An Evaluation of a Nun’s Excommunication in Response to Her Participation in Abortion

Sister of Mercy Margaret McBride, a member of a Phoenix Catholic hospital’s ethics committee, received an automatic excommunication in response to her role in allowing an abortion for a critically-ill pregnant woman to take place at the hospital. According to the Arizona Republic, McBride’s actions were in response to a “last-minute, life-or-death drama in late 2009. The patient had a rare and often fatal condition in which a pregnancy can cause the death of the mother.”

The hospital defended the ethics committee’s decision.

In a statement, Suzanne Pfister, a hospital vice president, said that the facility adheres to the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services but that the directives do not answer all questions.

“In this tragic case, the treatment necessary to save the mother’s life required the termination of an 11-week pregnancy,” Pfister said.

Pfister issued the four-paragraph statement on behalf of the hospital, its parent company Catholic Healthcare West, and the Sisters of Mercy, McBride’s religious order.

McBride was part of the discussion about the surgery, described as urgent. It involved a serious illness, pulmonary hypertension. The condition limits the ability of the heart and lungs to function and is made worse, possibly even fatal, by pregnancy.

What should be the appropriate response to McBride’s actions and subsequent excommunication? First, the surgical abortion in question cannot be defended according to the principle of double effect. The principle of double effect, which is often invoked to justify the permissibility of an action that causes harm or death to another human being as a foreseen but unintended consequence of some good end, requires that the object of the action in question be morally good or at least indifferent. The classic example is the case of an ectopic pregnancy in which an embryo implants in a woman’s fallopian tube, potentially causing the tube to rupture. In such cases, surgery may be required to remove the inflamed section of the tube, a surgical act whose object is morally indifferent (removing a section of the fallopian tube) but which has the unintended effect of terminating the life of the implanted embryo. In the case of the surgical abortion involving Sr. McBride, the object of the action was the termination of the pregnancy for the sake of saving the life of the mother. Because the object in question is itself immoral, that is, performing a surgical abortion, the principle of double effect cannot be utilized, even if the intended consequences were good.

However, just because we cannot turn to the principle of double effect to justify McBride’s decision, this does not automatically mean that she was morally unjustified. It simply means that the principle is irrelevant in this case.

From the perspective of virtue ethics, we might inquire about Sr. McBride’s character in order to determine if this particular decision reflected a habitual defense and protection of human life within a set of tragic circumstances or if this decision reflects a habitual disregard for the dignity of the unborn. That is, if Sr. McBride acted consistently out of respect and responsibility for the dignity of the unborn, one would be less likely to condemn her actions in this particular case as reflecting a disregard for the dignity of the unborn or a habitual tendency to treat a pregnancy “as a pathology.”

It is difficult to judge Sr. McBride’s character. We know very little about her, and she has declined to comment about the excommunication. However, there are some questions about the “character” of her order, the Sisters of Mercy. For example, Sister Elaine Stahl of the Americas Midwest Community has been accused of stealing and improperly administering morphine in order to euthanize up to six elderly Sisters of Mercy infirmary patients, although she has not been formally charged, and there is some question about the accuracy of the accusations.

Another Sister of Mercy, Agnes Mansour, who is head of Michigan’s department of social services, supervises the use of over $5 million a year on Medicaid-financed abortions. “Obedient to the teachings of her church, Sister Agnes Mary Mansour believes abortion is sinful. She also recognizes that others disagree, and feels that poor women are entitled to have publicly funded abortions so long as they are legal.” Sister Mansour has run into conflict before when she unsuccessfully ran in a Democratic congressional primary:

The Pope clearly indicated that priests and nuns should not hold public office, and those who do so should, according to current canon law, first get permission from their bishop. Mansour did not request permission, and says she did not know this was necessary. During the primary she tartly dismissed canon law as an “old set of rules that are invoked when somebody wants to invoke them, and ignored when someone wants to ignore them.”

Moreover, “Bitch Magazine” has expressed its support of the Sisters of Mercy for reasons that bring its charism of respecting and protecting the dignity of all life into question:

As a radical feminist, raging homo, and recovering Catholic, I’ve rarely, if ever, felt compelled to wax poetic about any organization affiliated with the Catholic Church. Then I met a Sister of Mercy, and my dogmatic belief in Catholicism’s all-encompassing evil was shot dead on the spot.

The Sisters of Mercy work internationally to promote social justice in ways that are often political and sometimes piss off the Vatican. In the United States, they are one of the groups of nuns currently being investigated by the Vatican, ostensibly because they don’t wear habits, live independently, and are committed to fixing societal problems even if it means occasionally pooh-poohing some of the Church’s archaic stances on things like abortion, condoms, and solutions to the AIDS crisis.

