A Most small-c Catholic Drama

Over at Pajamas Media, I have a piece that you might call an addendum to my weekend article at First Things.

In 2009 an Arizona woman, pregnant with her fifth child and suffering from pulmonary hypertension (an often, but not always fatal complication), consulted with her doctor and the ethics committee member on call — a Catholic Sister of Mercy — and obtained an abortion at the St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center.

As the story has gone public, the reactions have been predictable across religious and political lines. [...]

Another outfit had asked me to contribute an op-ed on the story. I gathered that they wanted something reflecting the popular “heroic-nun-oppressed-by-menacing-bishop” narrative, or the provocative “menacing-bishop-personifies-everything-wrong-with-church,” model, but I wasn’t feeling either slant, because I understood–as secularists really do not–that there is nothing “obvious” in this story. When things become “obvious” we all stop thinking and move on auto-pilot. For political concerns autopilot may or may not be useful, but precisely because we humans are gifted with reason, these issues that touch the soul can never be cruised through.

Contemplating how confounding secularists find the church (when they and politicians are not grumbling that the Bishops should shut up about abortion or risk being taxed, they’re telling them “I want you to instruct your, whatever the communication is — the people . . .sitting in those pews and you have to tell them that this is a ‘manifestation of our living the gospels.”) it struck me that this whole story was a microcosm of what Catholicism is, and that the worldly world cannot help but be dissatisfied, and always a little confused by it.

If Catholicism is anything, it is the constant struggle to commingle faith to reason, and to seek the boundless depths of a question, because God resides there, in the boundlessness. This struggle is common to all of us–it is a small-c catholic tension–but it exists only to those depths into which we are willing to entertain a question. How earthbound or heavenward we wish to train our focus depends on how far we are willing to step away from ego and comfort-zones and the “certain” knowledge and judgments to which we cling. It all factors into our struggle, our personal, internal Isra-el.

That is why two featured pieces on the abortion story, run concurrently at First Things last weekend, kindled thoughtful debate in the comments threads, yet clearly left many participants unsettled and unsatisfied.

There is always this wish, with humans, to settle everything, to have certainties, and so we are quick to claim them and apply them to everything, including our understanding of God. Our God of Love, after all, cannot possibly want anything for us but our good. And who should know better than us what that good is?

A paradox of faith is that only by giving away
the judgments and notions can we attain anything like Godly wisdom. Only by saying, “I surrender my notions of what would make me happy, to wholly accept yours,” can we hope to find true happiness and that peace “which defies all understanding.” Jesus went through an awful lot to demonstrate the power (and value) of “thy will be done,” and yet, we still struggle with it; we still resist, and want our own way.

Anne LaMott likes to quote a priest-friend of hers: “You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”

Or, taken another way, “you can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that the plan God has for the world is, by happy coincidence, precisely aligned with your positions.”

The saints, from the Acts of the Apostles and throughout history, tell us differently. So do Mary, and Joseph. And David. And Jacob. And Abraham.

Our thorns in the flesh are not arbitrary miseries;
they are personal, individual and valuable challenges. Our crowns are made from them.

In his last homily as Cardinal Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI’s “dictatorship of relativism,” grabbed the worldly headlines; missed amid the resulting hoopla was this:

” . . . the Lord calls us friends, he makes us his friends, he gives us his friendship. The Lord gives friendship a dual definition. There are no secrets between friends: Christ tells us all that he hears from the Father; he gives us his full trust and with trust, also knowledge. He reveals his face and his heart to us. He shows us the tenderness he feels for us, his passionate love that goes even as far as the folly of the Cross. He entrusts himself to us, he gives us the power to speak in his name: “this is my body…”, “I forgive you…”. He entrusts his Body, the Church, to us.

To our weak minds, to our weak hands, he entrusts his truth – the mystery of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit; the mystery of God who “so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (Jn 3: 16). He made us his friends – and how do we respond?

Well, usually, because we are both contumacious and
beholden to our senses, we respond with a “give me,” and not with a “please take.” And yet, we are told in this very sermon that there are no limits, and Jesus said it himself, in the Gospel of John: “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you.”

