Dr. Peters concerning the excomm’d Mercy Sister in Phoenix

I posted about the Mercy Sister in Phoenix who approved a direct abortion at a Catholic hospital. The local Bishop, confirmed that she had incurred an automatic excommunication. Then a story emerged that she, Sr. McBride, had been reconciled. I thought that was a bit odd, because there was no additional statement to that effect from the Diocese. The bishop did not excommunicate her. The law itself did. But since his office made a public statement, I thought there would be a public statement when it was resolved.

The Canonical Defender, Dr. Ed Peters, who wrote the book on excommunications, has jumped in. He doesn’t have a combox, but do visit his blog.

Thus, Dr. Peters:

The reconciliation of Sr. Margaret McBride
Despite the great attention that excommunication generates in the secular media, actual instances of excommunication are rare. Rarer still are remissions of excommunications for, as we all know, some offenders never repent. Most Church or Church-related officials have little experience in dealing with excommunication matters, and most reporters have zero experience reporting on them. Thus, when what looks like an excommunication (rare) remission (rarer still) makes the news, one should treat such news, welcome in itself of course, with some caution.

ILOTL [“In The Light Of The Law“, Dr. Peters fine blog] readers will recall (see e.g. my posts of 21 May 2010, 1 Jun 2010, 19 Jun 2010, 21 Dec 2010, and 23 Dec 2010) the case of Sr. Margaret McBride, rsm, the religious whose consent, as administrator of St. Joseph’s Hospital in Phoenix, was apparently necessary for the commission of an abortion in that hospital back in 2009. Against many who argued that Sr. Margaret’s actions could not, as matter of law, result in her excommunication under Canon 1398, I argued that her reported actions could result in her excommunication at least as an accomplice to abortion per Canon 1329. Prescinding from my long-standing misgivings about the operation of automatic censures in canon law, I argued that nothing in the reports available to the public suggested that Sr. Margaret had not met the requirements for excommunication in her case. As to whether Bp. Olmsted’s early public statements about Sr. Margaret’s canonical status sufficed for a formal declaration or imposition of excommunication, my sense was that we had too little information to decide either way; in any event, the bishops later confirmed the status of Sr. Margaret as excommunicated, a development that raised canonical issues about Sr. Margaret’s future in her religious community.

There the matter rested for a year or more.

Last week, however, per the Catholic News Service, St. Joseph’s Hospital stated that Sr. Margaret has “met the requirements for reinstatement with the church and she is no longer excommunicated. She continues to be a member in good standing with the Sisters of Mercy and is a valued member of the St. Joseph’s executive team.” This seems like good news, of course. The whole point of excommunication is to bring offenders to repent of their action. But the generation of the announcement itself seems odd to me[And also with you?]

The announcement comes from neither the Diocese of Phoenix (pace 1983 CIC 1355-1357) nor from Sr. Margaret’s religious superiors (pace 1983 CIC 573, 654, 696), but rather from St. Joseph’s Hospital, that is, it seems, from her employer.

Now, whatever one makes of the process for remission of sanctions possibly automatically incurred and apparently later formally declared or imposed—and we do not have enough information to speculate on those permutations—the one group that is not empowered to bring about the reconciliation of anyone under an ecclesiastical sanction is that person’s employer. So, it seems, someone else must have acted here, and that someone else must have communicated their actions to Sr. Margaret and/or to St. Joseph’s Hospital.

Given the extraordinary publicity that was associated with this matter and the direct statements made on it by the competent ecclesiastical authorities, I think it would be good to know, officially and free of ambiguous phrases like “reinstatement with the church”, that Sr. Margaret’s status has been rectified. [Do I hear an “Amen!”?] Considering that sanctions themselves operate in the external forum, appropriate news of the remission of a high-profile censure can, I think, be offered or confirmed without endangering the internal forum; doing so here would broadly contribute to the common good.

That said, I hope the report about Sr. Margaret’s status is accurate, and that we can put this sad episode behind us.

PS: I’ve seen nothing in these recent reports suggesting that Bp. Olmsted’s revocation of the Catholic identity of St. Joseph’s Hospital would be impacted by changes in the canonical status of Sr. Margaret.

