Last May, NYTimes columnist Nick Kristof introduced us [Here] to a courageous woman--a nun--Sister Margaret McBride, who had been an admired and revered senior administrator in a Catholic hospital in Phoenix, Arizona. Kristof quoted doctors who described Sister Margaret as “saintly.”
However, in late 2009 a young pregnant mother of 4 was admitted to the hospital, suffering from pulmonary hypertension which was threatening her life and the life of her fetus. If the pregnancy were allowed to continue, both the fetus and the mother would die. The final decision to abort the pregnancy was made, Kristof reported, after consultation with the patient, her family, her doctors and after advice with the hospital’s ethics committee.
Sister Margaret was chair of the ethics committee and obviously agreed with the committee’s decision. When Thomas Olstead, the bishop of Phoenix, heard about the decision, he ex-communicated Sister Margaret, ruling that excommunication was “automatic” when she gave her consent to the medical procedure, even though the life of the mother was at stake and the fetus was doomed with or without an abortion.
The remainder of Nick Kristof’s May column was about the saintly nature of Sister Margaret. Dr. John Garvie, the head of the hospital’s Gastroenterology Department, wrote to The Arizona Republic saying that “She [Sister Margaret] works tirelessly and selflessly as the living example and champion of compassionate, appropriate care for the sick and dying.” The same doctor wrote to Kristof adding “...that we have no one to take her place.”
Kristof also noted that at the same time that Bishop Olstead was “automatically” excommunicating the good nun in Arizona, the world-wide Catholic Church was punishing by defrocking the individual priests who had abused innocent children, but never, never, never by excommunication.
Last Wednesday, Nick Kristof updated the story of Phoenix’s St. Joseph’s hospital and Sister Margaret and it isn’t pretty. Just days before Christmas Bishop Olstead ended the relationship of St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center with the Roman Catholic diocese. As Kristof put it: [Here]
Now the bishop, in effect, is excommunicating the entire hospital — all because it saved a woman’s life.
We should also note here that Sister Margaret is still working for the hospital, only in a different capacity, and I suspect that this hospital/diocese severance is revenge and payback for the hospital's support of Sister Margaret.
I am not a Roman Catholic and am not in a position to judge the theological impact this would have on an individual patient at the hospital. I can imagine that it would be wrenching and painful for those believers on staff and for patients in treatment, if they chose the hospital because of its religious affiliation.
There is danger for patients of all faiths when Catholic doctrine dictates specific medical treatments, particularly to women. Kristof noted that an Oregon hospital was severed from its affiliation with the church because the hospital offered its patients tubal ligation on demand. Two Catholic-affiliated hospitals in Texas ceased offering the procedure solely because of the church’s insistence.
According to Kristof, 15% of American hospital beds are in Catholic-affiliated hospitals which have particular points of view about women’s reproductive options. Those positions are perhaps comfortable for many Roman Catholic women, but not for all. And what about women who are forced to use the services of those hospitals because it is the closest or perhaps the only hospital available to them?
We are gratified to learn that Sister Margaret continues to be employed at St. Joseph’s, but how tragic and painful excommunication must be to this devout, caring, gentle soul.
For shame, Bishop Olstead...