Do we believe it? If we do, we’re invited to pursue that promise. There are no limits to what God will teach us and tell us and give us, if only we do not limit his access.

We humans tend to try to put everything, including God, and love and life, into manageable compartments, and we hide in them. We hide inside our frameworks, our structures, our plans, our narratives, our willful and our unintentional bigotries.

But God -who created a world of order- points cannons at those tidy compartments and goes ba-boom! And when we ask, repeatedly, “why did you do that, when I had it all so beautifully arranged,” God says, “it was blocking my love. My love couldn’t fit with all that stuff in the way.”

Yes, moving past our illusion that things are cut-and-dry, and that we have it all figured out, is as I write in this piece at PJM, a most catholic drama.

Fr. Dwight Longenecker: Holy Spirit, Me and Church

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About Elizabeth Scalia
  • Lúcia

    Nothing about your patron´s day? “Alegremente! Alegremente!”, as we say in Brazil.

    [Yes, have every intention of writing about my Patron, but have been sick and needed to rest. -admin]

  • Joe

    This was a very close call. I am pro life, but if this was my family and my wife was facing death, I am not sure what we would have done. I am glad that some doctors are coming up with treatments that avoid such a horrible decision for families. But I have a real problem with the Bishop’s acts following this tragedy. There are many other things he could have done to address this. I also do not believe there was open defiance, but a judgment call the Bishop disagreed with after the fact.

    I am not saying the Church’s position on abortion is wrong. But because there is an arguable difference of opinion on whether this was a direct or indirect abortion, this excommunication was wrong. The Church does not ban all killing–people kill in war, for self defense, under necessity. This is not some light or insignificant matter, but given the way the Church turns a blind eye to so many more eggregious situations (why weren’t Nancy Pelosi, Ted Kennedy and others excommunicated or even denied communion for their positions) I have to seriously question it.

    [This was, indeed, "a close call" and undoubtedly difficult. It's easy to say, "bad bishop," but from what I can tell, he was not hasty in his actions. I think we need to give him the same benefit of the doubt we are inclined to give the sister. I don't think this has been an easy matter for either of them. I do suspect that the bishop is going out of his way to demonstrate to the Catholics, and the Catholic hospitals under his jurisdiction, that because this happened once does not mean other hospitals should now believe they will escape serious scrutiny for their decisions. As to the others, there are some who argue that they HAVE in fact, excommunicated themselves but simply refuse to acknowledge it. I believe they want precisely the public denouncements you crave, for their own political purposes- admin]

  • Ann

    I think you need to do a little more research into pulmonary hypertension, otherwise known as chronic heart failure.

    [Am quite aware of how serious the ailment is. Also aware of how difficult this call was for Sr. McBride. But I think I may be the only person writing about this issue who has actually mentioned that Dr. Dianne Zwicke has had some notable success in her treatment of pregnant patients with this complication, which should get a mention, don't you think? -admin]

  • Joe

    Elizabeth, I am not saying the Bishop cannot get involved or the Church and heirarchy can’t criticize the decision. I do not think there is a black or white answer to this one. I do not know enough about this, but it did not appear the Sister involved was flaunting or challenging the position of the Bishop (which would be misconduct on her part). What seems strange is on such a close case the Bishop declaring automatic excommunication. At least make a formal ruling on why this should result in excommunication (which I believe the Church can do–and which the Sister could then challenge)–although I would rather see something less draconian.

    As for the Nancy Pelosis of the world hoping to get sanctioned so they can use it for political advantage, I agree. But that makes it alright for the Church to come down as hard as possible on an individual person involved in what must have been an extremely difficult situation? This does not sit well with me. Not at all.

