Friday, May 28, 2010

The excommunication of Sister Margaret McBride

The story of Sister Margaret McBride ought to concern all of us. She is a Catholic nun and a senior administrator at a hospital in Phoenix, who as a member of a medical ethics review panel, assented to an abortion to save the life of a woman who was in the 11th week of pregnancy.

Sister Margaret was summarily ex-communicated by the bishop in Arizona -- kicked out of the Church. Not even pedophile priests are excommunicated. One of the doctors who works with her was quoted in The New York Times with this to say:
“She is a kind, soft-spoken, humble, caring, spiritual woman whose spot in Heaven was reserved years ago... The idea that she could be ex-communicated after decades of service to the Church and humanity literally makes me nauseated.”
No allowance was made by her bishop for the difficult dilemma faced by this hospital ethics panel of which she was a part; indeed, the statement from the bishop's office all but said that the hospital should have let the pregnant woman die (along with her fetus) and the nun should have gone along with that. Most of those I know who are anti-abortion are not even that hardline.

This incident should be seen as part of a larger picture. I posted in March that American Catholic nuns are virtually at war with the Catholic bishops. They were on opposite sides of the health care debate (please click HERE to read that post), and they are posing an increasingly vocal challenge to the male hierarchy of the Catholic Church. That the Catholic bishops are now excommunicating nuns while still making excuses for their pedophile scandals is nothing less than outrageous, and tars all churches of every stripe with the brush of intolerance and rigidity.

This column ran yesterday in The New York Times by Pulitzer-prize winning columnist Nicholas D. Kristof and I highly commend it to you:
Sister Margaret’s Choice

We finally have a case where the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy is responding forcefully and speedily to allegations of wrongdoing.

But the target isn’t a pedophile priest. Rather, it’s a nun who helped save a woman’s life. Doctors describe her as saintly.

The excommunication of Sister Margaret McBride in Phoenix underscores all that to me feels morally obtuse about the church hierarchy. I hope that a public outcry can rectify this travesty.
To read the full article, please click HERE.

Photo of Sister Margaret from The Catholic Sun.


Duane said...

The principle at stake here is that one cannot be a party in an objectively evil act in order to produce good. This principle needs to be more broadly applied, not dismissed.

The Rev. James Richardson said...

Dear Duane,
Thank you for your comment, but you leave me confused. What is the "principle at stake" you speak of? Please tell me what the "objectively evil act" in this case would be? Is it allowing the pregnant woman and her fetus to die to uphold an objective principle? Is that a good? How is it evil to at least save one? And let's get out of the realm of abstractions: What would you say if this were your wife or your daughter? What would you tell her about the objective principle if her life was at stake? And let's go another step: What would Jesus say? What would Jesus do?

Robert Hutchinson said...

The principle is very simple: You shall not kill. (You may have heard of it.)

More technically, you may not kill an innocent person even to save another life. As St. Paul put it, you may not do evil to achieve a good.

Besides, it is at least debatable that the choice was to "save one" or let both die. There are thousands of cases in which doctors were "certain" that mothers "must" have abortions, the mothers refused, and the unborn child grew up to be the light of the mother's life.

As for leaving the realm of abstractions, what if it WAS your daughter who was, not the mother but the unborn child in question? Would you so casually and with such apparent indifference to the moral issues at stake simply kill her, without regret or even pause?

The Rev. James Richardson said...

Dear Robert,
Your glib sarcasm is not necessary. No one is being casual here, and yes I have heard of the Ten Commandments. Is it possible to have a conversation without self-righteous put-downs? Please join me in the messy world where I live.

I respect your position, and your respect for life. Indeed, I embrace your position. But does life always give us such simple choices? What if it is your wife who is about to die unless she has an abortion? You may choose to say the doctors are wrong, but what if they are right? What if the choices is choosing between two evils? There are no casual choices here -- only very difficult, painful choices. There is nothing "casual" about any of this.

What I find deeply sad about your reply is that in the name of being "pro-life" you end up embracing an "objective principle" that is ultimately pro-death.

Duane said...

Rev. Richardson,

I took the weekend to ponder your question and I hope I can offer a coherent reply. I realize that well-meaning and principled people can (and will) disagree. The case where the mother's life is at risk is certainly a fringe case in the number of abortions performed, but one worthy of discussion.

