The woman was 11 weeks pregnant and the nun recommended she be allowed to have an abortion in a Catholic hospital because she had been advised by her doctor that she would die without one. Underlying this already very disturbing news item is a broader issue of how differently the Catholic Church hierarchy treats (women) nuns and men (priests) when their actions are inconsistent with official Church teachings, norms, or ethics:
The Catholic Church has claimed that it lacked the resources to properly investigate its sexual-abuse epidemic. It has blamed church bureaucracy for its failure to act quickly against pedophile priests, and has made much of the need to protect priests before they’re proven guilty.
When it comes to nuns, though, the church is somehow able to act with alacrity. This week, Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of Phoenix announced the excommunication of Sister Margaret McBride for the crime of approving an abortion necessary to save a woman’s life. The patient, a 27-year-old who was 11 weeks pregnant, had pulmonary hypertension, which interferes with the functioning of the heart and lungs. Pregnancy exacerbates the condition, and doctors at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center determined that she would die without an abortion. St. Joseph’s is Catholic, so an ethics committee meeting was convened. As part of the committee, Sister McBride opted to save the patient’s life. For that, she’s been rebuked, transferred, and essentially barred from participating in Catholic life.
Mary E. Hunt, writing at ReligionDispatches.org, feels that the growing attention being paid to women in their roles as lay workers in the Catholic Church is long overdue, but cautions against simplistic solutions:
I worry that a lack of nuance can replicate the dynamics of patriarchy only with a few women religious in charge—or held responsible—this time. Catholicism is simply more complex than that. And the sisters, for the most part, are not interested.
Evidence that the institutional Roman Catholic Church is imploding mounts daily, with revelations of more sexual abuse and more cover-ups. …
In many European countries, most notably Ireland, the long run of Catholicism as a cultural given is coming to an end. The Roman Catholic Church of Germany is on the skids. Revelations of abuses in Catholic institutions are coming thick and fast. …
To turn suddenly to sisters as the rescue workers for a male-led institution that has caused unspeakable problems is to saddle them with a clean-up operation that would “naturally” be a woman’s job in patriarchy. I hope they see it coming and resist, resist, resist. Likewise, to romanticize the nuns as though, being women, they will flap their white veils and make all things new, is equally unhelpful and unlikely. Rather, new models of Church need to emerge lest another small group—even women religious who have a long and proud history—be invested with the power and responsibility that belong to the whole community. I repeat, they don’t want it and neither do the rest of us. What we want is a democratic, participatory, egalitarian church.
Nicholas Kristof condemns both the misogyny and the inhumanity in the Church hierarchy’s decision to excommunicate Sister Margaret McBride. His piece needs to be read in full, but here is a snip:
We finally have a case where the Roman Catholic hierarchy is responding forcefully and speedily to allegations of wrongdoing.
But the target isn’t a pedophile priest. Rather, it’s a nun who helped save a woman’s life. Doctors describe her as saintly.
The excommunication of Sister Margaret McBride in Phoenix underscores all that to me feels morally obtuse about the church hierarchy. I hope that a public outcry can rectify this travesty.
“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.
“The mother’s life cannot be preferred over the child’s,” the bishop’s communication office elaborated in a statement.
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.
Like I said, read the whole thing. And that goes for the two other articles linked in this post, as well.