The sad canonical tale of Sr. Margaret McBride

The distinguished canonist Ed Peter’s on his blog In The Light Of The Law has a good examination of the canonical censure incurred by Sr. Margaret McBride of St. Joseph’s Hospital in Phoenix, AZ.  Sr. McBride played a crucial role in the performance of a direct abortion in that formerly Catholic hospital.  For her part in the abortion, the local ordinary Bp. Thomas Olmsted declared that she had incurred an excommunication.  Sr. McBride is excommunicated.

Thus, Ed Peters and his canonical explanation:

Toward clarifying the canonical status of Sr. Margaret McBride

As more of the record concerning the canonical situation of Sr. Margaret McBride comes to light, it is good to see some surmises about her status being confirmed and/or various gaps in our information being filled. Specifically, we now know that Bp. Olmsted declared the excommunication of McBride following the disclosure of her role in procuring the abortion of a baby at St. Joseph’s hospital in 2009. The fact of the bishop’s declaration has some important implications for McBride’s canonical status in religious life and in the Church.

First, whatever was McBride’s status per 1983 CIC 1331 § 1 as one (probably) laboring under a latae sententiae excommunication (and, yes, I am happy to renew my call for the elimination of automatic sanctions), her status as one laboring under a declared excommunication is governed chiefly by 1983 CIC 1331 § 2. While she is not dispensed from the general obligations of religious life, the Divine Office, or the Sunday obligation, McBride is now prevented from attempting to perform any ministerial functions in the Eucharist (reader, etc.), from participating in the sacraments or sacramentals, and from obtaining indulgences (c. 996). Also, under pain of invalidity, she cannot perform acts of ecclesiastical office (c. 145) in her religious institute or in the Church. Hers is, in short, and is intended to be in light of her grave offense against the life of an innocent child, quite a debilitated state.

Second, McBride’s reconciliation (for which we should all pray) is not simply a question of moral theology and treatable, therefore, in sacramental Confession; her juridic status is now changed to the point where, for the remission of her sanction, Olmsted must play a role either directly (c. 1355 § 1, n. 1) or in consultation with another local ordinary (c. 1355 § 1, n. 2).

Indeed, in this one respect, I would differ with Olmsted’s decision to keep the declaration of McBride’s excommunication confidential, lest presbyteral confessors who might be approached by McBride for reconciliation mistakenly think that they still have the authority to address her juridic situation under Canon 1357. They do not have that authority (outside of danger of death, of course, per c. 976).

Third, while the dismissal of McBride from her religious institute would seem an appropriate next step, I think her superiors should proceed with caution. Yes, Canon 695 mandates the dismissal of any religious found guilty of violating Canon 1398 against abortion. But, I would suggest that McBride was not, strictly speaking, excommunicated for procuring an abortion, but rather, for lending formal and necessary cooperation toward an abortion, that is, for being an accomplice to abortion and thus liable to excommunication per 1983 CIC 1329 § 2. There are differences between committing a crime, and being an accomplice to one committing crime.

My suggestion of, to put it colloquially, some “wiggle room”, under can. 695 in McBride’s case is consistent not simply with the plain text of the law(s), but with the fact that the other two ‘mandatory dismissal’ canons referenced in can. 695 (namely, cann. 1395 and 1397) describe offenses that, while also very serious, come in degrees of wrong-doing and thus, by their nature, allow (indeed, require) religious superiors to look at the concrete facts of the case to determine whether a religious’ involvement in such deeds warrants dismissal. Interestingly, Canon 695, which ties a superior’s hands in some cases that might warrant some flexibility, is not found in Eastern law.

Abortion, on the other hand, is an all-or-nothing type of crime. If a religious is guilty of abortion, he or she can and should be dismissed. But, the all-or-nothing character of abortion suggests that where, within the law, some way of looking at the concrete facts exists, that way should be used. In poenis benignior est interpretatio facienda. Regula Iuris n. 49, in VI° (1298). Besides, if McBride should prove obdurate in refusing to repent of her role in the death of an innocent human being, Canon 696 provides more than sufficient basis for her expulsion from religious life, and sooner than later at that.

