Thursday, January 27, 2011

Is Saving A Life Dogma Or Love?

In Phoenix, the Roman Catholic Church fired one of its hospitals after it performed an abortion to save a woman's life. Nicholas Kristof writes:

To me, this battle illuminates two rival religious approaches, within the Catholic church and any spiritual tradition. One approach focuses upon dogma, sanctity, rules and the punishment of sinners. The other exalts compassion for the needy and mercy for sinners — and, perhaps, above all, inclusiveness.

The thought that keeps nagging at me is this: If you look at Bishop Olmsted and Sister Margaret [a member of of the hospital's ethics panel who was excommunicated for authorizing the abortion] as the protagonists in this battle, one of them truly seems to me to have emulated the life of Jesus. And it’s not the bishop, who has spent much of his adult life as a Vatican bureaucrat climbing the career ladder. It’s Sister Margaret, who like so many nuns has toiled for decades on behalf of the neediest and sickest among us.

I wish it were that simple. It's easy to say that the hospital should've been more flexible in this case. I would've voted with Sister Margaret. But Jesus preached about personal righteousness as well as peace and justice. The gospel and therefore the church are both about authority and love. The right balance was easy for Jesus to strike, less so for his imperfect followers. For instance, the Vatican's against capital punishment as well as abortion. Kristof is discomfited by its enforcement of dogma because it excommunicated Sister Margaret. But how would his column have read if the church had excommunicated a prison guard who participated in an execution?


Juan C. Marrero said...

Interesting post. The situation as descibed is a true tragedy, and not, one hopes, a routine hospital dilemma.

The RCC might better have ackowledged, through silence perhaps, that the most righteous course here is not self-evident and that those directly involved, after prayerful consideration, should have proceeded in a manner yielding the least harm. (The RCC has the unfortunate habit of anwering even those questions that have not been asked.)

Recently, Benedict XVI took a less dogmatic approach when he suggested that it might be better than not for an HIV+ male prostitute to use a condom to prevent further infections. Certainly, the Pope meant no celebration of prostitution by this hint of "relativism".

Similarly, saving the mother's life here cannot be seen as endorsement of abortion. In this sad case, one must either trust in God's merciful love or give in to despair. A veritable "Sophie's Choice".

Barry Fernelius said...

You wrote, "But how would his column have read if the church had excommunicated a prison guard who participated in an execution?"

That's a bit of a stretch. I think that there's a very high probability that a Roman Catholic prison guard has already participated in an execution. Yet, I can't imagine a situation in which the Roman Catholic church would bother to excommunicate such a person, can you? And isn't that the whole point of the Kristof article?

Fr. John said...

Thanks, Juan; and point taken (and anticipated!), Barry. For consistency's sake the RCC probably should take a more aggressive line on capital punishment. My guess is that its failure to do so isn't a matter of hypocrisy or politics as much as the sheer numbers -- around a million abortions a year vs. what, a score of executions?

Again, I'm with St. Joseph's and Sister Margaret. What bugged me about Kristof's piece was the association of the pro-life position with dogma and bureaucracy. We may not agree, but the RCC sincerely believes its abortion stance is about charity, justice, and love.

J.C.Marrero said...

What bothers me is that excommunication (capital pusnishment for the soul)would be invoked here. From the initial post, the bishop seems to have treated Sr. Margaret as if she worked in some abortion mill.

This situation reminds of the incident depicted in the movie "127Hours"--a desperate situation with an unsatisfactory solution.