Excommunication: How Effective A Strategy?

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.


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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9 Responses to Excommunication: How Effective A Strategy?

  1. Patti says:

    I think you’re a bit off the mark, here. What this excommunication is in bleak contrast to is the lack of any such censure from the Church for any of the pedophile priests. One woman makes a wrenching decision and choses to save one life instead of losing two and she is kicked off the island. Priests who are known to have sexually abused children and the bishops that hid them, are shuffled about and kept from any form of civil justice. Cardinal Law is enjoying a nice life in Rome.
    Those of us who can see past the pro-life/ pro-choice war will wonder what moral authority this particular iteration of Christianity can credibly claim.

  2. Mary M. says:

    Thank you, Patti! The big picture which nearly everyone misses is that the whole MOTHER-killing point of the no contraception, sterilization and abortion HERESY is to keep pedophile priests supplied with fresh victims at the expense of unhealthy mothers, overworked husbands and already neglected children. Jesus never condemned popular midwives/abortionists and herbal abortifacients in his day, and would probably not approve the hijacking of his name by mother-killing, child-raping fetal idolators. For years I’ve been collecting medical horror stories about childbirth’s greatly underreported dangers from obits and coworkers. Did you know the “great” U.S. ranks 40th in maternal safety based on REPORTED deaths? Most states don’t require hospitals to report maternal deaths and hospitals want to keep their reputations and business. Also, many childbirth deaths are delayed by weeks and years, and therefore discounted. For abuse of Native American children by priests, check out the website for the Tamaki Law firm (paralegal Ken Bear Chief) and Hidden from History (Rev. Kevin Annett). Also check out Vatican Bank Claims for jaw dropping covered-up WWII Church history.

  3. Jeff says:

    I do not question how difficult a decision this must have been, nor do I know the details of this specific case. However, I would like to give two polar opposite examples of our trust in the medical profession:


    I have a coworker who has a son with twin girls. They are now healthy, happy 5 year olds. For medical reasons, they needed to deliver both girls at 23 weeks gestation. (Agreed, a far cry from 11 weeks with the pregnancy in question in Phoenix.) Who is to say that a baby needs to be carried to term in order for both the mother and child to survive? Apparently, many would have us believe that this is a necessity and that a baby cannot survive outside the womb any earlier than ~42 weeks. To “change one’s mind” to make a decision during the pregnancy or suffer from some medical condition does not necessarily mean that the baby needs to die…or require heroism (a strong but probably appropriate word). Despite the increasing ethics dilemmas in the medical profession, I remain impressed at the ability of medical science to overcome many types of suffering by surgery or medicine. We’ve come a long way, and the gestation time for “near viable” has really really really come a long way. How can anyone be so sure the mother and baby would have died…were alternate treatments available?

    With our own child, my wife was advised to undergo major surgery before we attempted to have a child. We were referred to a specialist in the area, who, after a 30 min consultation, advised “slice and dice” to eliminate the problem. Fortunately, we had the courage (and intelligence) to obtain a second opinion. That opinion was a blessing; we were advised to do nothing as long as no symptoms were evident. We are now the parents of a 7 month old child with only minor complications during the pregnancy. Did everyone…everyone…on that board or making the decision agree to this course of “treatment” for the mother?

    From the stories and others my wife and I have come to appreciate more fully that doctors, nurses, and others in the medical profession are human beings who are able to perform miracles but also have biases and prejudices and give opinions…opinions. The opinions may be flawed. We have also come to understand that pregnancy itself (medical conditions or not) is a risky proposition with a great reward. Have we as a society and world come to expect perfection in an imperfect world…if so (note recent examples in the financial sector, health care sector, business sector, ) we’re setting ourselves up for a great disappointment. Where do we place our faith and trust?

    Again, not knowing the details of this particular case, but after reading a couple of articles, I do wonder about the emergency when articles I read say “last minute” and “life or death” but also say “possibility” and “can cause” (not will or will cause) death in the same article. Has the staff that had made the decision been scrutinized anywhere, or is this a case of one sided reporting? Doctors and medical professionals are not gods.

    Again not knowing the details of this particular case, in a time when it was really needed, might the mother have thrown her faith under the bus to (maybe) save her own life? Was the hospital complicit in the action…yes…if so, maybe the actions of the Bishop were justified. Was the act sinful…yes…do we all have sin…yes. Does any article indicate an interest by the mother or the nun or anyone involved to continue their faith or reconcile with the Church…probably not. Do I know what I would do in the same situation? Honestly no…but I sure pray that I would make a decision that is not in conflict with my faith.

    Last point: is it clear who made the issue a public one? Was it the Diocese of Phoenix, the nun administrator, other hospital administrators, the woman, the hospital…who? Who has the axes to grind in making this story a public one?

    Finally, regarding some earlier posts on this blog entry, I think that the US ranking should be discused with some care. Many countries record deaths differently or not at all, perhaps artificially reducing their death rates. There is no universal standard for reporting numbers that feed into these ranking statistics. …also not entirely clear what the whole discussion of priests abusing children has anything to do with any of this original post…aren’t there 1000 other posts on that topic elsewhere?

  4. Sensus Fidei says:

    Excellent editorial and great points. So true, the average Catholic in the pew is “not concerned with the biology and theology” when an obvious common sense, informed conscience decision existed. Others posters too offered interesting insights. Seems like a great site to honestly discuss Catholic issues sans rancor and insults. Thanks for restoring my faith and living up to your title!


