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The reconciliation of Sr. Margaret McBride

December 12, 2011

Despite the great attention that excommunication generates in the secular media, actual instances of excommunication are rare. Rarer still are remissions of excommunications for, as we all know, some offenders never repent. Most Church or Church-related officials have little experience in dealing with excommunication matters, and most reporters have zero experience reporting on them. Thus, when what looks like an excommunication (rare) remission (rarer still) makes the news, one should treat such news, welcome in itself of course, with some caution.

ILOTL readers will recall (see e.g. my posts of 21 May 2010, 1 Jun 2010, 19 Jun 2010, 21 Dec 2010, and 23 Dec 2010) the case of Sr. Margaret McBride, rsm, the religious whose consent, as administrator of St. Joseph’s Hospital in Phoenix, was apparently necessary for the commission of an abortion in that hospital back in 2009. Against many who argued that Sr. Margaret’s actions could not, as matter of law, result in her excommunication under Canon 1398, I argued that her reported actions could result in her excommunication at least as an accomplice to abortion per Canon 1329. Prescinding from my long-standing misgivings about the operation of automatic censures in canon law, I argued that nothing in the reports available to the public suggested that Sr. Margaret had not met the requirements for excommunication in her case. As to whether Bp. Olmsted’s early public statements about Sr. Margaret’s canonical status sufficed for a formal declaration or imposition of excommunication, my sense was that we had too little information to decide either way; in any event, the bishops later confirmed the status of Sr. Margaret as excommunicated, a development that raised canonical issues about Sr. Margaret’s future in her religious community.

There the matter rested for a year or more.

Last week, however, per the Catholic News Service, St. Joseph’s Hospital stated that Sr. Margaret has “met the requirements for reinstatement with the church and she is no longer excommunicated. She continues to be a member in good standing with the Sisters of Mercy and is a valued member of the St. Joseph’s executive team.” This seems like good news, of course. The whole point of excommunication is to bring offenders to repent of their action. But the generation of the announcement itself seems odd to me.

The announcement comes from neither the Diocese of Phoenix (pace 1983 CIC 1355-1357) nor from Sr. Margaret’s religious superiors (pace 1983 CIC 573, 654, 696), but rather from St. Joseph’s Hospital, that is, it seems, from her employer. Now, whatever one makes of the process for remission of sanctions possibly automatically incurred and apparently later formally declared or imposed—and we do not have enough information to speculate on those permutations—the one group that is not empowered to bring about the reconciliation of anyone under an ecclesiastical sanction is that person’s employer. So, it seems, someone else must have acted here, and that someone else must have communicated their actions to Sr. Margaret and/or to St. Joseph’s Hospital.

Given the extraordinary publicity that was associated with this matter and the direct statements made on it by the competent ecclesiastical authorities, I think it would be good to know, officially and free of ambiguous phrases like “reinstatement with the church”, that Sr. Margaret’s status has been rectified. Considering that sanctions themselves operate in the external forum, appropriate news of the remission of a high-profile censure can, I think, be offered or confirmed without endangering the internal forum; doing so here would broadly contribute to the common good.

That said, I hope the report about Sr. Margaret’s status is accurate, and that we can put this sad episode behind us.

PS: I’ve seen nothing in these recent reports suggesting that Bp. Olmsted’s revocation of the Catholic identity of St. Joseph’s Hospital would be impacted by changes in the canonical status of Sr. Margaret.

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