Nunsense…Below the Surface of the Sister Margaret McBride’s Excommunication

Image from NPR

So, I generally I write about sex and sexuality education topics, but I’m switching it up this post. As soon as the excommunication of Sister Margaret McBride hit the news several friends sent me links, but only in the last couple of days have I gotten to what I think most disturbs me about the instantaneous decision of a male Bishop to “immediately excommunicate” this nun.

There have been innumerable responses, reports, and blogs touching on the details and the issues of this singular act, but NPR provides a good overview of the details:

Last November, a 27-year-old woman was admitted to St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix. She was 11 weeks pregnant with her fifth child, and she was gravely ill. According to a hospital document, she had “right heart failure,” and her doctors told her that if she continued with the pregnancy, her risk of mortality was “close to 100 percent.”

The patient, who was too ill to be moved to the operating room much less another hospital, agreed to an abortion. But there was a complication: She was at a Catholic hospital.

But the hospital felt it could proceed because of an exception — called Directive 47 in the U.S. Catholic Church’s ethical guidelines for health care providers — that allows, in some circumstance, procedures that could kill the fetus to save the mother. Sister Margaret McBride, who was an administrator at the hospital as well as its liaison to the diocese, gave her approval.

The woman survived. When Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted heard about the abortion, he declared that McBride was automatically excommunicated — the most serious penalty the church can levy.

And Jill at Feministe provided an excellent analysis of the ethical perplexities of this decision. She ended her blog with this:

…if it’s the Catholic perspective that a mother must die along with the fetus if she’s in a situation like this, then fine — pregnant Catholic women who follow this line of belief (and I’m going to guess there aren’t too many when it comes down to it) are welcome to refuse treatment, including abortion, in dire circumstances. But there’s a real conflict if a hospital adheres to a religiously-based morality system that disallows legal treatments to prevent death or physical harm — especially where there is no option of moving the patient to another hospital.

And Catholics for Choice have provided a press release debunking Bishop Ehrich’s insistence that the only option in Catholic canonical law was to excommunicate Sister McBride.

Still, I have not found what I have been hoping to read in anything that I have encountered. The NPR report begins to put this incident in conversation with the hundreds if not thousands of Catholic Priests who have committed sex crimes against children. Rev. Thomas Doyle, a canon lawyer offered this:

no pedophile priests have been excommunicated. When priests have been caught…their bishops have protected them, and it has taken years or decades to defrock them, if ever.

“Yet in this instance we have a sister who was trying to save the life of a woman, and what happens to her? The bishop swoops down [and] declares her excommunicated before he even looks at all the facts of the case,” Doyle says.

So, what’s the difference between Sister Margaret McBride and the Priests accused of sexually violating children? Clearly there are many reasons why these the singular actions of Sister McBride are not comparable to the continuing and countless actions of some Priests throughout the Catholic church, but the disciplinary actions should certainly be compared.

This is my admittedly biased, non-Catholic opinion, and it is likely necessary that I state that I do not believe the the actions of any single Priest, Bishop, etc. speak for all individual Catholics. I know that there is much beautiful diversity and thoughtfulness throughout the Catholic Faith. However, the actions of this Bishop do speak for the Catholic Church as an institution.

These Priest are men in positions of power who are protected by a patriarchal hierarchy that has a history of rarely admitting mistakes and who’s word is literally considered to be the human utterances of God’s will. In the interest of protecting power, specifically the power of the Catholic Church and the men within, and maintaining the image of infallibility, the violation young bodies and souls has been covered up and perpetuated. The difficult choice that Sister McBride made directly confronted the patriarchal control over women and women’s bodies.

Laws, state or church mandated, that make abortion illegal or inaccessible to women, that remove agency and choice from a pregnant woman are meant to control, belittle, and dehumanize woman–they are acts of violence in themselves. And the actions of Bishop Ehrich are meant to make clear that this violence will be maintained not just in Pheonix, but wherever the Catholic Church has influence. The Bishop claims that this is the “only” proper response to the Sister’s actions, when in reality, it is the only response that makes clear who has and who will continue to have power in the Catholic Church.


  1. Lyndsey says:

    A great New York Times editorial about Sister Margaret McBride:

  2. freewomyn says:

    Great post, Lyndsey. I think that you pointed out a very important gender/power dynamic here. The priests who molest little kids are given a slap on the wrist, not excommunication. But a woman who speaks out to save the life of another woman is going to be cut off. This isn’t so different from what happened with the founding of the church. Mary was Jesus’s right hand gal, but Peter and his cronies were jealous. So they called her a whore and then told everyone that they were the only ones who could save souls. I’ve obviously oversimplified it. But it’s an ongoing part of organized religion. Women are disenfranchised.

  3. I, too, am Catholic and have personally vowed not to take communion until Sister Margaret McBride, the nun who was excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church in December, once again takes her communion. Probably the defenders of child rapists in Rome don’t care, but it’s important to me…

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