US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Was excommunication the right response to the Arizona abortion?

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A moral theologian weighs in on the response to the abortion that took place at a Catholic hospital. 

Guest blog by Patrick McCormick

Bishop Olmsted and the Vatican claim that every "direct" abortion is always wrong. They base their assertion on one traditional reading of the moral principle of "double effect," a reading condemning every physically "direct" attack on innocent human life, but permitting "indirect" abortions (like excising a tumor from a pregnant woman with uterine cancer) when it is the only way to save the life of the mother.

Still, for more than 40 years a growing consensus of Catholic moral theologians have questioned this narrow reading of the principle of "double effect" and argued that the bishop and Vatican's absolute moral distinction between "direct" and "indirect" abortions does not hold. As the late Father Bernard Haering argued, the tragic termination of a pregnancy to save the life of the mother is justified not by the "indirectness" of the medical procedure, but by the fact that the grave threat to the mother's life can be resolved by no other means. No one "intends" to kill a fetus in this case, only to save the one life that can be saved.

Catholic teaching allows for "direct" killing in self-defense (even when a mentally disturbed assailant is not culpable of any guilt or sin), and for the death penalty--in both cases when and only when there is no other means of resolving a grave and imminent threat to life. In light of these positions and the widespread, longstanding, and expertly informed dissent from the teaching that every "direct" abortion is immoral, it is difficult to be certain that Sister Margaret McBride and the Ethics Committee of St. Joseph's were wrong. Many Catholics and moral theologians are no doubt persuaded that they were not.

Bishop Olmsted also reports that, according to Canon Law, anyone formally cooperating in a "direct" abortion incurs an automatic excommunication, so Sister Margaret McBride and the unnamed Catholic members of the Ethics Committee and medical team that conducted the abortion are now excommunicated for having dissented from official Catholic moral teaching on abortion, raising at least two questions.

First, if the purpose of excommunication--the most extreme moral and spiritual punishment available to Catholic pastors--is to address the threat of public scandal or oppose attacks on human dignity and life, why then is excommunication not used to stem the scandal of priest pedophilia or to oppose Catholics who support unjust wars, government sanctioned torture, or the indiscriminate use of weapons of mass destruction? Is this punishment, as many now suspect, reserved for offenses associated with women and sexual morality?

Second, if Sister Margaret McBride, the Ethics Committee of St. Joseph's Catholic hospital, and leading administrators of its parent group, Catholic HealthCare West, along with a majority of practicing Catholic moral theologians question or dissent from official Catholic teaching condemning all "direct" abortions to save the life of the mother, is excommunication really an adequate or even serious response?

Bishop Olmsted and the Vatican have a grave pastoral problem. Catholic moral teaching on this question has become unpersuasive (even unintelligible) to a large number of committed and educated Catholics, and excommunicating a nun will not resolve this pastoral problem, only worsen it, for it suggests that the bishop and the Vatican do not have clear, cogent, and persuasive answers to tough moral questions. That is not "good news." It is a scandal.

Guest blogger Patrick McCormick, S.T.D. is the Culture in Context columnist for U.S. Catholic and a professor of Religious Studies at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington. He earned his Doctorate in Sacred Theology from Gregorian University in Rome. 

Guest blog posts express the views of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of U.S. Catholic, its editors, or the Claretians.