As to Peter's response to my post I will not reply because I do not hold conversations with people who begin with an attack upon my character and imput evil motives to my statement. Besides that I can't decipher what relevance it has to the topic at hand.

O what a hothouse flower John is. What a sensitive boy he! He reads into my charge that he is a silly-billy of fantasy- history that I have somehow imputed evil to him. No just laziness and a foppish desire to have others follow him for fashion --high churchly fashion no doubt --but not for any reason of consistency or hard intellectual work. This is what the Roman Church has been for quite a long time now in recent times. Pure preening intellectual fashion. But as to their actual history, even in their own history books, now they avert their own own eyes.

You know, Dana, recently I did a little research project. I actually read through an entire volume of Lord Acton's writings. I did so because one of my favorite goofball Catholic commentators. Fr. Robert Sirico, routinely engages in the exact same fatuous reasoning as our delicate flower John here, using Acton's name as a bolster. Well, what did I encounter in Lord Acton's much praised writings? It turns out that Lord Acton, according to HIS OWN editor wished for a revival of the specifically medieval elitist and feudal system of intellectual hierarchy that characterized that bygone era. This is why he supported slavery and the Confederacy. All support of slavery looks terrible in retrospect. But Lord Acton's, based on a revival of medieval inequality is one for the record books! And this from a guy who supposedly identified "the first whig" . You know I am sort of fond of Fr. Sirico, because I can't help liking people who look like they have never turned down an extra plate of spaghetti and its round accompaniments! But still to call Lord Acton the genesis of a peculiarly potent sort of whiggery when he is praising medieval social orders is too much!! But this is what Catholics are like nowadays. They are into pure intellectual fantasy. And this is just the sort of argument for consistency "over 2000 years" that Catholics routinely engage in. Delicate John is into just this same sort of fantasy. But fie on him for wanting to spread his peculiar lunacy! He speaks of Peter and Judas, while himself reeking of an organization that has Judas-like broken the very warning of Christ himself to protect the little children. Judas hovers over the Roman Church, to my mind, like a potential patron saint.

To quote John:

"Similarly if a member of the clergy or religious were guilty of abuse their sins could be forgiven if they sought the Sacrament of Penance. However I don't think you would suggest that since their soul was now clean they could be returned to their previous position would you?"

Well once again, John betrays his poor sense of history and tendency towards historical fantasy. Has he heard of Ex Opere Operato?? The "previous position", that of acting cleric, that John's putatively cleansed cleric would return to was, as a matter of theological doctrine previously routinely protected by this very Latin doctrine for almost all of its history. So much for the consistency of the Church. It has just recently changed about 700 years of doctrine (since Constance) only since 2002!!! How many surreptitiously married or downright regularly randy clerics did it relieve of orders before 2002? Very few is the answer. It only did so when it was forced to do so by the State in America. You call that consistency? I call it pure expediency. I call it Realpolitik. John, you are not evil, just badly informed.

John, I'm not wholly in agreement with the idea that the church has been “consistent over 2000 years” on much beyond a basic credo. Such issues as married priests and same sex unions come to mind. I take Peter's objection as similar to any modern worker who enters a stodgy old company and is confronted with “we've always done it that way,” as the the primary objection to modernity. I must agree with him on that point.

You say that Sister McBride deserved to be removed from her position. It is not clear to me that the St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix operates entirely within the confines of church doctrine. It's website for instance lists all of the forms of birth control in its health information pages. Yet it offers no caveat concerning doctrine or morality. It gives complete and accurate information on RU-486, more commonly known as the abortion pill.

The section on Women's Health makes no mention of abortion. The hospital's Department of Reproductive Medicine includes services for high risk obstetrics. Again, no mention of abortion. All of that proves nothing, other than the fact that the hospital is run like any other health care facility. It makes no mention of ancient traditions trumping sound medical practice.

Whether she should be returned to her former position is a matter that should be judged based on her job performance as it relates to her job description. Neither the bishop nor the church are in charge of the hospital. So the issue of her demotion must be considered quite separate from her excommunication. Her excommunication, must considered in light of what the hospital describes as a decision made “after consultation with the patient, her family, her physicians, and in consultation with the Ethics Committee, of which Sr. Margaret McBride is a member."

Were any of those involved who may be Catholic also automatically excommunicated?

Of course they were. It is a matter of Canon Law. It does not come down from the bishop. It is automatic once the offense occurs. Bishop Olmstead makes no mention of these people. He has chosen a scapegoat, a nun. And that is why I suggest a political motive to the bishop's actions. While you and I are quite clear about the opportunity for absolution the bishop has remained silent on the issue. The comments he has made thus far sound much more like the words of a dialectician than that of a fisherman, in my humble opinion.

In “Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services” the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops (USCCB) clearly states:

“Every procedure whose sole immediate effect is the termination of pregnancy before viability is an abortion, which, in its moral context, includes the interval between conception and implantation of the embryo.” (keyword: “sole”)

“Operations, treatments, and medications that have as their direct purpose the cure of a proportionately serious pathological condition of a pregnant woman are permitted when they cannot be safely postponed until the unborn child is viable, even if they will result in the death of the unborn child.”

Bishop Olmstead is operating under his own standards, not those of the USCCB

It was an injustice to Sister McBride because it should have remained a private matter between herself and her confessor, just as we may assume it is with the others involved.

It was an injustice to the patient because the hospital presents itself as a modern clinical facility. She should have had no reason to think that her life would be in danger as a direct result of the religious considerations of her caregivers. An argument could be made for that if the hospital had explained Catholic doctrine either in their Women's Health policy or in their Mission Statement. They did not.

I think you are mistaken in thinking that peter attacked your character. He attacked your position.

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About Matthew Hay Brown
Matthew Hay Brown writes and blogs about faith and values in public and private life for The Baltimore Sun. A former Washington correspondent for the newspaper, he has long written about the intersection of religion and politics. He has reported from Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America and the Middle East, traveling most recently to Syria and Jordan to write about the Iraqi refugee crisis.

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