May 30, 2010 (Holy Trinity)

Today’s Readings (text):

  • Proverbs 8:22-31
  • Ps 8:2, 4-9
  • Romans 5:1-5
  • John 16:12-15

At St. Joseph’s Hospital in Phoenix several months ago, Sister Margaret McBride, a senior administrator at the hospital, authorized an abortion for a 27-year-old woman suffering from pulmonary hypertension, secondary to her fourth pregnancy.

In ruling that Sister McBride was “automatically excommunicated” from the church, the Most Rev. Thomas J Olmsted, bishop of Phoenix, wrote, “An unborn child is not a disease. While medical professionals should certainly try to save a pregnant mother’s life, the means by which they do it can never be by directly killing her unborn child. The end does not justify the means.”

The premise for this ruling, that an unborn child is not a disease, is a complete misrepresentation of the medical facts underlying the case. Pulmonary hypertension during pregnancy is a known and pernicious pathological condition.

Furthermore, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops has a slightly different take, in Part 4, Issues in Care for the Beginning of Life, No. 47: “Operations, treatments and medications that can have as their direct purpose the cure of a proportionately serious pathological condition of a pregnant woman are permitted when they cannot be safely postponed until the unborn child is viable, even if they will result in the death of the unborn child.”

In fairness, we must note in this case that doctors said the pregnant woman’s death from pulmonary hypertension during pregnancy and delivery was not 100 percent certain. Nor was the probability that she would carry the pregnancy to the point at which the unborn child was viable.

You will have to decide for yourself whether Sister McBride did the “right” thing, but I tend to think that is a matter between her and God himself.

What concerns me is the message her excommunication sends to other Catholics and people of all religious traditions who believe in the infinite value of every single human life. Sister McBride has been described, almost universally, as a “saintly” person, one who has exercised great compassion and Jesus-like care for the people of her community, God’s children every one of them. The church has now said they don’t want her any more. She can no longer receive Christ’s body and blood in the Most Holy Sacrament.

St. Paul writes in today’s passage from his great letter to the Romans, “Since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith.” As Sister McBride has already gained this access, the church’s official declaration of her excommunication can be considered irrelevant, especially since the logic behind that decision contradicts the published statements by the Conference of bishops.

We find ourselves not caring so much about what church leaders have to say when their bishops can’t even follow their own testimony about our Lord. Turn instead to the words of our Lord. Follow his example. This will show you how to love. This will teach you how to be of compassionate service to one another in our world today.

As for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, their language can be considered a reasonable compromise, since neither the pregnant woman’s nor the baby’s life has a greater value than the other. They are equal in value, and that value is infinite.

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