The Excommunication of Sister Margaret

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Nicolas Kristof takes up cudgels today on behalf of Sister Margaret McBride, the administrator at St. Joseph’s hospital in Phoenix who last December was excommunicated by Bishop Thomas Olmstead for agreeing to the termination of a pregnancy in order to save the mother’s life. The story, broken by the Arizona Republic this month, already has its own Wikipedia entry, which provides a sufficient guide to the casuistical debate over whether the Bishop had to do what he did.

It’s a species of debate familiar in religious traditions with highly articulated systems of law (e.g. Rabbinic Judaism, Shiite Islam). In the Christian world, it’s what gave casuistry a bad name. Christianity began as, among other things, a protest against legalism: “…for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” (2 Corinthians 3:6) The justice in not aborting a non-viable fetus and letting the mother of three die is simply lost on most people. In the court of public opinion, Bishop Olmstead cannot win.