Descriptions like these do not support the conclusion that McBride is part of an order that habitually views abortion as a grave evil, nor do they readily lend themselves to the conclusion that McBride acted as a last resort in light of tragic circumstances.

On the other hand, in light of the recent canonization of Gianna Molla, a physician who chose to carry her pregnancy to term even though she knew it would result in her death (which it did), it is understandable why sisters committed to the protection and defense of women’s dignity might stray towards more leniency in cases of abortion when the safety of the mother is in question. By canonizing Gianna Molla, the Vatican communicated implicitly that when the life of the mother is in danger, the moral impetuous must be towards saving the life of the unborn child and not the mother. While I do not want to downplay Molla’s heroic sacrifice, I question the political implications of her canonization and the message it sends to Catholic women regarding the value and dignity of their lives.

What we need to remember in evaluating Sr. McBride’s actions and the response of the diocese is the existence of what we might call “moral tragedy.” In other words, a good character may not protect a person from falling into tragic or immoral actions due to the nature of life’s contingencies. Martha Nussbaum, in her tome The Fragility of Goodness, writes about the implications of such tragic circumstances for the study of ethics, but literature is also chock full of examples we might use to illustrate the concept. For example, Jean Valjean in Les Miserables is forced into stealing bread in order to save the life of his starving niece, and who can overlook the tragic circumstances of Sophie from the novel and movie Sophie’s Choice, in which a Nazi soldier forces her to choose between the life of her young son or infant daughter, or risk having both killed. Sophie chooses to save her son and hands her infant over to the Nazi. Does Sophie bear some of the blame for her daughter’s murder?

In a way, she does, and in a way, Sr. McBride too, even if her intentions were pure and her character was impeccable, bears some guilt for cooperating in the termination of an unborn child’s life. To fail to acknowledge the tragedy of the situation would be mistaken, and to fail to acknowledge McBride’s guilt, even if she acted in good conscience, would also be mistaken. But perhaps McBride is guilty in the same way Jean Valjean and Sophie were guilty: as agents in tragic circumstances forced to choose between morally unsavory choices. Perhaps in light of the recognition of the reality of moral tragedy, and the recognition that McBride’s participation in evil was largely a result of tragic circumstances, a more creative response than excommunication might have been more prudent.


15 comments so far

  1. Bob MacDonald on

    You do pick difficult choices! I side with the sister. I think she has made the decision that is best for the time that is given. But I am not a Roman Catholic and I therefore do not accept the implied legalism around these moral issues. I am also not an absolutist when it comes to difficult decisions.

    Yes, I prefer not to take life, even the life of a foetus, but equally yes, I think that the circumstances of natural abortions (a frequent occurrence called a miscarriage) and the reality of poverty and ignorance, requires that the life of the mother be put first in some cases.

    There is a more important issue that is extremely difficult to find words for. It has to do with the intimate relationship to God through Christ Jesus that informs and recreates all sorts and conditions of people. Law simply doesn’t make that possible in itself. It may be an effective schoolmaster but it is not the teaching that gives a new perspective to every case.

    In this case, one must follow the now prolonged life of the mother and see if the sacrifice of the child in this case leads her more deeply into the one who gave his life for the life of the world.

    I agree with your conclusions as I usually do! I have a post in draft that I have not finished in my attempt to respond to your earlier post on ‘what is morality’. I find it difficult to use the kind of logic I see you using – very nicely done. Thanks.

    • everydaythomist on

      Thanks, Bob. You know, I don’t know what I would have done in the situation, and even less so if I were the mother in question (who, let’s not forget, was part of the decision-making process). I hope that whatever I decided reflected a deep reverence for life, and I think you are right that the “legalism” around complex issues like this can be a little disconcerting. For example, should the mother be excommunicated, since she has an even closer degree of material cooperation as the Sister? I think most of us would say “By no means!” Yet, if we are not going to excommunicate the mother, why excommunicate the sister? In making decisions like this, we lose the complexity, moral ambiguity, and tragedy of the situation.

      I am honored you read and comment on the blog. I love reading your reflections and your own blog as well (although I know absolutely no Hebrew so like you reading my blog, I have some difficulties reading yours. But it is nice to have such an “upbuilding” virtual relationship.