    [I don't know the bishop's mind, but I think it is significant that he did not excommunicate her ferendae sententiae—by his own juridical act. Some are saying he was cowardly for not doing so, while others suggest that he called Sr. McBride's excommunication latae sententiae ("by her actions she excommunicates herself") in order to "send a message." I don't know. I think by refusing to apply ferendae sententiae, the bishop was acknowledging just what a near thing this abortion was, and how difficult it must have been for Sr. McBride. But he nevertheless must intone latae sententiae because -- in his opinion, and it is a call as tough as Sr. McBride's, I think -- her participation in approving the abortion warrants at least that finding. Yes, it is very difficult. I suspect (and this is the whole point of my piece at PJM) that both Sr. McBride and Bishop Olmsted found themselves walking on very taut, thin wires, where it is easy to slip. That being the case, both have made the best choices they thought they could, in order to get by. Not easy choices, at all, and that is why, in the end, we all trust in Mercy. But it's not the mercy of the world -admin]

  • mb

    What bothers me is the seeming lack of interest in the mother. This was apparently a tense ER situation, without time to research carefully. Maybe the Bp could set up a system that would promises to take care of the mother, and if she dies, of the remaining children? What terror did the mother feel and did anyone try to relieve it?

    Another thing: maybe it is proper that women not be priests. But then there should be many more in the highest Vatican theological positions. And i don’t mean one woman, I mean many. I think we’d have a lot more help for women in tragic situations then.

    [There are more female theologians working within the vatican, within bishops' conferences and chanceries than people realize. -admin]

  • cathyf

    This is certainly a peripheral issue, but it kind of disturbs me that the bishop, who is a trained canonist, left the writing of the communication to his communications office, rather than writing it himself. Canonist Edward Peters faulted the statement in multiple places for errors, imprecision and confusion, and took it as “obviously” not written by a canonist.

    The teaching authority in the church is specifically vested in the bishops; teaching is their charism. And for this bishop in particular this is his particular area of study. So leaving the document to the marketing department seems to be utter cluelessness as to how subtle, important, and precise the argument is.

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  • gb

    Anybody who knows Bishop Olmstead would just have to lol at how ludicrous it is call him menacing or bad or any of the other adjectives I’ve read lately. Reminds me of the name-calling which people/press seem to enjoy so much in regards to our Holy Father. I’ve met few people who are so pastoral, so involved & so concerned about the individual AND the Church as Bp Olmstead. For heaven’s sake, stop with the Monday Morning Quarterbacking.

  • Ann

    Two-thirds of women with pulmonary hypertension who give birth will not go home with their baby. Two-thirds.

    They will die AFTER the birth as their heart cannot deal with all of the fluids that retain afterwards.


  • Joe

    I still think this could have been handled better to use a tragedy (because that what this was) as a teaching and moment of deep reflection. This is not misconduct. This is something else. Bishop Olmstead may be a very good man. But if the Sister was wrong in her decision, couldn’t the Bishop be wrong in his?

    [Which is, again, why I said that they both were in difficult situations. I'm not going to lay down a hammer and say which one of them danced more proficiently on a thin wire. -admin]

  • craig

    Ann, carrying the baby to term may have been dangerous but it was not the only option. An early C-section or induction could have relieved the mother’s problem; it might possibly have led to the baby’s death anyway, but not deliberately so. It would be interesting to know whether such an option was proposed and rejected in this case.

    I see this incident as a sign that more creative steps will need to be considered in future cases, but that deliberately aborting the child to aid the mother is and must remain a step too far.

  • c matt

    I think the difficulty with this case is not so much what should you do, but what would you do?

  • http://vita-nostra-in-ecclesia.blogspot.com Bender

    Again, the reporting on this specific incident, and the discussion the last few decades on life-threatening pregnancies in general, has not been particularly helpful. What should be a fairly straightforward moral proposition has been so twisted and distorted as to leave far too many people confused.

    Part of the confusion stems from the use of the term “abortion,” which apparently means different things to different people (and means different things as a technical medical term and as a moral term). So, let’s step away from that term for a moment and see if that does not clear some things up.

    The moral question is this — Is it moral to intentionally and purposely kill innocent person number one in order to save the life of innocent person number two?

    Or is that a false dillema? Might there be another answer?

