01 June 2010

Support for Sister Margaret McBride: Lift the Sanction!

[[Sister Laurel, do you support what Margaret McBride did? And why should her Bishop lift the automatic excommunication. If she really did what she believes is right, then all she needs to do is go to confession to get back in the Church.]]

Yes, I absolutely support Sister Margaret's decision. I pray that I would have the courage to make and bear the consequences of such a difficult choice myself, but I do believe she discerned and preferenced the values and disvalues in the situation in a truly conscionable way. Let me be clear, as I understand the situation she did NOT make a choice for abortion. She made a choice for life, not only the life of the Mother, but the (quality of) life of her other four children, husband, etc. Even if I agreed that the abortion was direct rather than indirect (something I am not convinced of except in a very narrow sense), I believe Sister Margaret acted in the most loving, life-affirming way possible given the circumstances. However, even if I am completely wrong in this regard, the question before us now is whether McBride's Bishop should lift the sanction or not. As I also wrote earlier, in such a case (especially where every option seems to involve real evil) and the person acts in good conscience in the most rigorous sense of that term, we cannot allow a Church law (in this case, the imposition of automatic excommunication), no matter how significant, or well-intentioned and helpful in most instances, to trump God's own Commandment to Love in the most effective way we can in concrete situations. This principle was important for understanding Sister McBride's own decision, and it applies with regard to the sanction imposed on her by the Church in canon law. God gives us law to help us, but it is up to us to act in ways which make law serve love, not thwart it.

Your comment about just going to confession is problematical in several ways. I believe Sister Margaret's Bishop should lift the sanction in the first place precisely because Sister Maragaret acted in good conscience and CANNOT therefore just confess and return to full communion with the Church. One does not confess what one was convinced in one's heart of hearts was the most moral thing to do. One does not receive absolution for doing what one knows to be the right thing even if one changes her mind down the line (such a change does not alter the nature or quality of the original action). One confesses sin, not error (if error one concludes there has been) for which one is not culpable. For Sister Margaret, the option open to those who carelessly, thoughtlessly, or even maliciously have an abortion or cooperate in the process, and then have regrets about it all, is not a possibility. After all, Sister Margaret DID act after serious reflection; she acted in good conscience; that is, she acted with care and fidelity to the Gospels, the teaching of the Church generally, her understanding of the espiscopal directives to hospitals, and to God's own voice within her. This is one of the reasons Aquinas wrote that if one acts in good conscience and is excommunicated, one must bear the excommunication humbly (that is, in the power of God with whom one remains united!). Even should Sister Margaret decide she erred in her decision to commit one evil rather than another, she still acted according to her heart of hearts and committed no sin. Without denying the truth and trivializing the Sacrament of Reconciliation in the process, what would she confess?

I believe Sister Margaret's Bishop should lift the sanction for other reasons as well. As noted, Sister Margaret has no other option. The second reason flows from this. Surely the Church does not wish to leave people in such a situation pastorally. This would conflict with the commission Jesus gave to Peter when he affrimed that what was bound on earth would be bound in heaven, and what was loosed on earth would be loosed in heaven. Clearly Jesus meant the Church to act in ways which allowed love, mercy, and all the power of the Spirit to triumph over more abstract codes or notions of justice. This is the reason the Church allows confession as the remedy for serious sin. It is even the reason she applies a penalty as severe as excommunication, after all! The desire is to bring a person face to face with the seriousness of their sin and allow for repentance. But what about a case where a penalty falls automatically or even unjustly on one who has not sinned and cannot confess and be absolved? Aquinas analyzed the aituation well with regard to the individual's primacy of conscience, but what of the Church's own conscience and responsibility here? The Church (via her hierarchy and law) is often able to publicly affirm her powers to bind, but it is far less common to see her exercise publicly her authority to loose. This, it seems to me, would surely be a worthy case for this.

Thirdly, the Church knows there is a tension in her own teaching on conscience. While some try to soften or remove this tension by defining "good conscience" in terms of "acting in accord with Church teaching," as I already mentioned this is not how Aquinas views the matter of conscience, nor is it a position Vatican II accepted. When individuals clearly act in good conscience in circumstances which are morally difficult or conflicted, when they exemplify thoughtfulness, courage, fidelity, compassion, integrity, honesty, and all the other kinds of values we recognize as signs of God's existence and Christian discipleship --- despite what law says --- we must recognize the tension which is at the heart of the Church's own teaching and find ways to act justly. Allowing an automatic excommunication to stand in the face of clear indications a person has acted as a true disciple of Christ hardly supports justice or a gospel which defines this in terms of mercy and forgiveness. Canon Law itself allows for consideration of extenuating and mitigating circumstances (C 1324) and notes that even in the case of Latae Sententiae excommunication, punishment is allowed only if the violation is seriously imputable due to malice or culpability (i.e, one has acted with due dilligence --- otherwise the penalty is not imputed!)." (C 1321) While imputation is presumed (C 1321), there is plenty of room for ecclesial consideration in these relevant canons, and many exculpatory reasons which apply automatically to the impaired, minors, or even the simply thoughtless. To let this stand in the current difficult and ambiguous moral situation removes the personal element of discernment and judgment which is at the heart of the way the Church is clearly told to deal with (all of us) sinners in 1 Corinthians in favor of an impersonal, abstract, and so, arbitrary and unjust judgment.

Further, the Church needs the witness such an act would give. It certainly need not be seen as supporting abortion. Nor was Sister Margaret disobedient in some way, so lifting the sanction need not be seen as acquiescing in this or other acts of arrogance or selfishness. On the contrary, it would support the difficult act of obedience and faithfulness she undertook on behalf of life. On another level we see the Church bending over backwards to deal mercifully and generously with pedophile priests for whom there is neither automatic excommunication or (usually) excommunication by virtue of a deliberate judgment, no laicization, and continued church support even if the priest is shipped off to a monastery. At the same time we see women religious being investigated, accused as a whole group via the LCWR of heresy or heterodoxy, of unfaithfulness to the fundamentals of their vocations, and so forth. There is a desperate need to see the Church's own application of penalities as evenhanded and commensurate with the individual situation. At the present time, this is simply not possible.

Another factor in the Church's own need for this witness is that today we have an episcopacy which is increasingly seen, whether rightly or wrongly, as made up of canonists rather than proven pastors. (The two things need not be mutually exclusive in my experience, but often they have proven so.) Whether perceptions are accurate in this regard or not these factors together have helped lead to a serious inability of most of the laity (and many clerics) to trust the authority and pastoral sensitivity and expertise of the episcopacy. The hierarchy may not be able to change the direction of these trends (on both sides!) to demean, distrust, and accuse, overnight, but they can certainly make it clear when the case merits it, that they are capable of putting love above law, the Gospel above Canonical norms, and that they recognize when one has behaved morally as a Catholic Christian and incurred an unjust penalty.

Finally, on a more political level perhaps, should Sister Margaret's bishop lift the sanction, his act will also help to indicate that such penalities and such decisions are significant and cannot simply be ignored or trivialized. Instead they must (and will) be dealt with by those with the authority (and the courage) to do so. In this case Sister McBride's decision became a matter of the external forum, and not through her own publication of the matter or the actions of her congregation; the solution therefore needs to take place on this level. To lift the sanction is appropriate and prudent for her Bishop for these reasons as well.

I hope this answers your question. Please note that my position and many of my reasons will also apply to at least some of those who acted with Sister Margaret or as a result of her decision. As always if this post raises more questions or is unclear in some way I hope you will email me again.