  2. thayes on

    Your article raises some very interesting–and of course vital–questions, but in broadening your horizon to include other Sisters of Mercy, you have not perhaps used due diligence. The article about Agnes Mansour to which you link is over 27 years old yet you refer to its information in the present tense. I believe Agnes Mansour left the Mercy community well over a quarter of a century ago–and that she is long gone from the position which she held with the state. How do her actions shed light on the tragic circumstances in Phoenix. This is serious stuff and we must do serious research before casting aspersions. The stakes are too high.

    • everydaythomist on

      Thank you for correcting me and I apologize for any misunderstandings. Of course, I was not trying to accuse the Sisters of Mercy of anything in particular, but rather get a sense of their “character” as an order. But you’re right, I should have relied on more recent anecdotes.

  3. JG on

    It’s important to note that the excommunication Sr McBride received was not a punishment arbitrarily meted out by her Bishop. Canon law holds that everyone consciously involved in the successful procurement of an abortion is automatically excommunicated latae sententiae. A priest can lift the excommunication in the sacrament of confession.

  4. Katie O'Neill on

    Reading your post it’s clear that those who disagree with your (in my view correct) assessment of the case do so based on canon law…which is a pretty thin response. The appeal to authority (whether or not it is correct) is in fact the weakest possible argument for any position. I would like to read a critique of your position that supports the bishops decision (as it seems that this is the watershed issue for so many Catholics…you’re either on this team …or you’re not) that takes seriously the assessment that the child’s life is given preference to the mothers. I wonder what is the foundation for this position… My hunch is that there isn’t a foundation for this position…that all those who participate in medically necessary abortion should be excommunicated based on canon law while simultaneously holding that the child’s life is not more important then the mother’s life…I wonder how one might support this position?

    • everydaythomist on

      Katie, as JG pointed out, the excommunication was latae sententiae, meaning that the bishop didn’t excommunicate her, simply acknowledged the excommunication had taken place. So just to clarify, its not those who “side with the bishop” so much as those who side with Canon 1398: “A person who procures a completed abortion incurs a latae sententiae excommunication.” (By the way, heretics, apostates, and schismatics also receive a latae sententiae).

      The spirit of Canon 1398 is to encourage those who have sinned through participating in the act of abortion to seek forgiveness and to be reconciled to the community which holds all life in deep reverence. This spirit I agree with, although I think that this same spirit should be applied to lots of actions, not just abortion. But I work with lots of women who have had abortions, and their guilt and remorse is often very real. Perhaps a better way of encouraging them to be reconciled to the community is by outreach, not excommunication (especially excommunication that requires absolution from a bishop).

  5. Anonymous on

    good job – I think I come down where you do, except I would say McBride is not morally guilty but rather pursued the lesser evil. The case is one in which either both die or one dies. For me, as a pro-life person, better that one lives. . .

    One other thought– it can be misleading to argue from virtue to judgment about acts. The good person can do the wrong thing and the bad person can do the right thing. I think this is why Thomas never (as far as I can tell) approached the question, “Was X the right thing for Y to do?” by asking whether the agent Y is virtuous or not. Thomas thinks most people know what is right or wrong because we have been told by God in revelation. See, e.g., the second of his four arguments of I-II,91,4; see also II-II,104, 4 ad 3. The precepts for Thomas tell us what is right or wrong with regard to most specific acts.

    • everydaythomist on

      Hi Anonymous,
      Thanks for your thoughts. It is always a pleasant experience to dialogue with another Thomist, as it is clear you are.

      As far as arguing about good acts from the perspective of virtue, I would want to press you a little. Are you familiar with Bill Mattison’s book Introducing Moral Theology? In chapter three on character and the virtues, Mattison gives the example of two different men whose actions, at least externally, are the same. One man habitually disrespects women and uses them for his advantage. The other man respects women very much and would never dream of using a woman for his own advantage. We can imagine both men, at a bar or some other dating venue, coming across an attractive woman and buying her drinks or even dinner, pulling a chair out for her, making witty conversation, touching her arm, and even inviting her over to his place for a nightcap (I am, of course, expounding on Mattison’s very fine example with my own imaginative input). In the case of the first man, he is treating the woman the way he is because he wants a one night stand or some other similar reprehensible motivation. In the case of the second man, he treats the woman in the same way because he likes her, he wants to develop a relationship, and he wants to treat her in the way she deserves to be treated. Same actions, but we evaluate the actions differently according to the motivations of the two men and the character from which the two men are acting.

      So we are not arguing about the goodness of the act based on whether or not Sr. McBride was virtuous, but we are trying to determine something about Sr. McBride’s character (in this case, based on the analogous character of her order) in order to adequately evaluate the morality of her act. We can imagine a person acting the same way McBride did, but in this hypothetical example, the person giving permission for the abortion is a virulent advocate of expanding abortion privileges, has no respect for pre-born life, and has even gone so far as to encourage women to have abortions for the sake of their careers, or education, or financial status. Such a woman who was in McBride’s place could have made the same decision as McBride, but we would evaluate her actions differently based on the character out of which she acted.