    OK, how about this then — May you morally engage in a high risk action with the intent and purpose to save the lives of both persons if there is a chance, or even a high degree of certainty, that such action might nevertheless be fatal to innocent person number one?

    What about wartime? Isn’t there a “just war” exception to the injunction “thou shall not kill”? And what about self-defense against criminal aggressors?

    Yes, it is true that one might licitly kill the enemy in a just war, and one might resort to the use of deadly force in self-defense in peacetime, and in such actions innocent civilians and innocent bystanders might be killed. But that does not mean that it is morally right to intentionally target civilian populations for the purpose of killing innocent noncombatants.

    Innocent deaths as unintended “collateral damage” is one thing, purposeful killing of innocent civilians is something else entirely and can never be justified. To be sure, it is universally understood to be a war crime. Likewise, you might morally shoot an intruder square in the chest if he has broken into your home and your intent is to protect the life of yourself and your family. But if your intent is to kill the intruder, rather than to protect life, then such act is not self-defense, but is an immoral act of murder.

    So, what about the life-threatening pregnancy? And what about the merely health-threatening pregnancy? Is it morally just and licit to engage in an intentional action with the purpose of killing the unborn when that might save the life of the mother or otherwise “improve” her health?

    The objective moral answer to the question is NO. And that is what is meant by the term “abortion,” or “direct abortion” — the knowing, intentional and purposeful killing of innocent human life for whatever secondary reason.

    So, we are just supposed to let the woman die then? If nothing is done then both will certainly die!

    And here is where the strawman makes his appearance in the discussion. No one, including the Church, is saying “do nothing.”

    Rather, it is morally just and licit to take actions to try to save the lives of both mother and child. It is immoral to do an act with the intent to kill the child, but it is moral to do an act with the intent to save and protect the lives of both even if there is a substantial risk and it is foreseeable that one of them will not survive the intervention.

    That, of course, means using procedures that has the greatest likelihood of success at saving both and not resorting to procedures that are certain to kill, such as dismemberment of the unborn. It also means not resorting to any high-risk procedure at all unless and until it is reasonably certain that the mother’s life is, in fact, endangered. A doctor cannot say, “your health might be at risk in three months, so let’s terminate now,” because the danger is purely speculative at that point.

    In short, in all things, we must choose life, not death. We cannot, as a matter of objective moral truth, engage in a deadly act with the specific intent to kill innocent persons, even if such persons might threaten others through no fault of their own, but we must instead endeavor to save and protect the lives of all innocent human life.

  • DaveW

    This story has troubled me ever since I read about it. This strikes me as one of those events that you really need to know more about first hand to understand.

    It seems entirely completely possible to me that everyone involved was doing their absolute best to follow catholic teaching. The sister, the bishop, both look at the same facts and one answers ‘black’, the other answers ‘white’.

    This seems especially likely to me since I’m not seeing a bunch of interviews of the sister in the media. To me her silence is speaking loudly.

    It’s sad that this ended up in the news and the subject of an internet swarm. It wouldn’t surprise me if all involved have already been to see their confessors and asked God for forgiveness where they erred and for His help in the future.

    I’d be willing to bet this sister has already resolved this with the church and is back in good standing. I know if it were me and I was in her predicament and my bishop called me out on it I’d be seeing my priest as soon as he could see me.

    I’ll pray for all involved.

  • dnb

    As the Pastor told my mother when the doctor informed her another pregnancy would kill her and she began taking contraceptives, “You have five children at home that you need to take care of. Listen to your doctor.” May God help this family with their loss.

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  • Lee

    I am a cardiac anesthesiologist, and almost every patient who has died during heart surgery under my care has died because of their pulmonary hypertension. It is not easily nor predictably treatable, and often has fatal consequences

    This woman–this mother of four children–had a life threatening exacerbation of her pulmonary hypertension as the direct result of her pregnancy. Every avenue of treatment was explored, as were the ethics of the successful treatment which resulted in the loss of her pregnancy.
    A Church that allows for just war needs to acknowledge that this was justifiable homicide, and understand that preserving the life of a mother of four is a greater good than watching her demise while hoping for a miracle.