Catholic canon fodder

The story of a Catholic woman religious who was disciplined for authorizing an abortion has been percolating for a few weeks. It's a very sad story and my heart goes out to all involved. The basic story is that a woman had had pulmonary hypertension, a condition that, in pregnancy, put her at high risk of eclampsia. Doctors at the Catholic hospital treating the pregnant woman said she would likely have to abort her child in order to live. The hospital's ethics board met and approved the abortion. Sister Margaret Mary McBride, the hospital's vice president of mission integration, was a member of the committee that made the decision She has since been assigned new duties and Phoenix Bishop Thomas Olmsted put out notice that Catholics who formally cooperated in the abortion were automatically excommunicated.

Unfortunately, the reporting on this story has -- surprise -- been a bit deficient. It has been hard to get precise details on the diagnosis, the justification given for the abortion and the response of the bishop -- much less any good discussion of the Catholic teaching on key matters.

I do know that the church believes that it is never right to kill an innocent person (even if that person is an unborn human being) in order to save the life of another person. If you want an easy-to-read and interesting defense of the Phoenix bishop's decision, head on over to First Things for this piece by (The Anchoress) Elizabeth Scalia. For a different perspective disagreeing with the bishop's decision, you can head over to First Things for Michael Liccione's piece arguing that the principle of "double effect" should have been considered.

And if you want an article that assumes its own premise, fails to engage in any debate, ignores the ethical reasoning behind the bishop's statement, neglects to find contextual comments for the same and paints the sister as a martyr hero, definitely check out this ABC News article by Dan Harris and Claudia Morales:

In the end, [Sister Mary] McBride chose to save the young woman's life by agreeing to authorize an emergency abortion, a decision that has now forced her out of a job and the Catholic Church.

Despite being described as "saintly," "courageous," and the "moral conscience" of the Catholic hospital, McBride was excommunicated from the Catholic Church by Phoenix Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted for supporting the abortion. ...

Although many medical ethicists say it was the right decision, the hospital confirmed McBride has been removed from her position as senior administrator and reassigned.

Critics are arguing McBride's punishment is a double standard. Many are pointing out that it has often taken years for priests who sexually abuse children to be even reprimanded, let alone excommunicated.

That line about medical ethicists, which I don't even understand since it includes precisely zero evidence, shows that this article is really more about pushing an agenda than providing any actual insight into the church's decision. Bringing up the pedophilia angle is certainly valid, but it's done so inartfully as to be silly.

So, is there a reason for the different standard? What is it? We never find out since the only canon lawyer quoted in the piece, Father Thomas Doyle, doesn't address the topic.

And I'm all for quoting Father Thomas Doyle, but he's not exactly an impartial observer. Not that anyone is. But Doyle is an outspoken critic of church hierarchy and has, in fact, gotten into a bit of trouble with his superiors because of it. This story isn't lacking perspective from people who oppose what the Phoenix bishop did -- it needs people defending or at least explaining his decree.

Instead we get lines like this one, which ended the article:

For a devout woman who spent years dedicated to her religion, serving the poor, the sick and the needy, McBride is paying the ultimate sacrifice for her decision to help another life; she is no longer allowed to receive the sacraments.

I'm sure that it made the reporters feel good to write that. But it really does a disservice to Catholic teaching and to providing readers with an understanding of the key ethical issues being considered.

Cathy Grossman at USA Today has an article that advances the story, looking at how Catholic standards of care affect more than just women with pulmonary hypertension. Her article begins this way:

The case of an abortion at a Catholic hospital in Phoenix prompted an angry bishop to rebuke the Sister of Mercy who allowed the surgery to save the mother's life.

So how does she know that the bishop was angry? Did he say that in his notice of excommunication? What if he wasn't angry at all? What if he was sad or heartbroken or disappointed? I'm just curious how we know he's "angry."

This story gets major points for including a discussion of Catholic principles in question. For instance:

In the Phoenix case, physicians concluded that only removing the placenta could save the woman dying from pulmonary hypertension.

Sister Margaret Mary McBride, whose job was to represent Catholic teachings, concurred that the lifesaving surgery was morally acceptable. (She has since been moved to a different position at the hospital.)

O'Rourke says McBride was relying on the accepted "principle of double-effect," in which the intention is not to kill the fetus but is a sad, secondary effect of an essential treatment. The Diocese of Phoenix's statements show "they are not well-schooled in bioethics," O'Rourke says.

I am in no way taking a position on Catholic teaching here, but it would be nice if we could also get a mention that other moral theologians say the principle of double effect doesn't count in this case. They would say that double effect never permits the doing of evil in order to achieve good (otherwise, for example, you could use that principle to torture enemy combatants for the purpose of obtaining information). And they would say that double effect can only apply for an indirect abortion.

Obviously, I am not a canon lawyer, but my understanding is that sometimes medical treatment is done to save the life of the mother that also might run the risk of causing an abortion. That's considered an indirect abortion and a different ethical situation than actually prescribing an abortion to save the life of the mother.

The story explains how Catholic hospitals have a right to provide care without violating Catholic teachings and how patients have the right to seek out any care that they seek. People from various sides provide helpful quotes and it's a really good way to advance the Phoenix story so that readers are forced to consider deeper issues.

In this and other coverage, it might be nice to see more awareness of the relationship between religion and hospitals. At least since the 4th Century Council of Nicaea, Christians have been building hospitals and the history of hospital care in America is one where Catholics, Jews, Seventh-Day Adventists, Lutherans and other religious adherents are key players. The growth and regulation of the medical industry is a big story. How it affects religious groups remains an interesting and important one.

Please respect our Commenting Policy