      So I am not trying to argue for the goodness of McBride’s action based on the fact that she was virtuous or not (which, it turns out, I have little idea what her character was). I agree that virtuous people can perform bad actions and vicious people can do good things. But in cases where human law is permissive, and divine law has not supervened, and because, as Aquinas says in I-II 91.4 “on account of the uncertainty of human judgment, especially on contingent and particular matters, different people form different judgments on human acts,” it can be most advantageous in our moral evaluation of a questionable human judgment to examine the character of the agent.

      That is, unless you feel that Divine Law is specific in this case that McBride either acted rightly or wrongly. I just don’t see such a Divinely-inspired specific precept. What I do see is the Catholic Church’s stance that no direct and intentional abortion is permitted, under pain of excommunication. This was, without a doubt, a direct and intentional abortion that McBride and her committee oversaw. So I am not questioning the object of the action, the abortion itself (or in McBride’s case, giving permission for the abortion to take place), was an evil action. I am questioning whether McBride’s motive and the character from which that motive proceeded and the extreme circumstances might change our overall evaluation of the act. In other words, I am trying to say that we should not gloss over the fact that this case is most definitely an instance of an abortion taking place, and abortion is most definitely an evil action, but McBride’s cooperation in an evil act was in no way the same morally as other more egregious instances of cooperation in abortions.

      So regarding your first point, I still want to maintain that she is guilty–choosing the lesser of two evils is still choosing an evil–and as such, she needs the healing forgiveness that comes from Christ. But I think her guilt is the sort, like Sophie’s in Sophie’s Choice, that comes from tragic circumstances and not a wicked character.

  6. JG on

    “I am trying to say that we should not gloss over the fact that this case is most definitely an instance of an abortion taking place, and abortion is most definitely an evil action, but McBride’s cooperation in an evil act was in no way the same morally as other more egregious instances of cooperation in abortions.”

    This is where you put your foot on the slippery slope. You assume that Sr. McBride’s motives were good, and yet you acknowledge that the action that resulted from them was evil; thus, you seem to be suggesting that this instance of evil is less evil than other like instances, because Sr. McBride was *trying* to do good. But would it not be just to expect Sr. McBride, as a professed religious, to have a deeper understanding than your average layman of the intrinsic evil of the take-one-life-to-save-another bargain? Surely the clinic escorts and abortion doulas, the latter of which have gotten some press lately. also truly believe that they are acting out of compassion in their facilitation of abortions. Assuming that they don’t have Sr. McBride’s theological training, perhaps it’s safe to say that their guilt, coming from a misunderstanding of the fundamentals of good and evil, is also not so great.

    In other words, who’s to say that Sr. McBride’s conscious participation in an abortion was of a lesser immorality than anyone else’s? Once you start asserting that some abortions aren’t as bad as others, you lose all moral authority. Abortion, as you note, is intrinsically evil, which is why Canon 1398 is so clear.

    And canon law also makes clear the abundant mercy of Christ. While it’s *technically* true that only a bishop can lift the excommunication, the bishops in virtually every diocese throughout the world have extended that power to their priests. This is why anyone who has participated in abortion can go, if repentant, to a priest for confession, can be confident of receiving absolution and a lifting of the sentence of excommunication, and can trust in Christ’s mercy and forgiveness.

  7. everydaythomist on

    Thanks again for commenting. A few things:
    1. I appreciate your wariness of slippery slope arguments but I assure you that this is not a valid concern here. There are obviously very different moral evaluations of cases of abortion, whereby we can still maintain the evil nature of the act without lumping all abortions together into equivalent sins. For example, George Tiller, who performed thousands of abortions, most of them late term abortions of viable fetuses deserves a very different moral evaluation than the doctor who performed the abortion on the woman in this case. In George Tiller’s case, we seemed callous of the value of unborn life; in the case here, the intention was to save the life of the pregnant woman. Now, abortion in either case is a grave evil, but the acts of abortion themselves in their particularity (complete with agent, intention, and circumstances) deserve a different moral evaluation. This does not seem like a slippery slope case to me.
    2. Thomas Aquinas’ treatment of lying is especially interesting here. Aquinas says that lying is a grave evil, one which can never be justified in an ends-justifies-the-means analysis. Nevertheless, he recognizes different species of lying deserve different evaluations according to their ends which may increase or decrease their gravity:

