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Diocese of Phoenix Maligns Catholic Nun, Errs on Canon Law

May 20, 2010

The recent news about a woman in Phoenix who received an abortion in a Catholic hospital has raised again the issue of Catholics, abortion and excommunication.

The bishop of Phoenix has declared that a nun who is a hospital administrator and a member of the ethics committee is excommunicated because of her alleged action, or inaction, in regard to the pregnant woman’s care.

To defend the bishop’s announcement that Sister McBride was “automatically excommunicated” for her actions, the diocese has published a document called “Questions & Answers Re: The Situation at St. Joseph’s.” While the questions are timely, the answers unfortunately misrepresent the church’s law.

For example, one of questions reads: “Does that mean that all women who have had an abortion are excommunicated?” The incorrect answer the diocese provides reads:  “Yes, anyone who has had an abortion is automatically excommunicated. But so are those who encouraged the abortion, helped to pay for the abortion, or performed the abortion, including those who directly assisted in its performance.” This claim is simply not supported by Catholic canon law.

The real answer to that question is: No. Not every woman who has an abortion is excommunicated. The Catholic church’s law on crimes and punishments is very strict, and, as in secular criminal law, provides a range of characteristics that would make a person incapable of committing a crime (for example, being under the age of seventeen, or acting in self-defense). There are also mitigating factors that would make a person who committed a crime ineligible for punishment or eligible only for a lesser penalty. These include people who act in fear or in case of necessity.

Another wrong answer is provided in response to this question: “From the news reports we were told that Sr. McBride also consulted with others who agreed that the abortion should be performed. Are they also excommunicated?” The diocese says: “Yes. Those Catholics who gave their consent and encouraged this abortion were also excommunicated by that very action. So too is anyone else at St. Joseph’s who participated in the action; including doctors and nurses.”

The real answer is, again: No. The Catholic church’s law does, in limited circumstances, provide penalties for accomplices, but the scope of people who might be eligible is even smaller than in the first case. In the situation at St. Joseph’s, even if all the requirements were met, the penalty of excommunication would only be available for someone whose participation was so necessary that the abortion would not have been provided without his or her action. It’s not clear that this is the case for Sr. McBride. Canon lawyers have long agreed that the actions of hospital administrators rarely if ever rise to the level that would make them “accomplices” according to canon law.

Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, said in a statement, “It is unfortunate that once again, given an opportunity to show compassion and understanding, the Catholic hierarchy has instead taken the low road and persecuted a Catholic who, in good conscience and based on her experience, provided her opinion in a difficult medical and ethical situation. The bishop’s response was to publicly damage the good reputation of a woman who has, by all accounts, dedicated much of her life to caring for those in need. In the Catholic church, Sister McBride has a right to her good reputation and a right, as well as a duty, to follow her conscience. It’s notable that the diocese isn’t talking much about those provisions of canon law.”