The Good Sister’s Hard Choice

May 21, 2010

Saint Mary’s Basilica, Phoenix, AZ.

Arizona is having a bad time of things in the public relations department lately.  Even if you agree with the draconian laws recently passed (the one dealing with people here illegally[i] and the one dealing with ethnic studies in school[ii], for instance) the negative effect on the state cannot be over stated.  As if that was not bad enough, now the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix has added its two cents to the states negative standing.

While it is hard to criticize a religious organization for its beliefs, it is not so hard to criticize such an organization for its hypocrisy.  In this case, the hypocrisy of excommunicating a nun who faced a horrible choice while allowing pedophile priests to remain in the diocese.  Perhaps the spiritual leader of the diocese, Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted believes priests that abuse children are a better example to follow than Sister Margaret McBride’s choice between two bad options.

In fairness to Bishop Olmsted, the abuse in the Phoenix Diocese occurred before he took over as Bishop and no cases of abuse were reported from his prior position as Bishop of the Wichita Diocese[iii].  Still, given the Catholic Church’s shortcomings in protecting children from abuse by priests; it is hard to understand the heavy-handed approach in dealing with a nun that only tried to do what was best for all concerned.

An article on National Public Radio’s (NPR) website by Barbara Hagerty covers the story in detail[iv].  Specifically, a 27-year old mother of four was admitted to St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix last November.  She was eleven weeks pregnant with her fifth child but something was drastically wrong.  There was virtually no chance of her remaining alive as the pregnancy put too much strain on her heart.  It was determined to save her life the best course of action was to terminate the pregnancy, in other words, to have an abortion.  It was not something the young mother wanted or desired but was deemed a medical necessity to save her life.

As the hospital is a Catholic institution, the doctors sought permission from the hospital administrator, Sister Margaret.  In reviewing relevant church doctrine, she determined the procedure was allowed for this exceptional circumstance.  The procedure went forward and the mother’s life was saved.  No one involved with this case wanted to take this action but the choice was to save the mother or let both the mother and unborn child die.

Upon learning of the sad situation, Bishop Olmsted declared Sister Margaret excommunicated herself from the church.  In fact, rather than have any compassion the diocese position, as stated by Reverend John Ehrich, the medical ethics director for the diocese is “She consented in the murder of an unborn child.  There are some situations where the mother may in fact die along with her child.  But — and this is the Catholic perspective — you can’t do evil to bring about good.  The end does not justify the means.[v]

They key, as Reverend Ehrich put it, is the “Catholic perspective.”  To extend his thinking, it is the Catholic perspective to excommunicate a nun faced with a horrible choice but allow pedophile priests to remain priests and protect them from prosecution by transferring them and allowing them to abuse children all over again.  That is taking the moral low ground to say the least.  To have the ability to save a life and do nothing is tantamount to murder. It’s like saying “sorry, I can save your wife’s life but I choose not to.”  To put rules in place that force good people into impossible situations is cowardly.  Is it really the Catholic perspective to tell a pregnant woman with a heart condition her only option is to die with her unborn child?

Courts across the globe are dealing with the Church’s inaction regarding the pedophiles it protects.  On the other issue at hand, the church has every right to take its action against the good sister; after all, it’s their club – their rules, but it does reflect poorly upon the diocese.  Furthermore, it reflects poorly upon the church as a whole, the state of Arizona, the United States of America, and humanity itself.  While Catholics must decide the matter for themselves within the church, it is for the remainder of humankind to judge its actions by the standards of basic humanity.  On that score, Bishop Olmsted fails.  While he may personally be OK with that, the end result is the further erosion of the Catholic Church as a preferred choice of religion.

It is unfortunate that hard choices like the ones in this situation are part of life.  Thankfully, there are people like Sister Margaret willing to put others before herself.  As sad as the loss of a child is, the loss of a child and mother is much worse.  It is much worse for the husband, the four children, and the rest of her family.  Rather than stick her head in the sand and hope for the best, this brave woman made a choice to save a life, not end one.  While the Diocese of Phoenix may shun her for it, humanity is better for having Sister Margaret as part of it.  In the end, it is the Catholic Church that will pay for such small-minded thinking.

[i] Archibald, Randal C. “Arizona Enacts Stringent Law on Immigration – NYTimes.com.” The New York Times – Breaking News, World News & Multimedia. 23 Apr. 2010. Web. 21 May 2010. <http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/24/us/politics/24immig.html>.

