Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Moral Theologian and Me

This blog almost never comments on current events.  There is no need for it.  Plenty of other blogs do, after all, and I usually find such commentary -- often no less than the current events themselves -- distasteful at best.  But I feel troubled enough by the case of Sister Margaret McBride, the Irish Sister of Mercy excommunicated for consenting to the performance of a so-called therapeutic abortion in the hospital where she was a long-time administrator, to address it here.

I have no idea what happened in that hospital, and I agree with Gerard Nadal that we don't know enough about the mother's condition to understand why Sr. Margaret thought the procedure was justified.  There is plenty of the expected hand-wringing about "liberal nuns" flying through the interwebs, and it's probably safe to assume that Sr. Margaret is one of them, but I do not think it's safe to assume that her tragic decision was guided by any political ideology.  The mother had four children at home, and someone appears to have been convinced that she would die if she continued her pregnancy.  I myself do not know if death would indeed have been the outcome; nobody does.  Nor do I know if her condition might have been stabilized to the point that her baby could have been delivered at the earliest possible point of viability and be kept in the NICU for several months.  My interest, instead, is in the misguided compassion that leads mothers, fathers, friends, grandparents, doctors, nuns, hospital administrators, and all the rest to believe, even if only for a moment, that the taking of one human life is justified in the interest of saving another.

What Sr. Margaret consented to was wrong.  We are forbidden from taking one life in order to save another (although, interestingly, this proscription is not found in Jewish theology).  But I am about to risk the sort of foaming-at-the-mouth vituperation I've received in the past when I've appeared on this blog not to take the hardest possible position on pro-life, by asking:  in this mother's situation, how many of us would have the heroic courage to leave our other children motherless?  In her husband's situation, how many husbands would willingly consent?  Exactly how many of us have the heroic virtue, faith, and selfless courage of Saint Gianna Beretta Molla (above) and her husband, Pietro?

In 2007 I had an ectopic pregnancy that ruptured.  I knew I was pregnant, but I wasn't exactly sure how far along I was, because I was nursing my baby at the time, and my cycles were all over the place.  One night I was overcome by a pain so intense that it had me first vomiting. and then immobilized; I was unable to sleep at all that night, because every breath I took sent stabbing pains up and down my spine.  It took several days, countless ultrasounds, and three emergency room visits to determine what had happened, at which point I was immediately wheeled in for emergency surgery.  In the meantime, when an ectopic pregnancy had begun to look like a likely scenario, I had gone to talk to my parish priest, to find out what treatments were permitted under Catholic moral theology.  He dryly xeroxed many pages from a book on the subject, gave them to me, and told me to call Monsignor Bill Smith, a respected moral theologian at St. Joseph's Seminary. 

Msgr. Smith died last year, and was lovingly eulogized throughout the Catholic press as a giant of his field.  I have no doubt that he was as they said.  My experience of him, however, consisted of a cell-phone call from the emergency room, during which Msgr. Smith expostulated at some length on the treatments that were and were not permissible to me.  Was I at a Catholic hospital?  I was not.  Well, then, beware of methotrexate, whose use was not permitted in the Catholic hospitals of the Archdiocese of New York, but was the subject of much controversy in other dioceses.  I could tell that Msgr. Smith was quite at home at the seminary lectern, and I supposed he had found his true calling as a scholar and teacher, because he seemed virtually devoid of any pastoral impulse whatever.  There was no condolence for a grieving mother, no prayer offered, no good luck or God bless; I was simply exhorted to do the right thing.  Fortunately for my soul, there was no need for methotrexate, as there was no trace left of my baby; the fetus had ruptured through my tube and perished.  So, while I had to have my tube and one ovary removed, no children were harmed.

What if things had been just slightly different?  What if my pregnancy had been discovered to be ectopic before it ruptured?  My OB worked at an Episcopalian, not a Catholic, hospital:  what if methotrexate had been administered, or what if the doctors had removed my tube with the fetus still in it, another treatment forbidden in that moral theology textbook that Father R. had xeroxed for me, as it directly harms the fetus?  (The fact that ectopic pregnancies are never viable doesn't count in moral theology.)  Would it have mattered to my body?  I got pregnant with the other ovary a couple more times, and lost those babies too.  Would it have mattered to my soul?  Well, yes, evidently it would have.

