A Pattern of Missteps

Compromise is not a dirty word in democratic politics, nor is the balancing of conflicting goods foreign to the church’s tradition of casuistic moral reasoning. So why do so many American bishops appear to spurn both in their prolife advocacy? Do they really think the hardest line is always the best one, or the most persuasive?

Instead of addressing the legitimate concerns of those who oppose the church’s teaching on abortion—such as concerns for the health of women—American bishops too often seem to fear that any acknowledgment of the complexity of this issue would weaken their own position. And instead of speaking from the real strength of their position, and assessing their political situation rationally, too many bishops are in a hurry to warn of impending betrayals and persecutions, suggesting that their prochoice political opponents have more power and fewer scruples than they actually do.

Thus, American bishops spent a fortune on a campaign to defeat the illusory threat posed by the Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA), which has almost no chance of becoming law. Rather than concede that they may have exaggerated the threat posed by FOCA, some bishops talk as if they themselves averted it by means of their furious warnings. Then there were the denunciations of the University of Notre Dame for inviting President Barack Obama to give its 2009 commencement address, an act some bishops seemed to equate with apostasy. More complicated and consequential was the role played by the USCCB during the congressional debate over the recently passed health-care-reform bill. The bishops ended up opposing the bill because of their dubious reading of its provisions to restrict abortion funding and protect existing conscience clauses (for more on this, see Timothy Stoltzfus Jost’s “Episcopal Oversight”).

Apart from such political blunders, recent pastoral failures within the American church have also undermined the credibility of its teaching about abortion. Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of Phoenix recently alarmed even many staunchly prolife Catholics when he publicly announced that Sr. Margaret McBride, RSM, had excommunicated herself by approving a request to remove a fetus from its mother’s womb in order to save her life. McBride served on the ethics committee at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix. Late in 2009 a woman was brought to the hospital suffering from acute pulmonary hypertension, a life-threatening condition for any pregnant woman. If the pregnancy, then in its eleventh week, continued, both mother and child would probably die.

Abortion is not permissible under any circumstances, says Bishop Olmsted, not even to save the life of the mother. But others, including some very conservative Catholic moralists, think that, in cases where a pregnancy will almost certainly kill both the woman and her unborn child, separating the child from the mother is morally justified. The arguments here are complicated. Suffice it to say that the intention of those who remove the embryo or fetus from its mother’s womb is not to kill a developing child but to save the mother in a situation where the child has no chance of survival and the woman has no other chance. It is not clear to many Catholics why in cases of ectopic pregnancy the church will allow the removal of a fallopian tube—and with it an embryo—in order to save a pregnant woman’s life, while it will not allow the removal of a nonviable fetus to save a woman from dying because of pulmonary hypertension. It is not enough for bishops to say or imply: “Trust us. There’s a difference.” Nor is it fair to expect Catholics to overlook the death and human suffering occasioned by such theoretical subtleties.

The statements issued by Olmsted admit of no complexity or uncertainty when it comes to such hard cases. Certainly, the bishop had a responsibility to question Sr. McBride’s decision. What he should not have done was assume that she and others were acting in intentional defiance of Catholic teaching. Instead of simply announcing the excommunication of someone of good faith and great dedication who was faced with a now-or-never, life-or-death decision, why didn’t the bishop simply express concern that McBride might have erred, and explain that it is a bishop’s duty to investigate the incident? In that way, he might have avoided lending support to those who argue that the church cares more about embryos and fetuses than about their mothers, and that Catholic bishops won’t be satisfied until the law forces women to continue pregnancies that are a death sentence for both them and their unborn children.



Commenting Guidelines

  • All

The American bishops not only capitulated to the few imprudent bishops among them their unit. They have also departed from a solid Catholic tradition. They are not only now without leadership. They are without a solid moral theology.

And 50,000 nuns can't be wrong!

Mike,  that '50,000 nuns can't be wrong' comment that you are so enamored of is factually incorrect in terms of the support of the Healthcare act (attempt to prove it and you will see it's a gross exaggeration), and a logical fallacy in terms of making an appeal to numbers to support the turth or untruth of a claim.

