Thursday, June 3, 2010

Why Was The Nun Who Tried To Save a Mother's Life Excommunicated?

Q - Can you blog about the nun who was excommunicated in Phoenix for supporting an abortion that was deemed necessary to treat the mother's underlying medical condition ( I'm particularly interested in the criticism that the Church responded to this issue MUCH faster than any of the sexual abuse scandals.

A - Thanks for the question. There are several questions that have arisen surrounding this story.

Question #1 - Can the abortion be justified? Isn't this a gray area?
Question #2 - Should the nun have been excommunicated?
Question #3 - Why did the Church respond so quickly to this situation and not to sex abuse scandals?

Question #1 - Can the abortion be justified? Isn't this a gray area?
No. The intentional taking of an innocent human life is never justified. Never. We cannot justify evil means to achieve a good end, as I have explained before.

Thus, there is no situation where an abortion is morally permissible. This is one of the moral absolutes of the Church, where it is wrong in each and every situation. Some others would include (though this list isn't exhaustive):
  • intentionally killing an innocent person
  • intentionally having consensual sex outside of marriage
  • intentionally withholding the truth from someone who has a right to its
The Catholic Church has always taught that both the ends and means of an act need to be morally good or neutral for every act to be acceptable. In each and every case the means of abortion are evil, even if the end is good (such as preserving the mother's health). Evil means cannot be made morally licit by a moral end.

The Catechism teaches:
2271 Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable. Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law:

You shall not kill the embryo by abortion and shall not cause the newborn to perish. God, the Lord of life, has entrusted to men the noble mission of safeguarding life, and men must carry it out in a manner worthy of themselves. Life must be protected with the utmost care from the moment of conception: abortion and infanticide are abominable crimes.
My sister has cancer. If she is told she has two hours to live and I shoot her, I am still committing murder.

Now, for another kind of case, intention does matter. If, for example, a mother has a ectopic (tubal) pregnancy, we know the child will eventually die (because it is stuck in the fallopian tube and will not be able to develop - this is a risk to the mother's life as well). But, we still cannot intentionally kill the child. We can allow it to die a natural death without intending for it to die. Said negatively, we cannot actively do anything that would kill the child (e.g., abortion). What is the difference?

In this situation the difference is in intention and action. The action would differ, in that, instead of actually killing the child and then removing the child from the fallopian tube, the doctor would remove the section of the tube that the baby was in and then allow it to die. But, the intent is not to kill the child, but rather to save the woman. The side-effect here is unintentional - the baby's death.

This is a distinction that cannot be lost on us in the "tough cases". The principle of double effect can really help in situations like these. Here is a link to an article about it if you would like to know more.

Continuing on, the Catechism goes further:
2274 Since it must be treated from conception as a person, the embryo must be defended in its integrity, cared for, and healed, as far as possible, like any other human being. Prenatal diagnosis is morally licit, "if it respects the life and integrity of the embryo and the human fetus and is directed toward its safe guarding or healing as an individual.... It is gravely opposed to the moral law when this is done with the thought of possibly inducing an abortion, depending upon the results: a diagnosis must not be the equivalent of a death sentence."
The dignity of each human demands that we protect it. Without the right to life, no other rights make sense.

Question #2 - Should the nun have been excommunicated?
This is a question of Church law. Now that we have determined that there was no justification to abort the child in the case above, the question moves from to a question of whether or not the nun should have been excommunicated.

First of all, there is a lot of misunderstanding about excommunication. An excommunication is what is called a "medicinal penalty". This means it is given in order to help the other person seek to become reconciled to the Church. They are not "kicked out" of the Church or condemned to hell as some think. They are still members of the Church but are not able to perform certain functions and cannot receive the Sacraments.

Here is what canon law states:
Can. 1398 A person who procures a completed abortion incurs a latae sententiae excommunication.
In other words, it is an automatic penalty that one brings on themselves. In this particular case, Bishop Olmsted talked to Sr. McBride, who admitted she gave the green light to the abortion and knew the seriousness of it. Thus, Bishop Olmsted confirmed that Sr. McBride excommunicated herself. Notice, Bishop Olmsted didn't excommunicate her, Sr. McBride did it.

So, should she have been excommunicated? Yes.
For more on the legal aspects of this case, see Dr. Ed Peters and Jimmy Akin's commentary.
We may not like the way the law is worded, but having a problem with the law itself vs. having a problem with the application are two different issues.

Question #3 - Why did the Church respond so quickly to this situation and not to sex abuse scandals?
I think there are several problems with the this question and the underlying assumptions.

First, it is a distraction to the real issue at hand and is changing the subject to try and discredit the Church's authority in this case.

Second, this case arose last year and the story is just coming out now. As with most internal issues, the timeline seems lost.

Third, individuals in the Catholic Church have certainly messed up time and again (and will continue to do so until Christ comes again). So, please be careful to delineate between "The Church" and individuals in the Church who have messed up.

Because of such errors, the new policies take an aggressive approach to all abuse and remove anyone accused immediately.

Anther problem in this story is ignorance. The problem with relying on media sources to report on internal Church matters is they don't care about the details, the truth, moral reasoning, etc. Rather, they want juicy headlines that get readers.