God, nonetheless, in His mysterious grace, allowed me to experience the loss of several of my unborn children through no fault of my own, unlike the loss of my first unborn child through my own fault.  I love Him no less for it.  As Robert Herrick's poem "To God" says:

Beat me, bruise me, rack me, rend me,
Yet, in torments, I'll commend Thee:
Examine me with fire, and prove me
To the full, yet I will love Thee:
Nor shalt thou give so deep a wound,
But I as patient will be found.

As for those who are inclined to condemn Sr. Margaret McBride, or me, or any of the usual suspects, I pray for you -- and I suggest that you pray also for yourselves -- that you will never be put to the test.  May God have mercy on us all.  May Saint Gianna Beretta Molla intercede for us. 

By the way, Bishop Thomas Olmstead of Phoenix did not excommunicate Sr. Margaret.  Canon law states that anyone who consciously participates in an abortion is automatically excommunicated (latae sententiae); Bishop Olmstead simply stated that fact.  If you have participated in abortion, please go to confession, and ask the priest to lift the excommunication from you.  Like the father in the parable of the prodigal son, God will run to you when He sees you approaching from ever so far off.

"Trying circumstances such as these are an invitation to ponder all we do not know. We believe that God wants both mother and child to live, but accept the possibility of other plans and even other—to us shocking—ideas, such as this one: What if that was all the life the mother was meant to have?"  Taking Jeremiah 29:11 as a template, Elizabeth Scalia (aka The Anchoress) explains the position of the Church quite beautifully here.  


BettyDuffy said...

Thought provoking post.

Saints are heroic. I don't know if I am.

Rodak said...

(The fact that ectopic pregnancies are never viable doesn't count in moral theology.)

Torture by word games.

Theocoid said...

Hi. This post is for information only and is in no way intended as criticism. I know you've had plenty of that, and I hope this comment doesn't come across as insensitive or hurtful. It's just an explanation of an ethical principle that applies here.

In the case you mention (yours or in any where an ectopic pregnancy occurs), the principle of double-effect clearly applies. While you cannot do an evil act to bring about a good result, you can perform an action that has negative and positive effects, so long as you don't intend the negative or perform the negative directly to get the positive. In the case of an ectopic pregnancy, an organ is damaged and must be removed. The unintended but unavoidable side effect is the loss of the child. The direct action is the removal of the damaged organ, not the killing of a child.

In the case of the sister, the abortion was performed to treat the condition. That is a direct action against the child, not against a symptom or a damaged or diseased organ. In addition, there was no immediate relief from the symptom itself. The condition still persisted, even though an aggravating factor was removed. That sounds horribly clinical, but that is often how people see such circumstances.

Hope this helps.

Anonymous said...

Life is rarely as simple as we want it to be. Saint Gianna, pray for us.

Enbrethiliel said...


Pentimento, do you remember the case of the parents who sent their adopted son all the way back to Russia? They were vilified in the news.

I found this post by a woman who knows exactly what it's like to open her heart to an orphaned, abused child in good faith . . . only to realise that she may have bitten off more than she could chew:

The moral is the same as in your post. We sincerely want to do what is good--and we believe that we will do what is good when our feet are held to the fire. But we don't know that for certain unless we've been tested. And unless we've been tested, we have no real moral superiority over those who have been and were devastated to find themselves wanting.

Anonymous said...

I don't believe a woman's soul is in danger, over the removal of an ectopic fetus, nor, abortions that are performed to save her life. It saddens me, that woman are burdened with seeking moral authority, when their very life is in danger. We answer to God, not man.

Teresa said...

This is a thought provoking post. It also shows that there may actually be a necessity sometimes to save the life of the mother. While I am pro-life, I don't know whether I could do what Saint Gianna did.
But, I also don't think we can make excuses for Sister's morally illicit choice to allow the abortion to take place. While the mother was in grave health, the nun could have stated to the mother that you will need to get an abortion to live but I cannot authorize such an action and let the mother and her family make the choice to either leave the hospital to get an abortion or abide by the hospital's obligation to follow Catholic moral teaching.

I also believe that if one of us had made a choice to have an abortion in order to save our life, we confessed, then God would forgive us.

I was taught and was my impression that if an ectopic pregnancy occurs then the principle of double-effect applies. Since the person would be directly removing the tube to save her life and indirectly causing the death of the unborn baby, that would be considered morally licit according to Catholic moral teachings.

This is an extremely complex situation.

God Bless!

Sheila said...

Bless your heart. Would you believe, I thought of you the other day while reading
"The Anchoress's" column, without knowing you had written about this.