[ii] Associated Press. “Governor Signs Bill Targeting Ethnic Studies.” Arizona Local News – Phoenix Arizona News – Breaking News – Az central.com.  11 May 2010. Web. 21 May 2010. <http://www.azcentral.com/news/election/azelections/articles/2010/05/11/20100511arizona-ethnic-studies-bill.html>.

[iii] “Roman Catholic Sex Abuse Cases by Country.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. 21 May 2010. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_Catholic_sex_abuse_cases_by_country#United_States>.

[iv] Hagerty, Barbara B. “Nun Excommunicated For Allowing Abortion : NPR.” NPR : National Public Radio : News & Analysis, World, US, Music & Arts : NPR. 19 May 2010. Web. 21 May 2010.

[v] Ibid


  1. Thanks for your open-mindedness, and your frankness as well. As Ahnold might say (or has)”I’ll be back.”

  2. Michael, we all have shortcomings, and basically I’m trying to teach people about the Catholic Church (not the secular media’s idea of the Catholic Church or some ex-priest or ex-nun’s idea)
    Regarding reporting to the law, you’re speaking of now, this happened then. I understand wanting to determine if it’s a legitimate report before reporting it to the police. We’ve seen that even an accusation can be career-ending, and if the accusation is unfounded, it should be, at least, checked.

    I’d love to straighten you out on the Inquisition, but maybe a different venue. While not the brightest light in Church history, it wasn’t as bad as you might have been told. In fact, many people went to the Inquisition for shelter because secular punishments were too harsh…There have been many, many times when sinful men did things in the name of the Catholic Church which were quite unholy. Otherwise, we’d have so many more saints to hold feasts for. 🙂

    • David,

      I have very much enjoyed this discussion with you. It interests me greatly to know the views of an insider so to speak. Thank you for your frankness and seeking to understand my position. I promise you it is the same for me.

      I look forward to further exchanges on this topic as well as others. Often in the past I’ve encountered people that only wish to push a particular position without hear rebuttal. To be honest, that has been more the experience with evangelicals than other groups. It simple is refreshing to engage with someone that is not afraid to be challenged as well as challenge in return

  3. No, not abstract, spiritual.

    What you don’t seem to understand is that excommunication is not a punishment, it’s an admonishment for the person to protect her soul. I don’t think it was so ‘public’, the pronouncement, I think it was announced, and then blown up by the media. In the Church there was no public spectacle. It’s the media that made it a spectacle. I don’t think Sr. Margaret isn’t at peace, in fact, I don’t think she’s made any statement, has she? Again, we don’t know. I know her intent was good, but you cannot perform a good by first committing an evil. But our God is a merciful God, all she needs to do is basically say “I’m sorry, I won’t let it happen again.” and she’s absolved. And re-Churched.
    Regarding the secrecy in the priest abuse scandal, I think you sound pretty reasonable or at least reasoning. First, let me say I am in no way defending the offending priests, or the bishops that mishandled the situation. Anyone who harms a child (whether it’s in the womb or not) is absolute scum. In many cases, though, the incidents of abuse, once reported, were given to state authorities quietly, mostly to protect the victims. I will grant that it was wrongly used to protect the abusers, too. But the children and families deserved the privacy they were afforded. Also, now, and for the last 10 years, the policy of the Church institution has changed, zero tolerance allowed. Any case of abuse now is reported to the Vatican, and the priest is immediately removed from duty, the case investigated, and then turned over to secular authorities.

    • David, I have to ask if you are aware of the issues with child abuse the Catholic Church faces in Brazil. They are current and ongoing. I do not wish to fan the flames of innuendo but it does appear several of the priests involved were transferred from Europe after accusations arose there. Again, the facts of this matter are still unfolding so it cannot be called “proof” but on the other hand, it does fit the pattern of past behavior.

      I fully accept that any organization as large as the Catholic Church will have its share of wolves in sheep’s clothing. I also believe the church seeks to prevent this sort of person from enjoying a place of authority. My point is the appearance of inequity in how the priests, who intended harm were dealt with and how a nun that tried to make the best choice she could was dealt with.

      One point I disagree with you 100% is your statement of “immediately removed from duty, the case investigated, and then turned over to secular authorities.” The church can investigate all it wants but they do not have a choice here in the United State on weather or not to involve the authorities. That should happen as soon as an allegation is made. Otherwise the church puts itself in the position of being an accessory after the fact. We have laws and if the Church wishes to exist in this society, they must be obeyed. Did not Jesus say something about “giving unto Cesar?”

