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28 May 2010

Nicholas Kristof writes:

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. …The mother suffered from a serious complication called pulmonary hypertension. That created a high probability that the strain of continuing pregnancy would kill her.

“In this tragic case, the treatment necessary to save the mother’s life required the termination of an 11-week pregnancy,” the hospital said in a statement. “This decision was made after consultation with the patient, her family, her physicians, and in consultation with the Ethics Committee.” Sister Margaret was a member of that committee. She declined to discuss the episode with me, but the bishop of Phoenix, Thomas Olmsted, ruled that Sister Margaret was “automatically excommunicated” because she assented to an abortion.

Let us just note that the Roman Catholic hierarchy suspended priests who abused children and in some cases defrocked them but did not normally excommunicate them, so they remained able to take the sacrament…”

Catholic doctrine holds that readiness to receive the Eucharist is a matter of personal deliberation and discretion–that is, unless you happen to be pro-choice politician. My guess is that Sister Margaret, a woman described by her colleagues as the resident conscience of the hospital, would likely find herself in sufficient standing to partake in Communion under these circumstances. A great many Catholics–whatever their stance on abortion policy may be–would probably say the same. However, a woman who has devoted literally her entire life to the ideals embodied in the Sacrament is now barred from partaking in it. It is but an accident of fate and vocation that many Catholics escaped having to make Sister Margaret’s moral calculation.  And those who feel that their conscience would have compelled them to act as Sister Margaret did are no more or less fit to receive the Sacrament than she. Recognizing that fact and acting accordingly is the very definition of principle.

The outsider in me wonders, then: What kind of message would it send if, on a pre-determined Sunday, all such Catholics walked to the communion rail and held their fingers over their lips? What would the reaction of the Diocese be if Catholics, by the hundreds or thousands, served notice that they will receive no more sacraments, respect, or dignity than Sister Margaret is to be afforded? That they will not donate their time and energy to institutions that would cast them out just as easily? That they will boycott  the Mass until the excommunication is lifted?

I know little about the ecclesiastical politics of the Phoenix Archdiocese, nor the prevailing attitudes among Catholics in that area.  And what with the important facts that 1) I’m quite contentedly Protestant and 2) I live in Japan, where the Catholic population can be basically counted on my fingers (well, not quite, but it’s small), it’s not a cause for which I’m able to be a credible advocate. But seriously, can you imagine a better show of true ownership of the church? Such a protest cannot be construed as disloyalty, nor as an attack, but a collective exercise of the most serious moral prerogative that the Church entrusts to its members. It is making the most Catholic of decisions with the highest standard of honesty.  The church authorities can then make of that what they will.

Hopefully Catholics in Phoenix and elsewhere will organize in defense of someone who made a difficult, agonizing moral decision. I’ll chip in a few bucks if I’m asked. But I’m tired of hearing about how slowly the church changes. Don’t get me wrong, it does change at a glacial pace. But to say that the church changes slowly, as though it’s a foregone conclusion that it will get there eventually if only given time, is crap.  It only enables injustices like this one, and reassures the hierarchy that their decisions will go unchallenged.  Institutions don’t respond to words, they respond to having something very important to lose.  The Boston Diocese didn’t act when it realized how many complaints of sexual abuse there were, it acted when the media found out.  The church in Germany didn’t set up a reporting hotline and hire an outside investigator when the recent complaints surfaced, it took these steps when Mass attendance–as well as charitable giving–went down the toilet in the span of a couple weeks.

The church will have no choice but to respond if the faithful act like owners instead of tenants. Here’s hoping they will.

Update: Catholics for Choice is soliciting letters of support to be forwarded on to Sr. McBride. Missives are welcome from all communities and traditions.

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