Our 'leadership'--the high and mitred ones--has yet to understand that, as a result of the coming to light of the episcopacy's years of covering up for abusive priests, their collective moral standing with the American public, including large numbers of Catholics, falls somewhere between that of used car salespersons and junk bond purveyors. Phoenix's recent shooting from the hip 'excommunication' only adds to the derision that now regularly greets USCCB pronouncements. They preach to a choir that shrinks by the day. Only when there are bishops who will stand up and publicly challenge the dubious statements of the loud and reactionary minority (at least I hope it's still a minority) of their membership will the American episcopacy be on the road to rebuilding the moral leadership that only a generation ago characterized the USCCB.

The cover of Time magazine last week (and a major article inside the magazine) was entitled "Why Being Pope Means Never Having to  Say You're Sorry."  Well, it seems that Bishops never have to say that they are sorry, either.

We used to have GREAT Bishops in this country!  We had men who exercised wise leadership, who were pastoral, and who were tempered by the carefully weighed decisions that they made. 

But what we now have for the most part are run-of-the-mill ecclesiastical business men (though I do know a few wonderful Bishops---and I do mean few).  They have had too few years in pastoral work.  And too many are trained in Canon Law---with not enough background in Theology, or Spirituality.

They love law over people.  They act as though they have just gotten off of a  boat from some backward country, and have never dealt with a nation (or a people), who have separation of Church and State.  They are suspicious, narrow-minded, and many do not believe in being among their people---rather they keep aloof.

They certainly do not imitate either Jesus nor the Apostles (include Paul in that group, too).  They do not teach by example, but by expounding LAW.  These men are the mitered new Pharasees. 


Why should we be surprised by the fact that bishops are more concerned with the unborn than with the living. Living children (and now the grown vicitms)don’t seem to matter to them. Consider how they have protected their criminal "brothers of the cloth" in the past. They enabled the abuse of untold numbers of children who might otherwise have been saved if they had acted in a more "pro-life" manner towards the "living" children in their diocesan care:    

·         Bishop Hoffman of Toledo appointed a convicted child molester (upon his release from jail) to the position of pastor to one of his parishes.

·         Bishop (now Cardinal) Theodore McCarrick of New Jersey appointed a convicted rapist to a parish with an elementary school.

·         Archbishop Justin Rigali of St. Louis retained a priest who had pleaded guilty to sexually abusing a child during the Sacrament of Confession.

·         Bishop John McCormack of New Hampshire lied about his knowledge of the sexual misconduct of now infamous accused multiple rapist Fr. Shanley, a public supporter of man-boy sex.

·         Bishop Mattiehsen of Amarillo hired a priest who was on parole for abuse of two boys.

(These and many other cases were listed in an article in the Dallas Morning News, June 12, 2002 and are available on the Bishop Accountability web site if you search “Catholic Bishops and sex abuse.” )


It really is appalling the extent to which you folks at Commonweal are ignorant of what the Church actually teaches, and then you go and blame the bishops for your confusion.

Is Commonweal in favor of banning all abortions except to save the life of the mother?  If so, you should be appalled that far less than 1% are done for that reason.  But, of course you are not.  "The complexity of the issue" stems only from your spineless refusal to face facts.  The problem with you folks is that most of your secular friends have no objection to any abortion and you don't have the guts to contradict them.  You dishonestly rail against the bishops for   "denunciations of the University of Notre Dame for inviting President Barack Obama to give its 2009 commencement address", conveniently ignoring that the invitation came with an honorary degree bearing our Blessed Mother's name.  And this to a man to a man who in effect favored infanticide, when he opposed a law requiring medical assisitance to a baby who somehow survived an attempted abortion.  Even Barbara Boxer didn't go that far.  Is Obama in favor of a waiting period, parental notification, etc.?  Where's the compromise you're talking about?  That editorial is intellectually and morally bankrupt and you should be ashamed at you blatant cowardice. 

 I would hardly call the Bishop's opposition to FOCA a misstep since it is clear they were in tune with President Obama's agenda from the beginning:


The magestarium is the great teacher of the catholic people of God and much of that teaching is summarized in the "Catechism of the Catholic Church".

