When Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix declared that Mercy Sr. Margaret McBride had committed a violation of church law deserving of excommunication, he did so with a swiftness and certainty that left no possibility for doubt or nuance. Since that declaration was released in May, however, the bishop’s action has come in for criticism from a wide range of Catholic experts who question its proportionality and its precipitous nature. Some see it as disproportionally harsh; others as inconsistent within the framework of the application of wider Catholic law.
In the widely publicized case, the bishop announced that McBride had been excommunicated for assenting to the abortion of an 11-week-old fetus in order to save the life of a pregnant woman, a 27-year-old mother of four suffering from pulmonary hypertension. The woman was so gravely ill that doctors told her she would die if the pregnancy were not terminated.
McBride, vice president of mission integration at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center, where theprocedure occurred, was a member of the hospital ethics committee that approved termination of the pregnancy.
The surgery took place in late 2009, but Olmsted did not learn of it until recently. In a statement announcing his decision, Olmsted said McBride was excommunicated because of her position of authority at the hospital and because she “gave her consent that the abortion was morally good and allowable under church teaching.” Olmsted further declared as excommunicated anyone “who gave their consent, encouraged the abortion” or “who participated in the action; including doctors and nurses.”
While theologians and canonists dispute whether excommunications can be issued so broadly and unequivocally without a more detailed process, the primary objections deal with issues at the heart of the case.
Both the recent reactions, as well as writings, of a range of theologians and canonists whose work spans a good portion of the liberal-to-conservative spectrum, suggests that the approach of Olmsted and his chief ethicist, Fr. John Ehrich, while defensible under the most rigid reading of canon law, is outside of the mainstream of scholarship and thinking on the matter.
These experts faulted Olmsted’s action for several reasons:
- It does not, for instance, take into account such factors as the intent of those involved, a consideration regularly applied to other complex moral problems.
- It does not ask if the death of the fetus -- assured whether the decision was to do nothing to save the life of the mother or to remove the fetus from the mother’s womb -- should even enter into “the moral framework” in this instance.
- Its application in this case is inconsistent with the approach the church takes to other grave public sins, such as support of the death penalty, war, or clergy accused of sexual abuse, including rape, of children.
- In a pastoral sense, the sanction was unnecessarily heavy-handed, given the agonizing circumstances involved.