Friday, May 28, 2010
We finally have a case where the Roman Catholic Church 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.
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. According to local news reports and accounts from the hospital and some of its staff members, 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.
“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.
Since the excommunication, Sister Margaret has left her post as vice president and is no longer listed as one of the hospital executives on its Web site. The hospital told me that she had resigned “at the bishop’s request” but is still working elsewhere at the hospital.
I heard about Sister Margaret from an acquaintance who is a doctor at the hospital. After what happened to Sister Margaret, he doesn’t dare be named, but he sent an e-mail to his friends lamenting the excommunication of “a saintly nun”:
“She is a kind, soft-spoken, humble, caring, spiritual woman whose spot in Heaven was reserved years ago,” he said in the e-mail message. “The idea that she could be ex-communicated after decades of service to the Church and humanity literally makes me nauseated.”
“True Christians, like Sister Margaret, understand that real life is full of difficult moral decisions and pray that they make the right decision in the context of Christ’s teachings. Only a group of detached, pampered men in gilded robes on a balcony high above the rest of us could deny these dilemmas.”
A statement from the bishop’s office did not dispute that the mother’s life was in danger — although it did note that no doctor’s prediction is 100 percent certain. The implication is that the church would have preferred for the hospital to let nature take its course.
The Roman Catholic hierarchy is entitled to its views. But the episode reinforces perceptions of church leaders as rigid, dogmatic, out of touch — and very suspicious of independent-minded American nuns.
Sister Margaret made a difficult judgment in an emergency, saved a life and then was punished and humiliated by a lightning bolt from a bishop who spent 16 years living in Rome and who has devoted far less time to serving the downtrodden than Sister Margaret. Compare their two biographies, and Sister Margaret’s looks much more like Jesus’s than the bishop’s does.
“Everyone I know considers Sister Margaret to be the moral conscience of the hospital,” Dr. John Garvie, chief of gastroenterology at St. Joseph’s Hospital, wrote in a letter to the editor to The Arizona Republic. “She works tirelessly and selflessly as the living example and champion of compassionate, appropriate care for the sick and dying.”
Dr. Garvie later told me in an e-mail message that “saintly” was the right word for Sister Margaret and added: “Sister was the ‘living embodiment of God’ in our building. She always made sure we understood that we’re here to help the less fortunate. We really have no one to take her place.”
I’ve written several times about the gulf between Roman Catholic leaders at the top and the nuns, priests and laity who often live the Sermon on the Mount at the grass roots. They represent the great soul of the church, which isn’t about vestments but selflessness.
When a hierarchy of mostly aging men pounce on and excommunicate a revered nun who was merely trying to save a mother’s life, the church seems to me almost as out of touch as it was in the cruel and debauched days of the Borgias in the Renaissance.