THE BISHOPS LOVE YOU UNTIL YOU’RE BORN
Thomas P. Doyle, J.C.D. - May 20, 2010 RichardSipe.com
I recall seeing a bumper sticker somewhere on one of my travels that said: Bishops love you…Until you’re born. The recent debacle in the Diocese of Phoenix echoes this statement, especially if you put it into the wider context of the hierarchy’s consistent response to the clergy sexual abuse scandal.
The twenty-seven year old of mother of four was, no doubt, a devout Catholic who dutifully followed the official policy on birth control. According to the fact sheet published by Catholic Healthcare West, she was afflicted with a very serious, but at the time controlled, heart condition called pulmonary hypertension. By November, when she was eleven weeks pregnant, her risk of death was close to 100% if she continued the pregnancy. The person at the center of this soul-twisting drama, a Sister of Mercy, led the woman’s predicament and the possible courses of action through a thorough process of consultation that included several physicians, nurses and medical ethicists . Their frame of reference was number 47 of the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services.
The mother concurred with the decision of the consultation team and the procedure was performed. One of the attending nurses revealed what had happened to an outsider, which was a clear violation of the HIPAA provisions which protect the confidentiality of patients. It wasn’t long before the local bishop got wind of this and went into action. He summoned the sister and the hospital CEO to a meeting which they mistakenly thought would be their opportunity to explain what had happened. Instead the bishop hit them with “you did an abortion.” The sister asked him what he would have done under the circumstances and he responded that the proper course was an induction of labor. (At eleven weeks this is just another abortion technique. Either Olmstead did not understand what he was saying, or he thought he was advocating a form of miscarriage. Either way this had to leave the medical personnel stunned.)
Keep in mind that this bishop neither is a physician or a nurse nor is he a credentialed canonist, moral theologian or medical ethicist. He is however, a bishop which apparently gives him the authority to pronounce on issues about which he has no expertise. An induction of labor for an eleven week old fetus is medical lunacy and would have spelled certain death for the fetus. Continuation of the pregnancy would have ended with the nearly 100% chance of the death of the fetus and the mother. The end result: by following the rules as they are interpreted by the Bishop of Phoenix, an unborn life would have been protected but only while still in the mother’s womb. Her impending death would have ended the Church’s responsibility for protecting the unborn life of the fetus. It also would have left a good man a widower and most tragic, four pre-teen children motherless. On balance the Church’s official sex rules would have ended up killing the mother and the baby in the womb and robbing the other half of the marriage and four young children of the chance for a happy and healthy family life.
There frame of reference was number 47 of the Ethical and Religious Directives For Catholic Health Care Services , published by the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ Conference. This directive seems to be pretty clear even to those of us not schooled in either medicine or ethics: Operations, treatments, and medications that 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.
The bishop, in his zeal to protect the sanctity of life, declared that the religious sister in question had been automatically excommunicated in keeping with the norm of Canon Law. Although he didn’t mention anyone else, according to the canonical rules, every other Catholic involved in the termination was also excommunicated, including the mother. What about the sanctity of the lives of the husband and the other children? No matter how you look at it the protection of the sanctity of life in this case would have left two people dead and five others without a wife and mother. So much for the sanctity of life, especially life outside the womb.
There are plenty of reasons to objectively question whether or not the sister or anyone else qualified for automatic excommunication. From all the information disseminated about the case it appears that the only ones who took a long, serious and deep look at all aspects of the case were the hospital personnel…and the mother. If the Q & A statement issued by the diocese is any indication, it appears that all the bishop did was concern himself with punishing everyone in range without considering if the punishment was even justified.
This very sad case and the bishop’s harsh, insensitive and probably incorrect (at least from a canonical viewpoint) response could not have come at a worse time for the credibility of the Bishop of Phoenix and the Catholic hierarchy in general. The gross inequity of the canonical provision itself is scandalous. Abortion, deemed murder according to official Church teaching, is so serious that it justifies automatic excommunication for all directly involved and not just the mother and the person performing the procedure. On the other hand, murder, though a crime in canon law, results in automatic excommunication only when the victim is a pope or a bishop. Termination of the life of anyone else, no matter what the circumstances, results in the possibility of any number of punishments but not excommunication.
