Rejoice – a voice – from Father Brian Joyce
“Phoenix Bishop excommunicates Catholic nun for approving an abortion to save the life of the mother”. This headline, carried in both religious and secular papers, really caught my attention for two reasons. First because Sr. Margaret Mary McBride is a reverent, responsible and strongly pro-life hospital administrator; and secondly, she’s my cousin!
In my view, the headlines claiming that Bishop Olmsted of Phoenix excommunicated Sr. Margaret Mary, and the actual action taken by the Bishop are both mistaken. Technically and reasonably the Bishop did not excommunicate anyone; rather he publically announced the fact that by existing Church law anyone who culpably and deliberately participates in the direct abortion of an unborn child is automatically excommunicated. The Bishop’s can rightly say “I didn’t do it; you did it yourselves”. But also, just as technically and reasonably, excommunication by Church law cannot even occur unless there is malice, culpability or deliberate sin at the start! Persons liable to excommunication must not only be wrong but also guilty in their decision making. That, I would submit, never happened. Media: wrong! Bishop: wrong!
Sister Margaret Mary serves on the ethics committee which, along with the patient, made the final decision. The patient, a mother of four, was advised by her doctor that given a rare and often fatal condition of pulmonary hypertension, another pregnancy was extremely dangerous and she should have an abortion; she refused. In the hospital it was decided that not only was hers an extremely aggravated condition, but the unborn child was also dealing with its own pathology. The committee faced the reality that if action, effectively ending the pregnancy, was not taken, both mother and child would die.
The hospital has issued a statement that it faithfully adheres to the U.S. Bishop’s “Ethical and Religious Directives for Health Care Procedures” but in complex cases where the directives do not explicitly address a clinical situation the ethics committee is convened “to help patient and caregivers make the most life-affirming decision.”
Just so you know how complicated these decisions can get, Catholic teaching both explicitly forbids any direct abortion, and also allows for medical treatment that indirectly but certainly effects the death of the unborn child: common examples would be treatment of ectopic pregnancy or the removable of a cancerous, but child bearing, uterus!
As I understand it, the ethics committee struggled with the decision; contacted an outside professional ethicist who serves for the entire health care system and was advised that the life saving and life losing procedure being considered was consistent with Catholic ethics and values. The eleven member hospital ethics committee after discussion and consultation agreed unanimously along with the patient to proceed. Seven months later the Bishop and his ethics committee would disagree.
My view is that while professional ethicists and pastoral moralists (myself included) might disagree with their decision, the hospital, it’s ethics committee and my cousin acted responsibly and in a thoroughly Catholic, consistent and pro-life manner and are in no way “eligible” for excommunication.
I understand why the local bishop, however belatedly, would want to make a strong and clear statement that direct abortion is never acceptable in a Catholic hospital, but I’m sure there were at least several more prudent and pastorally wise ways of doing that.
A chief physician at St. Joseph’s Hospital has publically described Sr. Margaret Mary as “saintly”, as “the moral conscience of the hospital” and has said “there is no finer defender of life at our hospital”. It has been suggested that she simply go to confession and have the “excommunication lifted”. If so, I suggest she begin by saying “Bless me Father, for I have not sinned!”
P.S. We Joyces, Sweeneys and McBrides do stick together!