The story of the mean Bishop who sends a nun to hell for helping a dying mother makes for getting readers. Of course we have to disregard the facts of the case, suspend real moral reasoning, and play up our ignorance to follow along.

I hope all of this answers your question, without boring you in the details.


Kevin said...

Whenever I read something like "the Bishop didn't excommunicate her, Sr. McBride excommunicated herself," I have an image of a schoolyard bully picking on a little kid.

You know, when the bully would grab the kid's arm, and punch the kid with the kid's own fist, saying, "Stop hitting yourself! Stop hitting yourself!"

Marcel said...

Kevin - your analogy doesn't work. If anyone was the bully, it was the doctor who killed the baby.

The Bishop did what he had to. He confirmed the law was broken and in force. That is all.

Kevin said...

Oh, it's not an analogy. If anything, that would be the Code of Canon Law beating up the Sister, wouldn't it? (Or whoever wrote the Code?)

My point, such as it was, was more about language. Here is a really, really hard decision. Do you let a woman die or kill her baby? A decision of life and death made by someone who has given her life to the Church, and vowed to obey Her authority.

The punishment may be right, and it may be just, but to blow off what must have been a profound and agonizing decision with "she excommunicated herself" seems to lack... compassion.

Marcel said...

She consented to the killing of an innocent baby. Where is the compassion there?

Look, just because it is "difficult" doesn't make the moral obligation any less. Nor does it take away the Bishop's responsibilities.

Also, you are assuming that an excommunication is not compassionate, which I STRONGLY disagree with.

What is more compassionate - telling her it is all okay or telling her she might have endangered herself spiritually?

Kevin said...

I'm not really talking about the Bishop's compassion. I don't know enough about how or why he made his decision. Nor am I talking about the compassion of excommunication.

People may not see the situation as merely "killing an innocent baby." Instead, they may see it as a choice between the death of a woman and the death of an infant.

We can insist on the absolute evil of abortion, but people will look at the situation and ask themselves, what if that was my wife, my sister, my mother? Would I let her die to save my son, my niece, my brother? Or let the child die to save her life?

When the Church misses this, they seem out of touch with the reality of family life.

Sr. McBride, I am sure, saw that there were two lives, not one, that were at stake. When commentators miss that, they run the risk of seeming without compassion.

Marcel said...

Thank you for explaining. I understand now what you were trying to get across.

Sometimes the rules seem "out of touch" and we could communicate better. This is because the reality is that most people make up their moral reasoning as they go along. They have ultimately sucked up a relativistic and consequentalist attitude about morality.

We need to battle against this and language makes a difference. But, we cannot ever ignore or talk around what is true or good.

Marcel said...

From a reader who was having trouble with the comments and my response:

Thanks, Marcel, for that excellent run-down. Very though provoking, and while I agree with everything you posted, I'm still not convinced that the situation would have cause excommunication.

Now given, we were not involved in any of the proceedings, and the only real source of data we have was the article posted above. And as we know, the news sources always go for headlines, and they did attach the term "abortion" to the procedure that was performed. Allow me to quote your blog:

"In this situation the difference is in intention and action. The action would differ, in that, instead of actually killing the child and then removing the child from the fallopian tube, the doctor would remove the section of the tube that the baby was in and then allow it to die. But, the intent is not to kill the child, but rather to save the woman. The side-effect here is unintentional - the baby's death"

Now, I am a medical practitioner and I have done clinical rotations in labor and delivery as well as gynecological surgery, and I was wondering: what if the procedure had been targeted specifically at removing say, the placenta or some other part of the anatomy that was releasing the hormones contributing to this woman's pulmonary hypertension? In this case the baby certainly would have died, but the intention would have been very similar to the removal of a fallopian tube during ectopic pregnancy. Or perhaps, if the procedure had been a hysterectomy, which would cure the pulmonary hypertension, and then simply allowing the baby to die within the extricated uterus?

It seems that because the procedure was termed an "abortion," the bishop had no choice but to get involved, but had another description of the procedure been used, and perhaps slightly modified techniques been employed, the surgery would have been viewed as simply a life-saving therapy for a woman that inadvertently resulted in the death of her child.



Patrick - thanks for the thoughts. It isn't in the terminology, but the actual procedure. We cannot actively kill. Just as we cannot refuse hydration and nutrition to a person in a coma, but we can take them off of a ventilator; we cannot ever kill a baby, even if we call it something else.

So, I agree the Bishop had no choice but to get involved once he knew about it. But, we have to be careful with language. Many pro-abortion supporters have carefully manipulated language to call abortion a "right" and "health care", but they are neither. It is never a right to kill an innocent and abortion can never be health care, just as Hippocrates knew.

Kimberly Rossi said...

I understand that the church does not ever support the killing of the unborn, but I am confused in how it justifies removing the area of the Fallopian tube (in the case of the ectopic pregnancy). You just said that "we cannot refuse hydration and nutrition to a person in a coma", but yet it is ok to refuse nutrition to an unborn child? After all, cutting away the Fallopian tube would cut off the fetus's blood supply that carries the nutrients. In this case the doctor may not be sticking a needle into the fetus to 'actively' kill it, but it is not allowing for the natural death of the fetus. In rare cases baby and mother can both survive pregnancies outside of the uterus.