I am not, nor have I ever been, a Catholic.
Still, while that church has certainly been directly or indirectly responsible for perpetrating or condoning a fair amount of evil in the world, it is equally undeniable that they’ve done a lot of good, too, and I hold no particular animus against them. That said, I have one question for the hierarchy of that august religion: ARE YOU FREAKING INSANE?
In 1899, when the Irish Literary Theatre was readying for its first-ever season, W.B. Yeats’s play The Countess Cathleen ran afoul of some Catholics because it shows the title character selling her soul to “demon merchants.” She did so, however, to redeem the souls of all of her subjects, and in fact at the end of the play she ascends to heaven as an angel says “The Light of Lights / Looks always on the motive, not the deed, / The Shadow of Shadows on the deed alone.” While this seems innocuous enough to most of us, the fact remains that Countess Cathleen does indeed literally barter away her soul. This fact, coupled with Yeats’s Protestantism and his preference for aestheticism over nationalism in his dramaturgy, infuriated a fair number of Irishmen. The author of the anonymous pamphlet “Souls for Gold,” for example, accuses Yeats of disparaging Catholicism, Irish womanhood, and presumably lamb stew with soda bread. There was enough turmoil that the company’s principal financial backer, Edward Martyn, a fervent Catholic, contemplated pulling his support. Yeats ultimately submitted his play to two leading Catholic clerics in Dublin; they approved it, and the show went into rehearsal and ultimately onto the stage.
Skip forward over a century, and we find the actions of another devout Irishwoman censured because of “the deed alone” rather than “the motive.” The victim this time, however, is a real woman, not a figment of some playwright’s dramatic imagination. She is Sister Margaret McBride, a hospital administrator at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix, who signed off on an abortion when to do otherwise would almost certainly have resulted in the death of the mother. The fetus, at 11 weeks, wasn’t anywhere close to viability, so it was going to die anyway. The complication comes in the fact that, as the name suggests, St. Joseph's is a Catholic hospital, subject, apparently, to canon law.
Despite a directive that “Abortion… is never permitted” (interestingly, the church seems as much concerned with “the danger of scandal” as with morality in this statute), Sister Margaret apparently believed that Directive 47 of the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, 4th Edition, of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops gave her authority to make the decision she did. It reads: “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.”
Church authorities, however, disagreed with her interpretation. For her actions in saving the life of the mother, Sister Margaret was promptly excommunicated by Bishop Thomas J. Olmstead. (Well, technically, I guess, she was excommunicated the instant she made the decision; the bishop simply confirmed it.) Yes, really. There’s even a statement from the communications director of the diocese claiming also that “anyone who has had an abortion is automatically excommunicated. But so are those who encouraged the abortion, helped to pay for the abortion, or performed the abortion, including those who directly assisted in its performance…. Those Catholics who gave their consent and encouraged this abortion were also excommunicated by that very action. So too is anyone else at St. Joseph’s who participated in the action; including doctors and nurses.”
Obviously, I’m no authority on canon law, but the Reverend Thomas Doyle is. He argues that Bishop Olmstead “clearly had other alternatives than to declare her excommunicated.” Again, I can’t say whether the bishop had no choice or whether he could have shown a little more compassion. Nor do I have any interest in telling the church how to run its internal affairs. If they want to say you can’t be a Catholic if you like mustard on your hamburgers, that’s their business, as long as it doesn’t affect anyone but their own membership.
I would make a couple of points, however. First, there is a point at which a Catholic hospital has to decide whether it’s a hospital which happens to be Catholic or a Catholic enterprise which happens to be a hospital. If it’s the former, then it and its employees need to be held to medical rather than religious standards whenever there is conflict between those two perspectives. That means the Hippocratic oath trumps canon law. And that means that saving one life instead of none should be applauded rather than punished. Conversely, St. Joseph’s is free to be a religious institution first, and only ancillarily a hospital. Of course, in any reasonable society with the separation of church and state, that would mean that they could not be supported by taxpayers—in the form of Medicare or Medicaid payments, for example. The hospital and the church need to choose. Now.
Secondly, one cannot help but notice the radically different responses of the church hierarchy to these events as compared to, say, child molestation by priests. According to Rev. Doyle, not a single pedophile priest was ever excommunicated; few were even defrocked. Rather, as has become clearer and clearer in recent months, these perverts were protected by the powers-that-be and shuttled from diocese to diocese without as much as warning the new constituents; their transgressions were kept out of sight in the hope that they might eventually be out of mind. Indeed, the New York Times reported in March that then-Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) failed to take any action, even to the extent of keeping him away from children, against a known pedophile priest in his own archdiocese; Ratzinger also intervened to delay the defrocking of a California priest who had been convicted of tying up and molesting two young boys, citing “the good of the universal church,” and the need for careful review and more time. By contrast, Sister Margaret was swiftly and unceremoniously shown the door. For saving a life. If there is an internal consistency here, I confess that it eludes me.
I suppose one could argue that, however heinous it may be, child molestation is not the taking of human life. One could argue, furthermore, that the circumstances don’t matter: that Sister Margaret’s actions admit of no explanation or contextualization. The taking of human life is the taking of human life, and those who do so, or who contribute in any way to doing so, whatever the motivations, are to be immediately excommunicated. This is a consistent and comprehensible rationale. This is why every soldier in the Crusades was excommunicated, why every Catholic who worked on the Manhattan Project was excommunicated, why Pope Pius XII, whose “neutral” inaction during the Holocaust cost probably tens of thousands of lives, was excommunicated. Huh? What’s that? They weren’t? Hmm… if I didn’t know better, I’d think that there was some selectivity in applying this whole killing-leads-to-excommunication thing. But what do I know? I’m a Protestant, and not a very good one, at that.
I do know this much, though. If I’m sick in Phoenix, I want to go someplace other than St. Joseph’s. And I’m sure future Sister Margarets have learned their lessons, too: when in doubt, let her die: it’s the moral thing to do. If you’re agitated at having to make such a decision, go diddle a 10-year-old. It’ll take your mind off things. But don’t get caught doing that, or we’re going to have to move you to a different hospital.