Over the years I have tried to avoid writing about two subjects, the trials and tribulations of the Catholic Church and the almost irrationally emotional issue of abortion. I see no percentage as a protestant in attacking the roots of another’s faith even though the actions of some of its clergy and those overseeing the policies that caused them were almost inconceivable. As for abortion, I strongly believe every woman must make her own decision.
But there is a time when an act becomes so grievously wrong that it can’t be ignored and demands that every caring, thinking person speak out forcefully.
Unfortunately the incident I am referring to involves both issues — a scandalous and unreasoning church hierarchy on automatic pilot and the desperate need to terminate an 11-week old pregnancy and the huge injustice that resulted to one of God’s more faithful servants.
Late last year a mother of five was admitted to the St. Joseph Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix. She was nearing the end of her first trimester of pregnancy and was desperately ill, according to all accounts. The right side of her heart had stopped functioning. The diagnosis was unanimous from the medical team that examined her. She would not live if she did not terminate the pregnancy immediately and have heart surgery.
But this was a Catholic hospital and that involved bringing the non-medical administration of the institution into the picture. Her illness was such that even transferring her to a non-Catholic hospital was out of the question. The lead administrator in this case was Sister Margaret McBride, a distinguished and highly regarded member of the Sisters of Mercy, who had spent her life in unblemished service to others. She was and is, by all reports, truly what her order calls itself.
After praying over the matter in the truest sense of the expression, she could come to only one conclusion: The abortion must be performed. The mother would die otherwise, taking the fetus with her. She gave permission for the termination. The mother lived to return to her children. Sister Margaret was backed up by Directive 47 that provides for just this kind of situation, allowing the ending of a pregnancy if the mother’s life clearly is at issue.
Nevertheless, Bishop Thomas Olmsted of the Phoenix diocese severely disagreed with Sister Margaret’s decision and “automatically” excommunicated her for permitting an abortion in a Catholic hospital. It means, among other things, she cannot be given communion or take part in any of the other sacraments. In other words, she has been summarily kicked out of her church although she was permitted to stay on at the hospital in a reduced capacity.
Olmsted’s act has not only brought general condemnation, it also has added to the increasingly tattered image of a church already under siege for its blatant disregard of a pattern of sexual abuse by priests. It has been noted that none of those accused of pedophilia and other transgressions in the priesthood had received the ultimate punishment meted out by this doctrinaire bishop to Sister Margaret.
Furthermore, Olmsted has verified in no uncertain terms what many Catholic women have been asserting — that in the eyes of the church, even in this enlightened age, women are not treated with the same deference as men. The nuns who perform so diligently many of the church’s services are essentially second-class citizens. It is the reason that modern women steeped in the religion have decided against devoting their lives to the institution, leaving the church shorthanded in carrying out its mission.
Every member of Sister Margaret’s faith and even those who aren’t should rise up in anger at this travesty, sign the petitions now being spread on the Internet to overturn this blind obedience to doctrine and carry the entire matter to Rome if all else fails. Obviously, the bishop by this step has brought into question his own fitness for the position. An institution so burdened by almost daily scandals can ill afford to ignore such a lack of judgment and callous disregard for fairness and compassion in those it elevates to its highest offices.
Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of Scripps Howard News Service, can be reached at thomassondan(at)aol.com