Thursday, December 8, 2011

CBS News "The Catholic Church: A House Divided?" (Part 1)

Last Sunday, the CBS News Sunday Morning show aired this "cover story" reported by Barry Petersen:  "The Catholic Church: A House Divided?"  To read the full article or watch the video, click here.   

Patrick Coffin, host of my favorite radio show Catholic Answers Live, is fond of talking about the low standards for journalists reporting on church news.  He likes to say, “If I don’t know what an RBI is, the New York Times is not going to let me write a baseball column for them.  But journalists who know nothing about Christianity are assigned to cover church news all the time.” 

The lack of fact-checking and one-sidedness of this particular story illustrates the sad reality of this truth.

Msgr. Charles Pope did a great job responding to this article in his blog, and I would like to build on his ideas.  There is so much to discuss from this 10-minute video and two-page article, that I'm tackling the issues separately and chronologically as they appear in the video and article. 

Here are the issues addressed in the report:
  1. The excommunication of Sr. Margaret Mary McBride, R.S.M. in the Diocese of Phoenix, Arizona.
  2. "Power-obsessed" Bishops
  3. Vatican II
  4. New Translation of the Roman Missal  
  5. Apostolic Visitation to Religious Orders
  6. Current status of St. Margaret Mary McBride and St. Joseph Catholic Hospital 
Today, I'm tackling numbers 1 and 2.

Issue 1:  Excommunication of Sr. Margaret Mary McBride, R.S.M. in the Diocese of Phoenix, Arizona

Sr. Margaret Mary McBride, R.S.M.
  • CBS Report Says:  Sr. Margaret Mary McBride helped to save a woman's life and was excommunicated by a cruel, obsessed with control Bishop Olmsted.
  • Reality:  Sr. Margaret Mary McBride counseled the doctors of St. Joseph's Catholic Hospital to perform a direct abortion and, consequently, excommunicated herself from the Catholic Church.  Bishop Olmsted informed her of this fact.
Examining the Catholic Moral Principles at Work in This Case
The case in question involved a female patient 11 weeks along in her pregnancy who suffered from severe pulmonary hypertension.  Fr. Tad Pacholczyk, Director of Education at the NCBC, is the author of a column called Making Sense out of Bioethics that appears in various diocesan newspapers across the country.   Fr. Tad addresses pregnancies complicated by pulmonary hypertension in his July 2010 article "Difficult Pregnancies, Precarious Choices, and the Absolute Value of Innocent Lives."   Please take the time to read the brief article in its entirety.  Fr. Tad makes this statement that cuts to the core: "Better two deaths than the direct taking of an innocent life."

When there is a complicated pregnancy, the medical staff must do everything in its power to save the mother and the baby.  
Recent advances in obstetrics and pre-natal medicine, along with so-called "expectant management" (close monitoring of a pregnancy with tailored interventions), have enabled an ever greater number of these high-risk pregnancies to be managed at least until the child reaches viability. Labor can then be induced or a C-section delivery can be scheduled. This ordinarily allows both mother and child to be saved. 
Fr. Tad concludes the article with this statement:
These challenging “life of the mother” cases allow us to begin acknowledging some of our own limitations, and the mystery of God’s greater Providence, in the realization that we may not be able to “manage” or “correct” every difficult medical situation we face.
Now, let's connect the Catholic moral principles to this case:  Sr. Margaret Mary McBride was a member of the ethics committee at St. Joseph's Catholic Hospital in Phoenix, Arizona that hears difficult medical cases and advises the medical staff how to proceed while also being faithful to Catholic Teaching.  Sr. McBride counseled the medical staff to perform a direct abortion.  As established above, the direct killing of a human being to save another is never morally permissible.  I'll touch on her excommunication below.  

How the CBS Report Paints the Case
The reporter introduces Sr. McBride by the description of "a respected nun" and member of the hospital ethics committee.  After briefly explaining the patient's medical condition, the reporter says, "Modern medicine presented two equally grim options: terminate the pregnancy and save the mother, or lose both mother and child."

The reporter interviews Dr. Charles Alfano, St. Joseph's Chief Medical Officer.  Dr. Charles Alfano claims, "And as a result, we made the difficult decision, but the decision that we had to make, to terminate the pregnancy."  Petersen glibly asks, "So, no matter what you guys had done, the child would have died?"  Dr. Charles Alfano responds, "Correct."  This quick exchange excuses the direct killing of the baby because the doctors "had to" do it because child would have likely died had the staff decided to let the pregnancy run its course.    

The report goes on to say that the excommunication of Sr. McBride created a media frenzy, and the video shows a headline that reads, "Why does saving a life merit excommunication?"  Not surprisingly, the story got it wrong.  It was the abortion that caused Sr. McBride's excommunication, not the consequential survival of the mother.

