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Bishop Olmsted An Evil Monster?

05/27/2010 Comments (701)

I thought I would take the opportunity to offer a few thoughts on some of the issues raised in the combox of my previous post regarding the situation in the Diocese of Phoenix.

A sizeable number of commenters strongly deplored Bishop Thomas Olmsted’s actions regarding Sr. Margaret McBride.

So far as I can tell based on the known facts, Bishop Olmsted had done three, possibly four, things regarding Sr. McBride:

1) He has contacted Sr. McBride to get her side of the story regarding the abortion she approved.

2) He has informed her that, based on the facts as he understands them, she has triggered the provision of canon law that provides a latae sententiae (automatic) excommunication connected with abortion.

3) After the excommunication was reported in the press, Bishop Olmsted allowed his communications director to confirm the excommunication.

4) Bishop Olmsted *may* (or may not, we don’t know since nobody official is discussing this) have had a role in the reassignment of Sr. McBride to other duties at St. Joseph’s (the Catholic hospital where she works and where the abortion occurred).

I don’t see how anybody can object to Action #1. If a Catholic bishop is informed that an abortion has taken place at a Catholic hospital in his diocese, he is supposed to investigate it and find out what happened. Contacting people for their side of the story is always a good thing, so I don’t see grounds for outrage on this one.

Action #2 is something I think people may misunderstand. I’ve seen reports elsewhere on the Net where people are saying things like “the Bishop automatically excommunicated her when he found out.” This is not what happened. It’s a misunderstanding. He didn’t “automatically excommunicate” her. According to the Bishop, she “automatically excommunicated” herself. He informed her of this fact.

Canon law provides an automatic excommunication for a small number of offenses (e.g., abortion, throwing away the consecrated species of the Eucharist, assaulting the pope). When a person commits one of these actions (all things being equal) the person automatically incurs the censure of excommunication by the commission of the act itself.

If Sr. McBride incurred this penalty, it was by her own action, not the bishop’s.

Based on his reading of the facts, Bishop Olmsted concluded that she had incurred the penalty and made her aware of this.

That is not an act of cruelty.

It is a spiritual work of mercy because it gives her occasion to pause, reflect, and take the steps necessary to be reconciled with the Church (which is the purpose of excommunication to begin with; it is medicinal in nature, intended to facilitate repentance and reconciliation).

One could argue that perhaps Bishop Olmsted was wrong in his assessment of the facts and that Sr. McBride did not excommunicate herself. I’m not a canon lawyer, but depending on the facts of the case I can imagine a number of different potential lines of defense in Sr. McBride’s favor (i.e., that she did not excommunicate herself).

So can others.

Coming from very different places on the Catholic spectrum, Michael Liccione and Thomas Doyle both offer potential lines of defense.

As I am sure they can, I can also think of additional lines of defense they don’t mention in their articles.

But I am not in possession of the full facts of the case because so many of them are confidential.

Bishop Olmsted is in possession of the facts, and, unlike me, he is a canonist.

Based on what is known, I can understand why people would question whether Sr. McBride excommunicated herself, but we’re dealing with something at several removes, and we need to be cautious in making judgments about situations on which we do not have all the facts.

On the other hand, I could imagine one saying, “I defer to Bishop Olmsted on the question of whether Sr. McBride excommunicated herself. Let’s say that she did violate the law in this way. But I think it’s a bad law.”

That’s a position a Catholic (or anyone else) can legitimately hold.

Some canonists have argued that penalties that take effect automatically are a bad idea anyway. At his blog, canonist Edward Peters writes:

I have long held that latae sententiae penalties are unsustainable in a modern legal system, that their use inevitably distracts attention from the underlying offense and redirects it toward the complexities of the canonical legal system (which most folks are not prepared to assess), and that the 150 year trend toward reducing automatic penalties in the Church is good and should be maintained. Still other issues, such as authority to remit sins and sanctions, are unnecessary complicated by automatic sanctions as well.

And, one may note, the Code of Canons for the Eastern Churches (CCEO), which is the equivalent of the Code of Canon Law (CIC) for Eastern Catholics, has no latae sententiae penalties at all and handles the same issues in other ways (cf. CCEO 1402).

So it is perfectly possible for the Church not to even have this kind of law—or to configure it differently so that it would have a broader or narrower scope regarding abortion—or to add new offenses (e.g., sexual abuse of a minor by a cleric)—or to delete existing ones.

All of these are legitimate opinions one can reasonably hold and discuss and advocate.

But in such cases, one’s disagreement is with the law, not with Bishop Olmsted.

He has to deal with the law the way it is, not the way he—or anyone else—might wish it to be, just as every cop and every judge has to deal with the law as it is in his jurisdiction.

So I don’t see grounds for faulting Bishop Olmsted for seeking to apply the law—as it is, not in some other way—to events in his diocese. That’s his job.

Action #3 (confirming the excommunication after the press began reported on it) seems to be a reasonable thing for a bishop to do, lest confusion result. The press has a hard enough time getting religion stories right, and it’s entirely understandable that the bishop would want to head misunderstandings off.

Action #4—which is only speculative, but which involves reasonable speculation—seems to naturally follow from the previous actions.

Sr. McBride’s position was “vice president of mission integration” at the hospital. I’m not entirely sure what that means, but I suppose it means helping ensure that the hospital undertakes its medical services in fulfillment of its mission as a Catholic entity, in keeping with the Church’s vision of human rights, including and in a special way the foundation of all rights, the right to life.

If it is true that Sr. McBride had such a grave lapse of judgment as to approve of a direct abortion taking place in the facility then it is easy to see how this would be inconsistent with her job duties regarding mission integration. It is also easy to see how excommunicating oneself is inconsistent with a job involving mission integration.

Again, one could disagree with Bishop Olmsted and argue that Sr. McBride did not approve of a direct abortion (the kind that is intrinsically evil) or that for various reasons she did not automatically excommunicate herself, but those matters pertain to his judgment involved in Action #2. If one grants that he is right about Action #2, then Action #4 follows from it as a logical consequence, so there is no special ill will manifest in having her duties changed given the established assessment of her actions.

I thus don’t understand the outrage being expressed toward Bishop Olmsted.

If you want to disagree with him, okay. But do so with some reserve, because we are not privy to the facts of this case. We only know them partially.

If you want to disagree with the law and suggest what you think would be a better formulation, fine. But recognize that your objection is to the law, not the Bishop.

There is ample room here for Catholics and other people of good will to discuss and even disagree, but let’s do it with caution and respect.

I’ve got more to come on this issue, including the medical situation involved and the ethics of direct vs. indirect abortion, but in the meantime . . .

What do you think?

Filed under abortion, excommunication, margaret mcbride, phoenix, thomas olmsted