"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Friday, June 04, 2010

Getting it right while getting me wrong

In the current issue of the British Catholic periodical The Tablet, Michael Sean Winters has weighed in on the Phoenix abortion-and-excommunication case and, in the course of so doing, praised my contribution to the unusually acrimonious debate over the case. How ironic that this is the closest I've ever come to fame: ABC's George Stephanopoulos once called Winters "the most famous person in DC whom nobody's ever heard of." Problem is, Winters got a few of his facts wrong.

Now I happen to agree with his conclusion:
There is a yet deeper concern, and one that has not been much commented upon in the Phoenix situation. Yes, the controversy can be seen as a part of the culture wars. But it is also an example of a deeper pathology in American religious experience – the way religion is reduced to ethics in American culture.

“It is a great temptation for the Church to reduce its mission to that of an ethical authority in order to gain access to the public forum,” Mgr Lorenzo Albacete wrote in the Catholic quarterly Communio more than 15 years ago, and the warning remains true. Pope John Paul’s and Pope Benedict’s call for a “New Evangelisation” will be stillborn if the Church can’t find ways to proclaim the Gospel effectively, and a main impediment to that proclam­ation is this reduction of religion to ethics.

Today, in America, the Catholic Left reduces the Church’s mission to a social-justice ethic, and the Catholic Right reduces the Church’s mission to its ethics on sexual morality. Bishop Olmsted’s decision has encouraged partisans of both Left and Right to embrace a defensive posture in which it is difficult to even hear the transcendent call of the Crucified who Lives.

When a moralism of the Left or Right trumps mercy, the Gospel is not proclaimed. The most frightening thing about Bishop Olmsted’s decision is, finally, not its justice or lack thereof. It is that, in his multi-paragraph statement announcing the excommunication, he did not even mention God. That is, if you will pardon the expression, damning.
As I had implied in my article, I believe it was a mistake for Bishop Olmsted to have announced Sr. McBride's self-excommunication publicly even if he was objectively right and she was objectively wrong in the matter. I explained my reasons for thinking so, and I believe Winters has given a still more important reason for thinking so.

But there are at least a few inaccuracies in Winters' article. The most important is his assertion that "Upon learning of the abortion at the Catholic hospital, Bishop Olmsted ordered Sr Margaret to be reassigned and pronounced the formal excommunication...." That gives the impression that she was excommunicated ferendae sententiae, i.e. by a formal juridical act. She was not. According to Bishop Olmsted's communications office, Sr. McBride excommunicated herself by formally cooperating in a "direct" abortion. That's called excommunication latae sententiae. Olmstead's announcement did not excommunicate McBride; it purported merely to point out what she had already done to herself.

The other inaccuracy concerns me directly: a small but telling misstatement of something I had said in my article. I had written:
The moral principle of Double Effect plays a role here. Catholic teaching condemns only “direct abortion”: abortion in which the death of the child is either directly willed in itself or directly willed as a means to some specific end. The Church does not condemn “indirect abortion”: abortion that is a foreseen but unintended side effect of a medical procedure designed to preserve the mother’s life, which is not wrong, at least not merely as such. (The most common example is an ectopic pregnancy, in which the Fallopian Tube must be removed to save the mother’s life, but the resulting death of the child is not directly willed.)

And that, apparently, was the defense McBride offered to Bishop Olmstead. He rejected it, apparently believing that the abortion was direct and thus immoral. And under Church law, all who procure or otherwise “formally cooperate” in direct abortion excommunicate themselves.
Now here's what Winters wrote about what I had written:
More thoughtful commentary has emerged on both sides as well. In the conservative journal First Things, Michael Liccione questioned the role of Sr Margaret’s subjective intent. He noted that the Church permits abortions that are not intended, for example when a woman has an ectopic pregnancy, requiring the removal of her fallopian tube. This will result in the death of the unborn child, but that is not the intended object of the surgery. Liccione argues that this “law of double effect” may have animated Sr Margaret’s decision, in which case, her moral culpability is diminished.

The more persuasive criticism of Bishop Olmsted’s decision is located here. In such dreadful circumstances, even if the actors make the “wrong” decision, heavy-handed punishment is ill-advised. Liccione writes that “the bishop’s ability to make such a confident judgement in this case seems very unclear – to me and to many others. Moreover, the public outrage over the Phoenix case illustrates the dangers of making politically significant announcements on the basis of moral reasoning that not many people can follow and that even theologically well- educated Catholics disagree about.”
Wittingly or not, the sentence I have bolded can give readers the impression that I thought McBride might have been justified in believing that abortion was indirect. But I don't know enough about the medical facts of the case to suggest any such thing (or the opposite, for that matter). I did imply that Sr. McBride thought it was indirect and thus justified, and argued that as a morally well-informed Catholic health-care professional, she should be presumed to have been acting on the good-faith judgment that the abortion was justifiable, even if that judgment turned out to be incorrect. I questioned Bishop Olmsted's announcement for that and other reasons.

Perhaps, of course, Winters did understand me and just expressed himself a bit carelessly. But then, perhaps his getting a rather basic legal fact wrong is a sign that he just isn't reading carefully enough. Sloppiness in a case such as this, which involves theological and legal intricacies beyond most people, only muddies the waters further.

Even so, I'm grateful to be noticed. For a man in my position, all publicity is good publicity. Perhaps I should get my bishop to announce my excommunication despite my good intentions.
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