Let mercy triumph over judgment, even while we seek wisdom to have good judgment.

Clare Krishan said...

Ditto BettyDuffy. Not a fan of Anchoress's uncharitable "what if" theodicy, distasteful intellectual onanism (of the female variety - which does exist, sadly: the dictator-uebermutters of wishful-thinking sentimentalist-relativism)

As I understand it, the hullaballou concerns the discipline of the Church to "call foul" on a daughter's conduct (not the mother's conduct, note, we don't know if she was Catholic, and even if she wasn't the penalty would still "technically"[*] apply) ie latae sententiae. This Latin term refers to the internal forum - ie the mysterious relationship of grace in the sister's conscience. Normally internal fora cases stay private, right? As Pentimento mentions, when a sinner realizes the magnitude of termination, reconciling grace is available to her, revealing a mysterious horizon of a relationship based in prayerful hope with the infant soul rejected by those charged with nurturing it as a patient/family member.

BUT the Bishop elected to assert his pastoral discipline in moving the case to the external forum. Why go public? A third party perhaps discovered that the conduct was being justified as a valid expression of "Catholic" healthcare, and was scandalized. Perhaps the Bishop attempted fraternal correction and was rebuffed? We do not know, but instead have a very unpleasant -- larger -- scandal than the local fracas. Subsidiarity at play...

At another FT thread, Anne Rice remarks how this is so very unpleasant for mere pewsitters everywhere - we cannot comment charitably because we do not know the facts, but we are being asked to rally to the Bishops - who are so PR-challenged as to be a huge embarrassment and prime source of scandal themselves...!

IMHO Ed Peters (newly ensconced as lay canonist-advisor to Vatican) says it best:
"This case is becoming a textbook example of why we must abandon latae sententiae penalties in the West, as they already have done in Eastern canon law. Navigating the internal and external fora in such cases is not only extremely difficult, but it distracts public attention from the underlying offense (the deliberate killing of innocent human being) and focuses it on complex areas of ecclesiastical law."
[*] technical from techne = work implement or tool, ie the means to the end of salvation of souls (and as such Ed Peters indicates, latae sententiae is a very blunt tool which may have done more damage than good, and prudence would indicate ought be abandoned by the ecclesiastics as a pastoral tool in favor of juridical sentences that can be defended in the external fora, ie let the Church operate like other associations do, under the "Sunshine Law" daylight provides one of nature's best disinfectants, gently bleaching stains rather than caustically attacking them)

Pentimento said...

Dear all, I hope you don't think I rejected your comments. For some reason Blogger did not inform me that this post had received comments, so I just blithely went about my business guessing that nobody had read it.

Thank you all for your thoughtful comments. I have heard that the principle of double-effect applies to ectopic pregnancies, but the book on moral theology that Father R. xeroxed for me warned the reader against removing agsinst removing an organ that housed even a non-viable fetus, and Fr. R. himself clearly stated that nothing could be done that harmed the fetus. To be fair, the book hedged by saying that the final judgment (no pun intended) rested with the doctor. This sort of treatment was not even mentioned by Msgr. Smith in our phone conversation from the emergency room. For all of that, as I said, it turned out to be a moot point.

There is no argument here that Sr. Margaret consciously cooperated with evil. I would give the benefit of the doubt, however, to the distraught mother.

This is not the first time I recall that The Anchoress, whose writing I admire, has proposed (glibly, it seemed to me) that perhaps God *wanted* someone He loved to experience tragedy. I think she's unwise to go there.

Pentimento said...

Enbrethiliel, that is an amazing post. Thank you for sharing it here.

Anonymous said...

In Jewish law, since the life of the fetus was seen as an "attack" on the life of the mother, the abortion is allowed as it is self-defense against murder.

Sister Margaret made the decision as an administrator of the hospital to defend the life of someone, medically speaking she made the right choice. In my opinion, morally as well. Otherwise she would have the stain of the mother's death on her hands, as there would be no way for the child to survive at 11 weeks.

Pentimento said...

Anonymous, there is no evidence that the mother would have died. We simply don't know. And whatever your opinion of her actions, Sr. Margaret consciously participated in the taking of a human life, which is a clear violation of the commandment against killing. I think it's really only possible to condone her actions by denying that the fetus is a human life, a fallacy that has been disproved ad infinitum by modern medicine.

Nonetheless, I don't think that Sr. Margaret made her decision lightly. As I said, we should all pray to God that we ourselves might be spared ever having to make such a choice.