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. Corrected by her bishop and currently reassigned in her duties, Sr. Margaret McBride, the administrator who participated in the undoubtedly difficult decision, has made no public statement on this issue. She is nevertheless being described as heroic by those who support the action, and denounced as suspicious by those who do not. Others are excoriating Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted, of the Diocese of Phoenix. With the heinous sins committed by pederast priests the forever-glaring standard of church-wide failure, critics wonder how a sister could be so quickly excommunicated, when so many bad priests were not. They cry “double standard” and “misogyny,” and wonder how the church can claim to have any moral authority left.
Well, because sometimes innocent people are convicted in America does not mean the nation cannot defend her laws, carefully crafted over time. Just so, the church’s having taken too long to right her own wrongs does not mean she surrenders the truths she has gleaned through faith and reason, over time. Making false equivalences does not bring clarity to McBride’s decision.
Like secular law, Catholic doctrine makes distinctions; it looks at intentions, opportunities and outcomes, direct and indirect causes; it understands that all things are not equal. It is difficult to explain to a feelings-led society that Sr. McBride conferred the latae sententiae (automatic) excommunication upon herself, and fully controls whether she will remain ex-communicated, or not, as doubtless she herself could explain. It may be unpleasant for some to hear, but participating in or procuring a direct, illicit abortion (as opposed to a licit, indirect abortion, as explained here) entails excommunication, while sexual abuse — gravely and mortally sinful — does not.
If that seems incongruous, consider that Sr. McBride is very likely being championed today by the same people who, in 2008, derided her for repatriating to Mexico a legal immigrant whose condition, due to an accident, had left St. Joseph’s Hospital out of options. Some decrying her as a “radical” today may have applauded her back then. Some might consider her administrative decision in 2008 to be more sinful than her participation in the abortion matter, and vice-versa.
It is precisely because opinions and feelings are tied to ever-changing time that the church does not align herself with the precepts of the age, but seeks instead to live within the framework of the Eternal. And because she does, those imperfect humans working within that framework can seem so maddeningly inconsistent, and sometimes cruel.
Society has a merciless mania for assigning roles to “villains” and “heroes,” and then making them stick, but Sr. McBride, and Bishop Olmsted, and for that matter the church itself, are both and neither; they defy easy casting.
They defy it because of Mercy. The church and its workers function within the strains of Aquinas’ “affected” and “effected” mercy; they carry the empathetic compassion of the first with the practical promptings of the second. In the thin filament between the two they are meant to slice cleanly into the will of God, and unleash it.
Because they are human and imperfect, mistakes will be made. When they are, the appalled world, which cannot agree on what the mistake actually was, cries out for its own mercy, the mercy of the age. Whereupon Catholics like Sr. McBride and Bishop Olmsted — all too familiar with the narrow teeter-totter of worldly mercy, which finds them now heroes, now villains — turns to the only mercy that matters, because it is deep, and it is broad, and its quality is never strained.