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  1. catholicmidwest says:

    You’d think someone would be clearer about something so important, especially since it has lots of repercussions and she’s dealing with the general public. Perhaps this is why some people no longer take this very seriously.

  2. pbewig says:

    > But the generation of the announcement itself seems odd to me. [And also with you?]

    No, we have a new translation now. You should say “And with your Spirit!”

  3. jhayes says:

    As I quoted in a comment under the earlier “Phoenix Mercy Sister…” post, Sr. McBride stated in a speech that she had met the two conditions imposed by Bp. Olmstead: 1) confession to a priest; 2) resignation of her position (presumably on the Ethics Committee). If she first resigned her position and then went to any priest and confessed, how would the Bishop know that? My impression is that in most dioceses all priests have faculties to remit the excommunication in the case of abortion without referring to the bishop. Is that not so? If it is so, how could anyone but Sr. McBride and her confessor know that the excommunication was remitted. The priest is bound by the secret, so how could anyone but Sr. McBride tell us of her status?

  4. BillyHW says:

    I don’t understand how she could have accepted that award from Call to Action but a month ago, and still claim to have met the requirements to have her excommunication lifted. This is a scandal to me and to others.

  5. jhayes says:

    BillyHW, she announced in November 2011 that her excommunication had been lifted but I haven’t seen anything she said as to the date when that happened. It could have been anytime back to May of 2010 when Bp. Olmstead made his announcement.

  6. BillyHW says:

    jhayes, it’s even worse if it was before.

  7. jhayes says:

    BillyHW, I don’t understand. If her excommunication was lifted a year ago, say, the only way she could incur another automatic excommunication would be if she procured an abortion after the first excommunication was lifted. No one has suggested that she has done that. Since she is no longer on the hospital Ethics Committee, it’s not an issue she is apt to be faced with again.

  8. jhayes says:

    Responding o Dr. Peters comment on the role of the hospital:

    The statement, emailed to Catholic News Service in response to a query about her status, provided no more details and the hospital had no further comment.


    So, the hospital was answering a question posed by CNS, not making an announcement that it had anyhing to do with the lifting of the excommunication.

  9. BillyHW says:

    jhayes, in her acceptance of the CTA award, she shows that–at least up until that time–that she was not repentant and did not believe that she did anything wrong and it was the Church that acted unjustly. If her excommunication was lifted before this, then it is a sure scandal. If her excommunication was lifted after this, then we could at least possibly presume that she repented since then (as unbelievable as that may sound).

  10. Supertradmum says:

    If there is no public announcement from the Diocesan Office, I do not believe it. A public sin must be dealt with both in excommunication and in reconciliation, publicly.

  11. jhayes says:

    I think we need Dr. Peters’ counsel here. If she was excommunicated lata sententia and the only conditions for remitting the excommunication were that she resign her position on the Ethics Commitee and confess to a priest, who other than she and her confessor would know that the excommunication had been remitted? Is anyone other than Sr. McBride able to announce that the excommunication has been remitted?

    I assume that her confession would have been that she authorized a procedure that she did not believe at the time was an abortion, so she does not believe that she committed a sin – but she knows that the Bishop has since taught that that procedure is an abortion and she will follow his teaching if faced with a similar situation while stationed in this diocese.

  12. Brad says:

    jhayes: in this murderous nation, priests can accept confession and thus lift abortion lat. sent. excom., no bishop required. I did read that once.

    What that tells us is just how bad the problem is. 50 million babies?

    And yet this prim nation feigns horror when we occasionally have a reading from the OT about the barbaric neighboring peoples practicing child sacrifice (at least as ravenously as the new world pagans did [actually, worse, since I am unsure if the latter raped the children before killing them]).

    That is, when exactly what those neighboring tribes were doing has not be obfuscated by the translation, or was so horrible that the ancient writers demurred a bit when describing.

    The worst evils of the ancient world still with us. Nothing has changed in man’s dark heart. I’m just rambling…

  13. jhayes says:

    Brad, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, the high point for abortions in the USA was 1990, with 1,608,600 deaths.

    Fifteen years later, the number had fallen by about 25% . In 2005, it was 1,206,200.

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