News From Terre Haute, Indiana


May 25, 2010

STEPHANIE SALTER: A heartfelt request for clarity and understanding

TERRE HAUTE — Dear God, I am praying to you for three women.

The first is a Catholic Sister of Mercy, Margaret McBride. She took her vows decades ago and has devoted her life to the work your Son so clearly laid out for all of his followers: to minister to the poor, the sick and the outcast.

Please, help her and her order hear your will through the angry and authoritarian din. Last week, Sister Margaret was excommunicated from her Church and demoted from her position as vice president of mission integration at St. Joseph Hospital in Phoenix. 

The bishop of Phoenix insists the nun excommunicated herself in November when she and a group of doctors, nurses and administrators weighed nothing but terrible options and made a decision: To abort an 11-week-old fetus rather than let its mother – who has four children – die from a medical condition that was made life-threatening by her pregnancy.

The bishop, a learned Church law scholar, cited chapter and verse of the Code of Canon Law and an encyclical by Pope John Paul II. The law holds, he said, that both the mother and gestating baby should have been allowed to die if the only way to save the mother’s life was to abort her fetus.

The bishop, Thomas J. Olmsted, referred to Sister Margaret’s and the others’ decision as “an evil.” In official statements posted on the Phoenix diocese website, he and a member of his staff lectured the hospital’s medical team and Sister Margaret, who has a nursing degree and has worked in the medical field for 34 years.

“An unborn child is not a disease,” the bishop wrote in a May 14 statement. “While medical professionals should certainly try to save a pregnant mother’s life, the means by which they do it can never be by directly killing her unborn child. The end does not justify the means.”

In a Q-and-A posting May 18, a diocesan spokesman answered the query, “If the baby cannot survive outside the womb and the mother may die, isn’t it better to save at least one life?”

The answer: “First, we have to remember that a physician cannot be 100% sure that a mother would die if she continued the pregnancy. Second, the mother’s life cannot be preferred over the child’s. Both lives are equal, both have an eternal soul and both are created by God. No one has the right to directly kill an innocent life, no matter what stage of their existence.”

The third part of that answer, God, is what inspired my prayer. The diocesan statement added: “It is not better to save one life while murdering another. It is not better that the mother live the rest of her existence having had her child killed.”

Dear Creator, please comfort this mother in her terrible time of loss and pain. So far, she has remained unidentified. It is not publicly known if she is Catholic or simply went to St. Joseph’s when her condition, pulmonary hypertension, worsened to an emergency.

The hospital’s medical staff determined the woman’s heart and lungs would not function if her pregnancy continued. In a recent letter to Bishop Olmsted, St. Joseph’s CEO, a man, and chairwoman, another nun, wrote: “If there had been a way to save the pregnancy and still prevent the death of the mother, we would have done it. We are convinced there was not.”

After weighing the urgent situation, Sister Margaret and others on the ethics committee gave the surgical team permission to abort the pregnancy. They believed they had stayed within their Catholic health care directive, which allows “operations, treatments and medications” for “a proportionately serious pathological condition of a pregnant woman … even if they will result in the death of the unborn child.”

For this, Sister Margaret is denied the sacraments of her Church and any act of public worship. If the mother is Catholic, she, too, is excommunicated, as are medical or administrative Catholic staff who, according to the Phoenix diocese, “encouraged the abortion, helped to pay for the abortion, or performed the abortion, including those who directly assisted in the performance.”

The third woman for whom I humbly pray, God, is me. Since my conversion to Catholicism 25 years ago, I have traveled a magnificent path, populated by Catholics of every political and theological stripe. I have learned the Church is its people, and they do not think as one on many aspects of Catholic teaching.

As a woman, who knows Christ included my gender in his trusted circle – yes, he did – I also have chafed under the Church hierarchy’s intractable stand on women, human sexuality and reproduction. More than once I have wept at the imposition of second-class citizenship by men who claim your authority. My heart has ached at the burden placed on poor women in developing countries, who are told by their bishops and priests that Jesus prefers they die in childbirth – or before it – rather than use contraceptives to limit their pregnancies and plan their families.

Each time I have chafed, I have prayed, sought counsel and found a way to see you, your Son and the Holy Spirit in and around the misogynistic actions of a group of male isolationists who place power and dogma over the real lives of women, men and children already born.

Through history, church fathers have promoted killing in your name. They have tolerated and absolved killing in self-defense or by soldiers in the “just wars” of nations, but they make no exceptions for abortion.

Referring to canon law, Bishop Olmsted stated, “The direct killing of an unborn child is always immoral, no matter the circumstances …”

Canon law consists of more than 1,700 canons, the majority which are man-made laws. If war is complex and worthy of moral examination, if killing in self-defense carries a qualifier, if chemotherapy that will kill a fetus is permitted to save a mother, why is abortion alone subject to a human-dictated absolute?

I know, God, that I am not alone. Hundreds of thousands of Catholics, if not millions, see this issue as I do, which is not black-and-white, as church leaders demand it must be.

Any of the tens of millions of women – millions of mothers and Catholics – who have had an abortion know more about its gravity and complexity than all of the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church can possibly know. No one in charge wants to hear their testimony.

The Phoenix diocese stated that canon law requires that Sister Margaret “be dismissed from religious life” by the Mercy Sisters unless the order’s superior determines she has been corrected and that “restitution of justice, and reparation of scandal can be resolved sufficiently in another way.”

Reparation of scandal? Dear God, for decades I have watched the hierarchy react to the scandal of sexually abusive priests, brothers, laity and some nuns in a shameful, willfully ignorant, un-Christian manner. Earlier this year, I watched the U.S. bishops work to kill a national health care reform bill – so Catholic in its mission – because anti-abortion forces insisted beyond the logic of the English language that the bill funded abortion.

God, how can I support the treatment of Sister Margaret and the mother in Phoenix and not collude in my own oppression, and that of all women and girls? If Sister Margaret McBride’s medically sound and morally compassionate decision makes her unworthy of our Church’s sacraments, what, in your name, am I doing affirming the mentally and spiritually unbalanced mindset that created and perpetuates such a twisted system of values?

Stephanie Salter can be reached at (812) 231-4229 or

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