      Furthermore, I do not believe the church acted to protect the victims. I think they acted like any organization that needed to limit liability and damage. The facts surroundings transfers seem to support my position regardless of how old a case may be. I will grant no free pass on that one. Above all else, the truth is they protected these men and that brings their judgment into question. I don’t mean to beat the Church up on that point but they danced with the devil and need to account for it.

      At the end of the day, a nun was excommunicated for her actions which the Church deems a sin but were legal in terms of secular law. Priests were not excommunicated for their actions which broke their vows, sinned against God, and violated serious secular laws, not to mention the horrible effect on the children involved. Give all that, I stand by my comments and conclusions.

      You obviously are a caring man and it is not my intent to belittle your beliefs. You see the leadership of your church as having benevolence; I do not share that opinion. I guess I cannot get past Reverend Ehrich’s statement quoted in the post regarding the “Catholic perspective.” It is harsh and callous and goes against everything I know about a loving God.

      • Because of human nature, there is no way to ever totally eradicate this. Men are men, prone to sin. A man does not become any less prone to sin because he wears a collar, in fact many times he’s more prone to sin because of his collar. What has totally changed is the way priests are formed, and the way problems are dealt with. I’m not saying it’s 100% under control. (Does 100% control of a wild fire guarantee that a wildfire will not occur again?) You say 100% inequity, but yet you don’t understand that, by committing these crimes the nun, and all the priests involved in sex abuse, are excommunicated, just by their action. What the bishop said is just an admission of the fact. The media blew it up. I think the nun is a victim here, in many ways, but she can overcome this easily.
        You might disagree with me, but an institution has a right to determine the veracity of an accusation before turning over anything to authorities. If you don’t think this happens in the public school system, you’re kidding yourself. A student accuses a teacher of molestation, the school makes a preliminary investigation before calling the police. I have seen this in several instances. If the student calls the police first, it’s a different animal. The vast majority of the priest sex abuse cases, the victims went to the Church for reparation. Had the victim gone to police, it would automatically be a police matter.
        What you think and what presents itself, regarding coverups, are two different things. I did not say that priests were not protected in the silence, and I believe that priests benefitted from that silence. But that was not the primary reason for secrecy, again, in most cases. My only reason for bringing up the age of some cases is that we, as a Church, have figured out how to deal with this scourge, in most cases. BTW, Jesus was referring to taxes. But I know there’s a zero-tolerance policy now, and it’s being handled much better now, than before.
        In your ‘furthermore’ para, I would say that mostly, the Church did act to protect the victims, but they gave too much to the priests, who didn’t deserve any protection. And the Church has paid for it in spades. The unintended consequence is that less is being done by the Church to minister to the poor.
        Regarding the nun (actually “Sister” is appropriate, she’s not attached to any convent), she has first responsibility to obey the rules of the Church, while not breaking any reasonable secular laws (and if you want to debate what that means, let’s talk about Catholics disregarding secular laws in order to save Jews from Nazis). The priests broke canon and civil law as well, and were, de facto, excommunicated as well. Holy Father has called them vermin which need to be eradicated.
        What I believe is that the Church, as an institution is good. The Church runs the largest charitable organization in the world, the largest school system in the world, and ministers to the vast majority of the world. Being the biggest, she has some evil inside, too. I would venture to say that the evil portion is very small. 95% of priests are not child molesters, do not break their vows, and are faithful servants of the Church.
        You should know that God IS a loving God, and does not hate the nun, in any way. He might hate her actions and abhor them, but he still loves her, as much as he loves you and me. I dare say that when you punish your children for cheating on a test or stealing a candy from the store, you don’t hate them, you love them.

    • On another point, taking your explanation of excommunication it would seem to me the Church needs to make the public proclamation these pedophiles have removed themselves from the Church. If ever there was a soul in need of improvement, it is them. Also, if the Pope wishes to deal with this, it should be the kind of excommunication requiring his release. At least then he could satisfy himself as to their sincerity. Somehow I don’t think I am the right person to tell the Pope what to do regarding the Church but you did bring it up so I dove right in. Forgive me if it seems rude.