The objective evil act is, put plainly, abortion. It has been consistently viewed this way in Christendom over the centuries. Technology advancement has a way of diminishing our respect for the mystery of life -- and its purpose.

We presume to know that at least one life could be saved through the destruction of the child. It is both a presumption about the outcomes as well as one about the purpose of life. Saving life should be applauded, but to do it while performing an evil act treats the life saved as a material good rather than the embodiment of a soul.

Jesus' ministry is defined by intensifying the law and is in many ways not practical for human ends, but it is profitable for the soul. None of us can say for sure what Jesus would say of this dilemma, but He expects devotion to the Father and sacrifice of the self to follow Him.

If my loved one's were in the position I can only know what I would prefer them to do. I would prefer them to carry to term to their best ability and to be a living sacrifice, if necessary, in honor of the blessing the God bestowed upon them. The history of the Saints is rich with examples of people who gave everything because they knew they must stand in contrast with the secular/pagan ethic of their day.

The Rev. James Richardson said...

Thank you for your very thoughtful response, and what you have to say is, indeed, much worth consideration by me and others. Thank you for presenting your view clearly and without attacking those who see this differently.

Indeed, medical technology has put us in a place uncontemplated by earlier generations, giving us unprecedented ability for healing but also unprecedented ethical issues. The painful issue here is choosing between evils, and sometimes that is only choice we get. We may wish to choose between a clear-cut good and an obvious evil, but on this one, that isn't what we get. So I still must come down on the side of saving one life -- the mother -- rather than losing both.

As for Jesus, I am convinced his first response is to offer comfort and forgiveness in the face of such an awful dilemma. "Come unto me all who are heavy-laden and I will give you rest." I just don't see Jesus shunning anyone in this incident.

And I go back to Sister Margaret and her dilemma, and the Catholic Church's response; offering comfort and forgiveness is what the Church is for, especially to those who are, through no fault of their own, facing only terrible choices. A church that cannot find that place fails in its mission. A church that covers up pedophile priests while excommunicating a nun in a hospital is reprehensible.

Anonymous said...

I think, the Sister involved in this medical decision probably knew and understood the Catholic Church's teachings on the abortion topic. It came down to saving a human life and having the choice to except the medical point of view on things or not...or to accept God's Will for both the mother an child.

Sometimes wrong decisions are made but I do feel God always forgives.
I think given the fact that the Sister involed has been nun...with what congregation or community? In any event for a long time she has served the Church. Having said that perhaps that is all the more reason she might have looked in to
the moral issues further.

By the how much first hand in put did the Bishop have in all this from start to finish?

The Rev. James Richardson said...

There appears to be an underlying assumption in some of these comments that an 11-week-old fetus is viable outside of its mother. It is not (if it were, we would not be faced with this ethical dilemma). If the mother is allowed to die, so too will the fetus. Two lives lost.

By the way, I do not accept that it is "God's will" that someone dies. That is shown nowhere in this case. To say claim that embraces a position that is ultimately pro-death. I am not claiming anyone is pro-death -- everyone here is pro-life. But by claiming God's will is death is perverse. Death is the enemy (see the letters of Paul).

Anonymous said...

Thank you for addressing this on your blog - I am conflicted about this situation.

On first reading about Sister McBride, I am shocked they excommunicated her.

And yet, I agree wholeheartedly that we are not obligated to use extraordinary means to preserve life.

Discontinuing extraordinary medical procedures is legitimate if one does not cause death, but merely accepts one's inability to impede death. (I think.)

So if one did not choose the abortion in this case, one accepts the inability to impede both of their deaths.

But the situation was not a "medical procedure." It was rather like two humans being held hostage by natural conditions - like having a boat in the Katrina flood and you can only save one out of 2 drowning persons.

And yet even in that case, saving one is not directly killing the other - but allowing the death to happen.

So was this abortion a saving of one that allowed the death of the other? Or a killing of one that ends up saving the other?

I realize that by saying "killing" I'm setting the deck a little. But I don't mean to - because I am disturbed at the political posturing of the Church on certain issues, and not on others.

Whether Sr. made the right choice or not, to me, is a separate issue as to whether the Church should have excommunicated her.