    I’m grateful to Bishop Olmsted for encouraging me for the first time ever in my adult Catholic life to fully, prayerfully consider the concept of abortion. Having always been pro-life, including anti-Death Penalty, I have at times been woeful in my due diligence. In fact, I last paid the issue mind (aside from ongoing fervent prayer for women in need) when I voted against President Obama, as his extreme pro-abortion record gave grave concern.

    For the past several days, I’ve been consumed with prayers and consideration for Sr. Margaret McBride, St. Joseph’s Hospital staff and the family who suffered intense loss and trauma. Many people are Monday morning quarterbacking but the conjecture on specifics does not foster healing. Only Sr. Margaret, staff and family know the medical details. However, there was one person who had the benefit and blessing of making a choice in due time, with facts and adequate reflection. And that of course was Bishop Olmsted.

    Tragically, he made the wrong choice. In fact I’m going to relay exactly how much damage he’s doing to our Pro-Life cause. I, who served in many ministry capacities am considering making a donation to Phoenix Planned Parenthood in his name non-abortive (of course) services for a woman in need of true sexual health. I have never been so incensed over a Bishop’s extraordinary lack of compassion, counsel and wisdom in a specific circumstance crying out for Jesus’ love and mercy.

    How were the Gifts of the Holy Spirit evident in his decision? In this climate of distrust and disrespect for hierarchy what compelled him to continue to publicly chastise (albeit latae sententiae) a faithful, distinguished servant who used her informed conscience in an actual crisis not ideally described in our catechetical manuals?

    Moreover, the spiritual and emotional damage to the young mother of four is too much to fathom. The Bishop added unspeakable insult and burden to her injury. It seems this human side effect wasn’t calculated in his staunch equation.

    Furthermore, in order to get the full breadth of facts, I conducted research in very troubling realms, specifically extreme right websites, which thankfully represent few Catholics. The disrespect, pride and unchristian comments in those forums was astounding. My heartfelt questions, prayers and pain were met with hateful characterizations. These extremists feel emboldened to insult others while touting pro-life values! Now I finally understand why abortion will continue to be legal: a faction of pro-lifers are viewed as nasty, uncompassionate Christians. Some of that failure is Bishop Olmsted’s and other leaders to own and for which to atone. It certainly isn’t Sister Margaret’s sin.

    Apparently bishops are Cafeteria Catholics, often wrongly used as a derogatory term for those who use their informed conscience. They too pick and choose which interpretation and application of Canon Law serves their higher purposes, at the expense of living innocents and hierarchical gain even.

    I’m sending these sentiments to many in the Phoenix Diocese in order tol affirm ‘informed thinking and acting’ employees and Sisters who will struggle with the cataclysmic faith fallout. The Sensus Fidei, the reasonable minded majority, true treasures in the pew, refuses to condone uninspired, ill-advised leadership.

  5. As ever, your analysis and insight of complex matters are so welcomed in the blogworld. Instead of hyperbole anger or despair, you present the case with so many of the right questions. Thank you.

    As someone (I have not commented in awhile, but I have said this numerous times in your comment boxes and elsewhere), who has had a long journey from pro-choice to pro-life, this case had consumed me.

    It is easy – and so tempting, with all due respect – to get going on the pedophile priest angle. It does matter but I am not sure I would want to start there.

    Your reminding us of the case of the prior bishop and the unfortunate car accident is well done and well placed.

    A question that comes to mind for me – and forgive me if I go down my own hair-splitting mode is this… It is a question I struggle with.

    My question is that if Sr. Margaret had murdered a baby that was just born, she would not be automatically excommunicated. That she was part of a team that worked to prevent the death of a mother who was not carrying a child that was yet vital, but still a human person does cause her to be automatically excommunicated.

    It is very hard for me to accept that that is the teaching and move on. Abortion is abortion, I get that. Yet…

    Perhaps the better questions are about what excommunication really means and why do it?

    My prayers are for all involved in this case, a case with no easy answers.

    I write this as I consider Copernicus’ being re-buried yesterday. Reconciling complex matters is the work of the ages I suppose.

  6. Mary M. says:

    Great points, everyone!

  7. Patti says:

    You, also, missed the point. It was not specific to pedophilia it was: for transgressions where the Church can point a finger and condemn, the punishment is swift and public. When the finger is pointed at the Church, they are slow to accept responsibility and repent.
    It matters little what either transgression is, it’s the culture that is the problem and, in the eyes of Non- and Former- Catholics, at least, weakens the Church’s claim to moral authority.

  8. Liam says:

    I personally believe that automatic excommunications should only extend to areas where the lack thereof could result in confused jurisdiction – eg, schismatic or invalid but deliberately simulated ordinations or where a person in a teaching office attempt to bind the faithful to heretical teaching. There, the medicinal effect of the excommunication serves to calm the potential confusion of the faithful at large about valid and binding sacraments and teaching – it restricts the ability of the self-anointed to hijack the authority of the Church.

    But for other grave sins, I think the potential medicinal effect is much more hoped for than actual, and the risks are greater than what canon law appears to fear.

    There are conservative canonists, btw, who also question the effectiveness and merit of automatic excommunication along these lines.

  9. Bill Kurtz says:

    Apparently canon law is to be applied to everything, the way fundamentalists use the Old Testament, and certain Muslims use the Q’uran.
    In this case, to paraphrase Dickens, then canon law is an ass.

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