Toward clarifying the canonical status of Sr. Margaret McBride
As more of the record concerning the canonical situation of Sr. Margaret McBride comes to light, it is good to see some surmises about her status being confirmed and/or various gaps in our information being filled. Specifically, we now know that Bp. Olmsted declared the excommunication of McBride following the disclosure of her role in procuring the abortion of a baby at St. Joseph’s hospital in 2009. The fact of the bishop’s declaration has some important implications for McBride’s canonical status in religious life and in the Church.
First, whatever was McBride’s status per 1983 CIC 1331 § 1 as one (probably) laboring under a latae sententiae excommunication (and, yes, I am happy to renew my call for the elimination of automatic sanctions), her status as one laboring under a declared excommunication is governed chiefly by 1983 CIC 1331 § 2. While she is not dispensed from the general obligations of religious life, the Divine Office, or the Sunday obligation, McBride is now prevented from attempting to perform any ministerial functions in the Eucharist (reader, etc.), from participating in the sacraments or sacramentals, and from obtaining indulgences (c. 996). Also, under pain of invalidity, she cannot perform acts of ecclesiastical office (c. 145) in her religious institute or in the Church. Hers is, in short, and is intended to be in light of her grave offense against the life of an innocent child, quite a debilitated state.
Second, McBride’s reconciliation (for which we should all pray) is not simply a question of moral theology and treatable, therefore, in sacramental Confession; her juridic status is now changed to the point where, for the remission of her sanction, Olmsted must play a role either directly (c. 1355 § 1, n. 1) or in consultation with another local ordinary (c. 1355 § 1, n. 2).
Indeed, in this one respect, I would differ with Olmsted’s decision to keep the declaration of McBride’s excommunication confidential, lest presbyteral confessors who might be approached by McBride for reconciliation mistakenly think that they still have the authority to address her juridic situation under Canon 1357. They do not have that authority (outside of danger of death, of course, per c. 976).
Third, while the dismissal of McBride from her religious institute would seem an appropriate next step, I think her superiors should proceed with caution. Yes, Canon 695 mandates the dismissal of any religious found guilty of violating Canon 1398 against abortion. But, I would suggest that McBride was not, strictly speaking, excommunicated for procuring an abortion, but rather, for lending formal and necessary cooperation toward an abortion, that is, for being an accomplice to abortion and thus liable to excommunication per 1983 CIC 1329 § 2. There are differences between committing a crime, and being an accomplice to one committing crime.
My suggestion of, to put it colloquially, some “wiggle room”, under can. 695 in McBride’s case is consistent not simply with the plain text of the law(s), but with the fact that the other two ‘mandatory dismissal’ canons referenced in can. 695 (namely, cann. 1395 and 1397) describe offenses that, while also very serious, come in degrees of wrong-doing and thus, by their nature, allow (indeed, require) religious superiors to look at the concrete facts of the case to determine whether a religious’ involvement in such deeds warrants dismissal. Interestingly, Canon 695, which ties a superior’s hands in some cases that might warrant some flexibility, is not found in Eastern law.
Abortion, on the other hand, is an all-or-nothing type of crime. If a religious is guilty of abortion, he or she can and should be dismissed. But, the all-or-nothing character of abortion suggests that where, within the law, some way of looking at the concrete facts exists, that way should be used. In poenis benignior est interpretatio facienda. Regula Iuris n. 49, in VI° (1298). Besides, if McBride should prove obdurate in refusing to repent of her role in the death of an innocent human being, Canon 696 provides more than sufficient basis for her expulsion from religious life, and sooner than later at that.
I’m sorry that the canonical implications of killing a pre-born baby take our attention just before celebrating the Nativity of Our Lord. That’s why we call it “this Valley of Tears”, no? Christmas blessings on all my readers. Oremus pro invicem!