    Here the first three kinds are contained under “mischievous” lies, which are either against God, and then we have the lie “in religious doctrine,” or against man, and this either with the sole intention of injuring him, and then it is the second kind of lie, which “profits no one, and injures someone”; or with the intention of injuring one and at the same time profiting another, and this is the third kind of lie, “which profits one, and injures another.” Of these the first is the most grievous, because sins against God are always more grievous, as stated above (I-II, 73, 3): and the second is more grievous than the third, since the latter’s gravity is diminished by the intention of profiting another.(II-II, Q. 110, art. 2)

    So we see clear precedent in the tradition to distinguish between different degrees of sin according to their end while still acknowledging the object of the act itself is sinful. I don’t think this is “losing moral authority” as you state, but rather standing on the moral authority of the theological and ethical tradition, which allows us to make more nuanced evaluations of particular acts.

    3. I thank you for bringing up the point that virtually any priest can lift an excommunication due to abortion. Don’t you think then that we need to revise canon law accordingly to match the current practice of the church?

  8. Bob MacDonald on

    Wow – what a conversation! I have not read in the Summa for years and it does not inform my logic. I think my logic says that the lesser of two evils is the moral choice in this case and that there is therefore no condemnation. In this I reflect Romans 8:1 – there is no condemnation to those that are in Christ Jesus (note the word Jesus here). It is in the fullness of his sacrifice completing the sacrificial types of circumcision, passover, and atonement that we have this forgiveness. In my priesthood as a believer, I can assure another of this forgiveness. It is God who gives absolution. (Of course I don’t know much about priesthood either – I don’t see the hierarchy you note used in the NT. Maybe my priest will explain this conversation to me someday – or maybe the Scripture will illumine some protestant somewhere who has no priest or canon law to deal with it.)

  9. Rachel on

    Hello — Sorry to do this to you but I have a question unrelated to the topic of abortion but related to your post on Is Anger an Appropriate Response to Suffering that you wrote on about a year ago. I hope it’s OK if I post it here, under this more recent entry.

    I allowed my children (ages 5 and 3.5) to run ahead of me down the sidewalk where there were driveways with no visibility (shrubs, plants, etc.) If they had been killed by a car coming out, could others have been justifiably angry at me (just as anger is an appropriate response to a murderer of your loved one) per Aquinas? Is only sorrow justified in such a situation? (I didn’t do it to intentionally kill them — I was being careless.)

    Thank you for your time —

    • everydaythomist on

      Great question. Negligence is a vice against prudence. He says, “Negligence denotes lack of due solicitude.” He goes on:

      negligence arises out of a certain remissness of the will, the result being a lack of solicitude on the part of the reason in commanding what it should command, or as it should command. Accordingly negligence may happen to be a mortal sin in two ways. First on the part of that which is omitted through negligence. If this be either an act or a circumstance necessary for salvation, it will be a mortal sin. Secondly on the part of the cause: for if the will be so remiss about Divine things, as to fall away altogether from the charity of God, such negligence is a mortal sin, and this is the case chiefly when negligence is due to contempt.

      But if negligence consists in the omission of an act or circumstance that is not necessary for salvation, it is not a mortal but a venial sin, provided the negligence arise, not from contempt, but from some lack of fervor, to which venial sin is an occasional obstacle.(II-II, Q. 54, art. 3).

      It seems like negligence in your case, since the object of the act does not pertain directly to salvation, is a venial sin. But as a sin, it can properly be the object of anger, and “inasmuch as the movement of the sensitive appetite is directed against vice and in accordance with reason, this anger is good, and is called “zealous anger.” (II-II, Q. 158, art. 1). What is key here is that the anger oriented towards your negligence not be immoderate: “if one desire the taking of vengeance in any way whatever contrary to the order of reason, for instance if he desire the punishment of one who has not deserved it, or beyond his deserts, or again contrary to the order prescribed by law, or not for the due end, namely the maintaining of justice and the correction of defaults, then the desire of anger will be sinful, and this is called sinful anger.” (II-II, Q. 158, art. 2). So people could be a little angry at you, but not overly so.

  10. cath Young on

    A fetus is often removed early when the woman has health problems that can lead to death. Pre eclampsia/toxemia is an example. Sometimes the infant can be saved; sometimes it dies because it was removed from the womb too soon. As far as I am concerned, that is what happened here. A fetus had to be removed or the woman would die. If the fetus could have survived the removal, the doctors and hospital were standing ready to faciliatate this. It did not happen. At what magic point is it ok to prematurely remove a fetus from the woman when severe health issue and mortality factors are coming into play?

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