Abortion, covered in sections 2270 to 2275, speaks to the grave nature of the crime and in 2272 clearly states that  "A person who procures a completed abortion incurs excommunication latae sententiae, ..." "by the very commission of the offense, ..." and "formal cooperation in an abortion constitutes a grave offense". How grave? Excommunication grave! Which means that all sacraments and the graces flowing from them are off limits to you until it is lifted by the Pope or your Bishop or a priest specifically designated for the task.

So, not only is Sister excommunicated but also the mother, her doctor, the surgeon, the anesthesiologist, operating room nurses and assistants, and all other operating room personnel plus any others that were knowingly preparing her for the abortion. Theoretically, if the mother had died during the operation she would go to judgment with this awful sin upon her soul.  But the church is merciful and rules that in the case of imminent death any priest can lift excommunication and forgive all sins. But it is one more wound that Christ must bear upon the Cross.

A far better scenario would have been to call in a priest for the sacrament of extreme unction, gather the medical people around and appeal to almighty God for the life of the woman and child. If it would be in the will of our all-powerful Lord to do so He might have planted into the mind of one of those competent medical people a Eureka thought that might have resulted in a technique, a fix, or a whatever, that would have saved the life of both mother and child, and possibly others in the future.  And, one less wound that Christ must bear.

While the wording of sections 2270 to 2275 might appear to leave some wiggle room for the editorialists advocation for the darkness of abortion and the smoke of satan, the actions of Bishop Olmstead brightly illuminates the gravity of the crime, the moral evil of which the church has affirmed since the first century AD, the same century that Christ himself personally was here present on the face of the earth.

As for the fallopian tube baby; the growing child outside the womb is an invader, a deadly enemy of the mother, invoking her absolute right to self defense, which will preserve her life and, unfortunately, kill the aggressor. The one is intended, the other is not. See catechism sections 2263 to 2267.


Bishop Olmsted's defense of his actions emphasizes canon law. My first knowledge of the whole matter came from a National Public Radio segment, and I had the same reaction to the radio report as  to the bishop's defense, i.e., they both sound like the Pharisees of Jesus's time with their emphasis on law instead of on the people involved. I just cannot imagine Jesus in the scenario that has played out. It seems to me that the bishop's actions and the sex scandals come from the same source, an emphasis on the exercise of power about which Jesus repeatedly warned his apostles. John Wilkins in the same issue of Commonweal refers to Pope John Paul II as one of the most "dominant" popes in history. I agree with his assessment, but is that the standard of the Good Shepherd? I think not. Pope Benedict complains about the rise of secularism in the West, but if church leaders insist on their power rather than on the servant status that Jesus put forward as the ideal, secularism will continue to flourish. The hierarchy appears frightened to allow the Holy Spirit to operate freely, and for a time they can certainly hinder the Spirit's work. I think, for example, that Pope Paul VI lost his nerve at Vatican II by withdrawing from consideration the reform of the curia, birth control, and celibacy, and then not carrying through with the decisions on collegiality that the council had ordained. (See Professor John O'Malley's book on Vatican II). I look forward to the day when the pope and the bishops follow the ideal of Gregory the Great of "servant of the servants of God." I believe that indeed the fields are white with the harvest, as Jesus said, but not until the hierarchy follow's Jesus's advice on the exercise of power.  

Mona says, "Why should we be surprised by the fact that the bishops are more concerned with the unborn than with the living."

Mona, to be clear, a Child in their Mother's womb is alive.

Unfortunately, this specific decision of excommunication and the hard-line doctrine of abortion is another reason to question the Magisterium of the Church.  Apparently, it is permissible to allow the mother and fetus to die, rather than to save the life of the mother.  The fetus could not survive at 11 weeks.  It is also an example of an informed conscience being pitted against a definitive doctrine of the Catholic Church.  Most people will favor their informed conscience is this matter.   In principle, most Catholics believe that abortion is a grave mortal sin and something to avoid.  However, there are circumstances where an abortion should be morally permission.  Such is the case with the good Sister.

Add new comment

You may login with your assigned e-mail address.
The password field is case sensitive.

Or log in with...

Add new comment