Others have made deplorable decisions that were forgiven in confession - and protected from the media so as to give them space to confess, process and heal.

Vincent said...

Upon reading the first news account about Sister McBride 's excommunication, I instinctively agreed with Bishop Olmsted.

However, after digging deeper and
reading the exchanges here, I find myself in agreement with Rev Richardson and the dear Sister's

(As a catholic, I consider myself part of the "silent majority").

The one silver lining for all
this may be the "shock/disbelief"
effect that could help raise more awareness by both opposite camps (pro-choice v. pro-life) of the intense difficulty care-giving religious like Sister McBride and pro-lifers in general have to face to defend the sanctity of life ...

Maybe it could help touch the pro-choice people 's hearts too.

With due respect to his wisdom and authority, I still hope that
Bishop Olmsted will re-consider his decision soon.

If not, I pray that Rome could do something about it.

Finally, I will ask God to let me
be where Sister McBride and others like her will be when I die.


PS. Sister and Bishop, you are in my prayers.

The Rev. James Richardson said...

Thanks to all for this dialogue. I think it important and I hope helpful in clarifying these issues.

For the record, I am uncomfortable with the label "pro-choice." It suggests we are making ethical decisions from a restaurant menu and that those decisions are no more important than choosing bread and salad dressing. It also suggests that society has no involvement or connection in the ethical decisions we make. I therefore cannot embrace that label.

I am also uncomfortable with the label "pro-life" for it suggests that those who do not agree with no abortions under any circumstances are anti-life, which is a grotesque stereotype and makes into a cartoon the terrible ethical decisions that confront people as in the case of Sister Margaret.

The labels have masked what is also a political debate over how much government regulation and involvement there ought to be in medical decisions, and irony or ironies, I suspect many of those holding the "pro-life" label are much against government involvement in medical decisions -- except this one. And I suspect many of those holding the pro-choice label and quite happy to have government involvement in health care -- except on this item. Such is the warped nature of our political and social landscape as we live in it today.

So this is also a plea for us to ditch the labels and continue to have a dialogue on this in the real world as we live in it.

Tracy Baker said...

Dear Rev. Richardson,

I just drafted a letter to Bishop Olsted in which I posed the question, "Where was God in this decision?" What I have a very hard time reconciling is how the Bishop's actions, well intentioned though they may be, are Christlike? They, indeed, seem to be more Pharisaic.

One could argue that Jesus should have let the Garasene demoniac just run rampant and harm himself because he was living outside the church cleanliness laws. Or, I know, how about letting that band of men stone the adulteress because she was clearly guilty? That doesn't sound like Jesus, and therefore it shouldn't sound like the modern church.

I also wonder about this poor woman who lost her child in this situation. She wasn't seeking an abortion, she lost her child. Now, how can she turn to a church that condemns and judges her for comfort?

I am grieved, probably beyond what is rational, about this situation. It seems to me that part of the issue is that these are women. I wonder if a man's life were at stake, if people would be so quick to let him die? It is almost as if these women are disposable.

geodre said...

And now for the rest of the story: The 27 year old mother has four (4) children at home.

Mike the Waiter said...

I, too, am Catholic and have personally vowed not to take communion until Sister Margaret McBride, the nun who was excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church in December, once again takes her communion. Probably the defenders of child rapists in Rome don't care, but it's important to me...

The Rev. James Richardson said...

Dear Mike the Waiter,
I am not quite sure how to react to your personal boycott of Communion. While I applaud your stance in favor of Sister Margaret, I am not sure cutting yourself off from the sacrament punishes anyone but yourself. I would add that you are always welcome to receive Communion in an Episcopal Church.
Blessings to you this day,

Anonymous said...

I feel very distressed over the pain of Sister Margaret and the poor woman who must wonder if God condemns her for choosing her life, her living children, and her husband over the likelihood of dying. In Matthew (I think), Jesus asks his accusers to ponder what "I desire mercy, not sacrifice" means. How can the Church demand that a person should sacrifice not only her life, but the probable well-being of her family? All reports indicate that there was no reasonable probability that she or her child could survive - otherwise, the issue would be entirely different.

I pray for her entire family and hope that her relationship with God is not harmed by what looks to me as a cruel judgment, contradicting the notion of Mother Church.