Phoenix bishop Thomas J. Olmsted, depending on where you settle in the Culture War, is either a pro-life hero or a pro-life dupe who should resign. Interesting thread in progress at dotCommonweal. This post is going to be a bit scattered, and as you read you may realize why.
I’m less willing to tread into the waters of whether or not last November’s separation of mother and fetus was advisable. I’m not a medical doctor. I certainly don’t know the actual medical facts in the case. I do sort-of have a dog in the fight, though. My daughter’s cardiologist (three of them, actually) have said that with her heart condition, she would not be able to bring a pregnancy to term without grave danger to her life. No woman with her heart condition and restorative operations has ever given birth to a full-term infant.
I was paying attention when I heard about my dad’s heart disease, and certainly when I was informed about my daughter’s. A deformed or diseased heart can weaken. It might be that six, twelve, or twenty weeks of pregnancy present little danger to a person. Or the accumulated strain takes years off the end of a life. The increased stress placed on the heart is gradual, and my understanding is that this can affect other body functions. If my daughter were to turn up pregnant sometime in the next four years, my sense is that I would need to hear from the doctors a little more than “she will die.” I would want to know the whole story on what happens. And sure, there’s always hope for a miracle. And heroism. My wife and I have already discussed this matter, and she’s fairly firm about what she’s going to insist on doing. 100% chance of dying–that’s a no-brainer. And after the young miss is old enough to decide for herself, I will accept whatever decision she comes to.
So let me plop down this moral conundrum for you. Suppose a person decides to try the heroism route and bring a child to term. Then suppose well into the second trimester, it becomes very obvious that the mother’s life is in immediate danger. Is it better to try to bring a child to term only to change one’s mind when the child is grown enough to be considered near-viable? Or should such pregnancies end as early as possible, before heartbeat, brain activity, or the determination of individuals (multiples or single embryo) takes place?
So my sense of bishops, who have been neither husbands or fathers or medical doctors, making pronouncements in these areas is very, very unsteady ground. And we all know it. That they have a mastery of Christian morality–this might be questioned in a few quarters–is a vital part of the discernment in difficult circumstances. Any reasonable person would concede bishops and theologians know (or should know) the theology behind the situation. Is there a shift when the certainty of death is less than 100%? We know that acts of omission carry the same gravity–we cannot stand by idly and allow death. It seems to me that a standard was asked of the woman religious excommunicated that churchmen are unwilling to apply to Pius XII for not being a hero. (Or saint?) Enough of the medical stuff–let’s get to the Catholic sensibility on the matter.
Bishop Olmsted has shown a history of mercy when a human being is killed. Does the death of a fetus carry more gravity than the death of an adult human being? Is it easier to forgive when the victim is less cute, innocent, or accidentally run down?
As for the automatic nature of this excommunication–if it’s automatic, why does it require a bishop to announce it? If they did construction work on the chancery road, it would be automatic that employees or visitors would use another entrance. Does the bishop make announcements about this kind of administrative matters?
As for the advisability of making this matter public: does it allow pro-choice activists to point out the clumsy lack of compassion for the women involved? In other words, does this harm the pro-life movement more than it helps. And let’s be honest: for too many Catholics, they care little for the theology or biology involved here. They can’t slap aborting women or their doctors, so they’re glad enough when somebody else gets it instead.
And maybe Bishop Olmsted has no choice. Does canon law stipulate he must announce automatic procedures? Does someone go down a checklist, and Sister Margaret McBride had little swishes against her on all canons? If so, there was no judgment applied here. It might as well have been the chancery janitor making the announcement.
I see losers on all fronts on this one. Mother loses baby. Hospital loses what seems to be a valuable employee. A bishop’s credibility is eroded: show mercy to a retired bishop, but let the hammer fall elsewhere. The pro-life movement stokes the doubt of those it wants to convince. One year ago, the polling numbers looked good. I hope Gallup or somebody does another poll soon. It would be fascinating to see where the numbers come down after this incident.
That said, let’s not kid ourselves about the polls. Voters will not decide abortion for others, only for themselves. The polls are only a pep rally cheer. More pro-life people might hope to persuade their loved ones and friends. But that’s about it. It would seem to me that shifting polling numbers indicate that more Americans would choose to bring a pregnancy to term. Ultimately, there’s no law, civil or natural, that says that 51% number can’t climb to 100. My worry is that Bishop Olmsted has just flicked a few percentage points off that majority. Unfortunately, that might translate to real numbers at the abortion clinics.