I’m sorry that the canonical implications of killing a pre-born baby take our attention just before celebrating the Nativity of Our Lord. That’s why we call it “this Valley of Tears”, no? Christmas blessings on all my readers. Oremus pro invicem.

Many thanks to Ed Peters for this clear explanation.  Be sure to visit his blog In The Light Of The Law.

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  1. mdinan says:

    I’m sure there will be some great whining about this action being “un-pastoral.” I disagree! I have great appreciation for such pastoral acts on the part of Bishop Olmsted. Excommunication is, among other things, a medicinal wake-up call. Rather than encourage her behavior and endanger her soul, His Excellency did exactly what he, as shepherd, should do-in the most obvious way possible, he made it clear that her actions are cutting her off from the Church and all of the spiritual blessings and graces that come from being a member of the ecclesiastical Body. I will be praying for Sr. McBride, Bishop Olmsted, and the young woman at the center of this horrible occurrence.

  2. Supertradmum says:

    Thank you for posting this. It is somber news, indeed, and to see the list of consequences scares me, even as an observer. Let us pray for Sister and all those like her, who do the same thing in a less high profile situation. As Bishop, Bishop Olmsted, is her real pastor and is concerned not only about the name “Catholic”, but the sister’s immortal soul.

    This type of thing could be happening in the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. with all those Catholics who support abortion and receive Holy Communion on a regular basis.

  3. catholicmidwest says:

    Here is the problem: The sanctions against her allow her to communicate with those who are likely to sympathize with her, and this is not likely to solve anything. It will just go underground.

    Pressure needs to be brought in order to expel her from religious life and remove her from all positions of authority and influence, even sympathetic influence, in Catholic life. She needs to lose all financial benefits as well from the moment of this excommunication, since if she has to be very busy making a way for herself, she is less likely to have time to cause trouble.

  4. Random Friar says:

    While I agree that excommunication is a sad result of her actions, I generally lean toward a suitable period to allow for recanting (which should be public because of the nature of the case). If and only if she does not, then I would proceed with dismissal from religious life.

    On a related matter, for the amount of scandal Sr. Carol Keehan has caused, I would hope she has been at least privately warned of the scandal she is causing by the ordinary.

  5. mike cliffson says:

    Capable of it I am,God send I never fall into a sin incurring excommunication, but
    would n’t it be simpler just to repent?

  6. catholicmidwest says:

    Yes, but neither you nor I can do it for her, Mike Cliffson. That’s how these things work.

  7. mike cliffson says:

    Dear catholic midwest:
    Somewhat tangentially to Fr’s post, but we can up to a point, in a way, this side of overriding free will. Whilst over passing years the Almighty’s actions have only deepened my appreciation of the power of prayer, yet the idea of publicly announced reparation, at least in token, for any other human’s offences to God which was very current in my youth I let somehow slip below my awareness- and I don’t think Im alone- until recently. It’s behind Sacre Couer in Paris, behind Gaudi, behind the Student Cross pilgrimages (in the UK), behind many a communal and private rosary. Solidarity, really, both ways,if not what moderns mean by the word.

  8. catholicmidwest says:

    No, you can certainly pray for her, but you cannot make up her mind for her, no matter how much you want to do so. If she is to re-convert and atone, she will have to make those choices of the will herself.

  9. letchitsa1 says:

    Wow, that list is certainly daunting! I hope and pray Sister will realize the full impact of her actions and repent while she has time. Bishop Olmstead, I believe, did right by her as her pastor, no matter how hard of a decision it might have been for him. If only more bishops would find the courage to act as he has done – in what is ultimately the best interests of his flock, no matter how unpleasant those acts may be!

  10. mike cliffson says:

    catholic midwest
    no disagreement_
    You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.

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