You’ve probably read the sad tale of Sister Margaret McBride. Nicholas Krystof wrote about her for the New York Times.
Sister Margaret was a senior administrator of St. Joseph’s Hospital in Phoenix. A 27-year-old mother of four arrived late last year, in her third month of pregnancy. According to local news reports and accounts from the hospital and some of its staff members, the mother suffered from a serious complication called pulmonary hypertension. That created a high probability that the strain of continuing pregnancy would kill her.
Sister Margaret was a member of [the hospital’s ethics] committee. … The bishop of Phoenix, Thomas Olmsted, ruled that Sister Margaret was “automatically excommunicated” because she assented to an abortion.
Since the excommunication, Sister Margaret has left her post as vice president and is no longer listed as one of the hospital executives on its Web site. The hospital told me that she had resigned “at the bishop’s request” but is still working elsewhere at the hospital.
I have several close friends who are devout Catholics and, whatever I may think of the Church’s politics and policies, I certainly respect the faith of believers. Writing this post made me think about excommunication, and do a little research. There are many actions for which excommunication is reserved to the Pope, several others reserved to bishops, including “those who efficaciously procure abortion” (unsuccessful attempt to procure an abortion is not an excommunicatable act), and a number which are automatic by performance of the act (or, in Latin, latae sententiae).
Interestingly enough, one of the automatically excommunicating acts is failing to report a priest or confessor who solicits you to “immodest acts,” but soliciting those immodest acts is not on the list. Which, aside from being disturbing in its own right–keeping silent about something that happened to you is worthy of excommunication, but causing that something is slap-on-the-wrist territory–brings us back to Sister Margaret.
Many commentators, including Krystof, have drawn the connection between her excommunication and the large number of known child abusers who have remained in the priesthood. From the research summarized above, it would appear that she did commit an act on the excommunicating list, assuming that “procuring” an abortion doesn’t just mean for oneself. But it still raises a lot of questions. In the Catholic hospital where this took place, were there other Catholics on the ethics committee? If so, what gender were they? What gender, and what religion, was the doctor who performed the abortion and all the operating room and administrative staff who co-operated? Has a man ever been excommunicated for performing or procuring an abortion, or is this interpreted in a climate of complete misogyny?
To the extent that as a nonbeliever I have any opinions at all about Catholic policies, I don’t even think abusing priests should be excommunicated. I think they should be kept away from children, and that otherwise more attention should be paid to the people who have been wronged than to the wrongdoers. Where I get completely lost is in understanding how what Sister Margaret did was so many orders of magnitude worse than what these priests did.
The Catholic Church’s obsession with abortion, coupled with its willingness to cover up grand-scale child abuse, may be one of the most egregious examples of the way so many institutions and individuals fetishize the idea of children for specific ideological purposes. No decision that was made about the real health of real, breathing individual children could ever be made this way, where aborting a single 11-week-old fetus is an unforgivable crime, even in a case where four living children stand to benefit from continuing to have a living mother, while violating the safety, privacy, and dignity of tens of thousands of children in the United States alone is forgiven effortlessly.
But when the idea or concept of “child” replaces the real children, all bets are off. You can be pro- or anti-abortion, pro- or anti-gender essentialism, pro- or anti-public school, pro- or anti-vaccination… The list is endless. Any time you hear someone say “It’s about the children,” start looking for someone who’s grinding an axe rather than treating children as people.
Malvina Reynolds may not have said it best, but she said it well
When that baby is a child,
It will suffer from neglect,
Be picked upon and pecked,
And run over and wrecked,
And its head will be crowned with the thorn.
But while it’s inside her
It must remain intact,
And it cannot be murdered till it’s born.