What of clerics who rape or otherwise sexually molest little children, adolescents or even adults? According to the canonical rules they are subject to a number of penalties including dismissal from the clerical state, but not excommunication. The real cause of the fury of many however is the historically proven fact that most such clerics got away with their crimes with nothing more than an admonition, followed by a quiet transfer, usually to greener pastures. The widespread rage following the Boston Revelations of January, 2002, has prompted the official Church to do something other than try to defend the indefensible. They have been secretly putting accused clerics through lengthy and sometimes interminable canonical trials, but no one has been kicked out of the Church and what’s more inexplicable, every bishop himself credibly accused of sexual abuse of a minor has faced nothing more drastic than resignation and a guaranteed comfortable retirement.
To paraphrase Shakespeare, “There’s something rotten in the State of Denmark (or at least there was in his play) and there’s definitely something rotten in the State of the Vatican” especially when it comes to its lopsided value system on the sanctity of human life.
Do Catholic Bishops love you until you’re born? It certainly seems so! (Unless you are a fellow bishop or a pope.)
I wish I could have been a fly on the wall when Olmstead suggested the appropriate course of action was to induce labor. Honest to God had I been in that meeting I might have fallen on the floor. How do you deal with this kind of outright stupidity from a man who is supposed to be a credible moral leader? The fact is his stupidity has cost Sr McBride her position, her right to participate in the religious tradition she dedicated her life too, and added even more misery to a grieving family. For what? To placate the squeaky pro life wheels in Arizona? To give them a bone so he can quietly work behind their backs for his immigrant population?
Personally I'm glad Fr Doyle published this article. I learned a lot. Like maybe I had better read Canon Law so I can get even more evidence as to just how skewed Catholicism's understanding of the Gospels actually is. I didn't know that the only excommunicable murders were for fetuses, bishops and the pope. This equivalence can't be based on their mutual innocence that's for sure. It's also not based in reason or logic, no matter what Pope Benedict says. I am tempted to think the equivalence is based in computational ability.
The cynic in me actually thinks Olmstead stuck his nose in this for two major reasons. The first is the previously mentioned bone to the uber conservative pro life crowd, the second is for ladder climbing purposes. Olmstead is not the first bishop who has singled out members of LCWR medical orders to get a modicum of revenge for the USCCB loss of face over the health care bill. Might just as well keep kicking members of the LCWR orders while the Vatican has them down, especially when those same orders have more credibility than the self appointed spiritually special class of bishops, cardinals, and the pope.
In the meantime one wonders if Olmstead is extending the compassionate arm of the Church towards the family who has been devastated by this tragedy and his compounding of their misery. Or does the fact they too have incurred automatic excommunication preclude any compassion until the family comes crawling to kiss his shiny ring?
This situation really offends me in case you couldn't tell. On this beautiful morning I am very glad I live in the Archdiocese of Santa Fe and not the Diocese of Phoenix. It would be really nice if I could believe Archbishop Sheehan, who is Olmstead's titular head, could silence Olmstead before more damage is done. Honestly, given Olmstead's track record I don't think it's possible.
I have sympathy for the people of Phoenix. They've had some interesting characters as shepherds recently. First there was James Rausch who was implicated in the Fr. Trupia scandal. Trupia tried to use their sexual relationship to blackmail his way out of laicization for sexual abuse charges. Rausch was followed by Thomas O'Brien--a bishop who did not incur excommunication nor laicization for his drunken hit and run murder of a pedestrian. He did however exchange his knowledge about priest abusers with the DA's office to avoid prison time. Now Phoenix has Olmstead the omniscient one. If Phoenix is really lucky maybe Olmstead has finally earned his promotion to Rome. The Diocese of Phoenix could use a break.