      • I believe the Church already has. Mind you, the aren’t very good at PR.
        If you were to look, you would find most priests today very, very humble. No matter how good they are, they want to be more good. If I recall correctly, the best any of these men can hope for is to be allowed to be a Catholic, like any one of us. They cannot ever have their office back. I would tell any victim of a priest that I am personally sorry for what my Church has put them through. By the way, priests are under much greater scrutiny at the parish level now. Any Catholic (priest or lay) must be fingerprinted if they work with children. Other than the confessional, a priest may not be alone in a room with a child. At the very least, a door must be open, and another adult in close proximity. We that have contact with children are also educated on what to look for in situations like this. We have a sort of ‘neighborhood watch’. Priests are chosen better and vetted better in seminary.
        But I will also say that the best way for this thing to be done and over with is to shine the light into all of it.
        It’s not rude to say “If I was….I’d do…” He’s just a man. He goes to confession weekly, if I recall right. He’s got a heavy burden, one most popes really don’t like.
        Thanks for listening, and thanks for the chat. Honest discussion is a good thing.

      • In a sense, we are on the same side of things and I point out in my original post that when you belong to a club, you follow the club rules. I simply think a club can be judged by the rules it has. I do not mean to be flippant with the club remark either, I know following a faith is a serious matter, it is simply a handy metaphor.

        About your response to my reporting comment, the 100% refereed to me disagreeing with your comment. Nothing more, but you should take note of your own comment, two wrongs do not make a right. Just because a school breaks the law, and it is a law to report all instances of child abuse in most states, it does not mean the Church is in the right for breaking it too.

        Not to hit the point too hard regarding your remark on saving Jews during WWII, upon reflection, I think you will see that fact does not make up for the Spanish Inquisition but let’s not get in a tit for tat kind of thing. Besides, my point was the priests broke secular law by molesting children, that has nothing in common with the brave men and women of your church that risked their own lives to save Jews. I hope you did not mean to imply breaking secular law in the one case is the same as breaking it in the other.

      • And thanks for putting up with my shortcomings on matters like the difference between addressing someone as a sister or nun. I’ve always thought of the terms as interchangeable. I’m always happy to be corrected.

  4. Your article is stupid. Two wrongs never make a right, so stop relating the two. What the nun did was wrong, what those priests did (years ago) was wrong. The church has a handle on both situations.
    Your wikipedia footnote does not even speak of exactly when the abuse took place, so let me clarify. The vast majority of all RCC sex abuse/molestation cases took place before the year 2000. Next point, in the vast majority of them, there was no cover up. In fact, many cases were reported to authorities, which allowed the Church to handle them internally.
    Regarding the nun’s excommunication, you may not know, especially since you follow ‘No People Required’, that a person’s actions are what cause the excommunication, it’s not really a pronouncement by the church. So it’s a fact that, by her actions, the nun has separated herself from her religion. I’m not judging whether she was right or wrong, I don’t know all the facts of the case (and neither do you), but clergy procuring abortions for people is an excommunicating offense.

    • Are you saying that they should have let the mother die? Don’t beat around the bush, yes or no – should they have let the mother die? I say no, but I have the guts to stand by my convictions, do you?

      As far as the abuse goes, it is more for showing the inequity of punishment that a point on its own. Rather than post un-sited remarks, post a link to the data that backs it up. If not for my benefit, for the benefit of those that want to stand on your side of the issue.

      • I don’t know, I don’t have all the facts. I know I wouldn’t want to be the one trying to make the decision.
        As for the ‘inequity of punishment’, you have no idea what you’re saying. All this nun needs to do is repent and confess her wrongdoing, and she’s back to being ‘communicated’. Those priest will never have that opportunity. They will never be allowed to serve as priests again, those that are still even alive.

      • David,

        While I respect your frankness in your reply, I think we will simple disagree on this one. I think we are talking past one another. Correct me if I’m wrong but I think your point is one of following an abstract concept and mine is one of results.

        I just find the motives of the powers to be very suspect. In the one case they did much to obstruct and keep things hidden in the other they made a very public show with little to no regard for intent. As far as returning to the good graces of a church that makes such a public spectacle of it, I personally would pass. My wish for Sister Margaret is to find peace with this all however she defines it. Her intent was to do good regardless if you feel she achieved that goal or not. Maybe that is what has my hackles up, it just seem to an outsider (me) she was thrown under the bus while offending men were dealt with in private until others brought the matter to light. Hardly seems like equal treatment to me.

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