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A Question for Bishop Olmsted

Originally posted at Talk to Action.

Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted, head of the Catholic Diocese of Phoenix, Arizona made news recently by excommunicating and disciplining Sister Margaret McBride, a hospital administrator who allowed an abortion in order to save the life of a critically ill pregnant woman. Olmsted who has been a highly visible opponent of abortion rights said, “The Catholic Church will continue to defend life and proclaim the evil of abortion without compromise, and must act to correct even her own members if they fail in this duty.”

“Without compromise,” says the bishop. But his zeal left me asking myself: ‘would he impose his narrow view upon the very first followers of Christ who most likely had a quite different opinion when a pregnancy endangered a woman’s life?’

Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted has been described as “a company man” when it comes to orthodoxy. As if to live up to this reputation he has denyied Communion to a ten year-old autistic boy unable to swallow; fired the diocese’s nationally-recognized head of Office of Child and Youth Protection because she was married in a civil ceremony; and when President Obama issued the executive order rescinding the previous administration’s onerous restrictions on embryonic stem cell research, he declared: “What President Obama is doing is forcing all American taxpayers to pay for this homicidal research.”

That’s why it is no surprise that he came down hard and fast on Sr. McBride, whose responsibilities at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix included sitting on the hospital’s ethics board, partly to ensure that the medical center adhered to Catholic standards of bio-ethics.

It was in that capacity that she gave the go-ahead for a woman’s eleven-week pregnancy to be terminated. Doctors had determined that continuation of the pregnancy would end the mother’s life due to complications from a pulmonary hypertension.

The Arizona Republic quoted Olmstead as saying:

“I am gravely concerned by the fact that an abortion was performed several months ago in a Catholic hospital in this diocese,” Olmsted said. “I am further concerned by the hospital’s statement that the termination of a human life was necessary to treat the mother’s underlying medical condition.

“An unborn child is not a disease. While medical professionals should certainly try to save a pregnant mother’s life, the means by which they do it can never be by directly killing her unborn child. The end does not justify the means.”

Olmsted added that if a Catholic “formally cooperates” in an abortion, he or she is automatically excommunicated.

Olmsted’s action even perplexed Catholic conservatives. Writing in the neoconservative journal, First Things, theologian Michael Liccione questioned the bishop’s judgment: “The question is whether he [Olmsted] is indeed right, and that is not clear even to some orthodox Catholics.”

“Moreover,” he cautiously added, “the public outrage over the Phoenix case illustrates the dangers of making politically significant announcements on the basis of moral reasoning that not many people can follow and that even theologically well-educated Catholics disagree about.”

This much is clear: Olmsted is one of a new breed of prelate being promoted by the current pontiff. As a group, they are unyielding to the point of militancy. They are men who subscribe to the letter, but not the spirit of the law — a version of which they would readily apply, given the opportunity, to Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

But, I wondered what Olmsted would do if a wife of one of Jesus’s Apostles had faced the same life-threatening scenario as this pregnant mother of four suffering from pulmonary hypertension, and she too had sought an abortion to save her life?

The question, although hypothetical, illustrates a contradiction in Olmsted’s version of orthodoxy. The Apostles were all practicing Jews before and after becoming followers of Jesus. And as adherents to Jewish law and customs, if a wife or daughter of one of the Twelve had been in the same life-threatening predicament as that mother of four had been, they would probably have done the same as Sister McBride.

By this standard, it is fair to say that Sister McBride was operating in the tradition of the Apostles. But I wonder — would Bishop Olmsted have excommunicated an Apostle?

2 Responses

  1. You know that the Grand Inquisitor even damned Jesus when He came back to Spain and raised the little girl to life. Jesus was not following Canon Law.

  2. Powerful, Frank. And scary. I did not know of Olmstead’s previous anti-gospel actions. Thanks for sketching some of the background to his excommunication of St. Margaret McBride.

    You say,

    This much is clear: Olmsted is one of a new breed of prelate being promoted by the current pontiff. As a group, they are unyielding to the point of militancy. They are men who subscribe to the letter, but not the spirit of the law — a version of which they would readily apply, given the opportunity, to Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

    And you’re right. And this is why the church is in crisis at this point in history.

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