How Excommunication Works in the Context of Abortion
Canon 1398 states, "a person who procures a completed abortion incurs a latae sententiae (automatic) excommunication."  So, anyone who performs, receives, encourages, or cooperates in any way with the abortion is automatically excommunicated from the moment the abortion is completed.  A person who is excommunicated must refrain from Holy Communion until after he or she has received absolution in the Sacrament of Confession and absolution from the excommunication.

Because Sr. McBride encouraged the abortion (the direct killing of the baby) as a member of the hospital ethics committee, she incurred a latae sententiae (automatic) excommunication.  Bishop Olmsted's role was being the messenger in letting Sr. McBride know that she incurred this penalty as a result of her actions. 

What is the purpose of excommunication anyway?  The Catholic Encyclopedia explains it is a "medicinal penalty":
Being a penalty, it supposes guilt; and being the most serious penalty that the Church can inflict, it naturally supposes a very grave offence. It is also a medicinal rather than a vindictive penalty, being intended, not so much to punish the culprit, as to correct him and bring him back to the path of righteousness. It necessarily, therefore, contemplates the future, either to prevent the recurrence of certain culpable acts that have grievous external consequences, or, more especially, to induce the delinquent to satisfy the obligations incurred by his offence.
Because we believe as Catholics that our actions have eternal consequences, we are in danger of eternal damnation should be die in a state of moral sin (i.e., procuring an abortion).  Since that's the case, shouldn't we Catholics be glad that Mother Church, through its ministers, does all that it can to (1) inform its members when they are out of communion, and (2) encourage them to repent of their actions to be back in full communion?      

Issue 2: "Power-Obsessed" Bishops
The report goes on to interview Father Thomas Doyle. 
Father Thomas Doyle, who specializes in church law and once worked for the Vatican's Embassy in Washington, D.C., said, "The excommunication of the sister, I thought, was an extremely cruel act. I can't describe it in any other way."
Father Doyle is now an outspoken critic of the church, and says what happened in Phoenix points to an unfolding trend within the church.
"It tells me that within the hierarchy, there is a great deal of fear, that there is almost an obsession with control, that there's an inability, I think, to deal with the 21st century.
"The bishop in Phoenix is not unique," Father Doyle said. "There are many, many like him."
A few points here:
  1. Sr. McBride automatically excommunicated herself by counseling the medical staff to perform an abortion.  Bishop Olmsted merely informed her of her status as an act of charity.
  2. "what happened in Phoenix points to an unfolding trend within the church."  
    • The implied trend is that the bishops across the country are going rogue, trying to squash its members and excommunicate anyone who gets in their way.  Characterizing the bishops in this way causes further division and mistrust of the Church leadership.
    • Faithful Catholics should see the medicinal role of excommunication and pray that their bishops will continue to act charitably toward its members, helping them to rectify any actions that may have caused their excommunication. 
Directly following Father Thomas Doyle's critique of the U.S. bishops, the story lists two examples of U.S. bishops exercising their authority against (1) the schismatic American Catholic Council who wants the Church to ordain women and (2) Sr. Elizabeth Johnson's "Quest for the Living God" :
Take Archbishop Allen Vigneron in Detroit, who has spoken against the American Catholic Council, a group promoting change within the church, including the ordination of women.
Or the U.S. Conference of Bishops: They've critiqued and investigated the writings of Sister Elizabeth Johnson, a feminist theologian whose book "Quest for the Living God" has become popular among liberal Catholics.

A few points on these examples:
  1. The American Catholic Council is a schismatic group acting under the guise of "Church renewal."  Church renewal is a beautiful thing to be embraced as Archbishop Allen Vigneron wrote in his letter to the group.  Proclaiming that changes such as the ordination of women must be made "in the spirit of Vatican II" are contrary to the Catholic faith, and Archbishop Vigneron rightly tried to put an end to their meeting in Detroit.  You can read his full letter on the Archdiocese of Detroit website.   
  2. Sister Elizabeth Johnson's book is problematic because it promotes modalism.  The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' position is explained in this article by the National Catholic Reporter. 
Let's Sum It Up
  1. Sr. McBride automatically excommunicated herself by counseling the medical staff at St. Joseph Catholic Hospital to perform an abortion.
  2. Bishop Olmsted acted charitably in acting as messenger in bringing this to Sr. McBride's attention.  
  3. Bishops who work to ensure that the faithful in their area are acting in accord to the laws of the church are not "power-obsessed"; they are exercising their office in the Church that Christ created.
I'll tackle the rest of the issues tomorrow!


  1. Well done. Great read! May God continue to strengthen His bishops to follow the Magisterium of His OHCAC faithfully. Thanks for linking to CAF.

  2. Thank you for telling us about the other half of the story.