Last May, Sister Mcbride, the hospital administrator who approved a medical procedure that resulted in the death of a 11-week old pre-born child was informed by her bishop, Thomas Olmsted, that she had excommunicated herself, and now, the hospital, St. Joseph Hospital of Catholic Healthcare West, has been given a deadline of Tuesday, Dec. 21 to resolve its conflict with the diocese over the morality of a medical procedure. Bishop Olmsted's decisive intervention and rebuke of the actions which occurred at St. Joseph’s hospital has resulted in predictable responses: Secular commentators have accused him of endangering women’s health; reformist Catholics perceive his action as just another example of ecclesiastical bullying; and many traditional Catholics argue that this is condign punishment for another Catholic institution sullying the Catholic label. While many have an opinion about the result, few have questioned the process. Is it possible that a more transparent and democratic process would not only be edifying but might reduce intra-ecclesial strife?
In the case of a conflict or dissent within the Catholic Church or an organization that seeks to be affiliated with her, bishops often employ closed-door deliberations, which offer the accused little to no opportunity to present an alternative interpretation of the events. Let us consider two instances in which Catholics have come into conflict with their bishops—the one just mentioned and the case of the apostolate in Nebraska, Intercessors of the Lamb.
In the case of Catholic Health Care West, the hospital claims that without the procedure both patients would have died and that only the mother’s life could be saved. Whether this is true or not is beyond the ken of the average lay person but surely this hospital could explain to the lay faithful how it arrived at that medical conclusion. Why not have an open forum in which Sister McBride, or her representative, is allowed to explain the medical facts of the case and how they are compliant with the directives for Catholic health care services? Even within the confines of patient privacy laws, one could discuss the facts of the case with due respect for the woman’s anonymity.
The bishop argues that the steps taken by the hospital were not justified and that the procedure employed was not as the Hospital claims—an indirect abortion, which can be licit. Bishop Olmsted insists that the hospital must accept this interpretation of events to maintain their Catholic identity. In fact, what most threatens the hospital ties to the Catholic Church is their refusal to acknowledge that the procedure was medically unnecessary. "There cannot be a tie in this debate," Olmsted wrote. "Until this point in time, you have not acknowledged my authority to settle this question."
Might it be helpful and just for the bishop or his representative to explain this position in an open forum? If the diocese believes that there were effective medical alternatives available, could these not be presented? Such an exposition of the facts would not only reduce speculation and resentment but would also be edifying. Catholic medical professionals would be given real medical options and the laity would learn a few things about canon law.
The case of the Intercessors of Lamb offered even greater opportunity for discussion since no one was accused of a mortal sin and there was no danger of revealing sensitive medical information. Yet this Catholic group, which had been endorsed by two previous Catholic bishops was suppressed by Archbishop Lucas without anything resembling due process.
According to the Foundress Nadine Brown, she was presented with a pre-written statement asking for her resignation and to this day she has not been told why she was asked to resign. She was further asked to leave the premises, although she had no money and no place to go, but not to leave the diocese. Again, no reasons were provided by her bishop. More importantly, she was never given an opportunity to suggest alternative arrangements or defend her work.
Nadine Brown, in obedience, has complied with the instructions of her bishop, but is there any reason why a vow of obedience necessitates that one not be given an explanation as well as an opportunity to present one’s case in the presence of the community? As Ms. Brown quite eloquently points out, “For “suppression” to happen in the Catholic Church, there have to be “very grave reasons.”
Moreover, the wider Catholic community, who have been asked not to offer financial support to this group nor to seek spiritual guidance from them, has been given very little information about the abnormalities, which warrant their de facto shunning. According to the diocese, the Intercessors’ lay board refused to comply with the recommendation of the bishop’s canon lawyer to address the following concerns:
Errors in governing documents; serious disunity within the community; widespread dissatisfaction with leadership; lack of safe environment policies; questionable financial practices; violation of its own proper law; use of intimidation tactics to secure obedience from members; inability of members to articulate the Intercessors’ charism; lack of financial transparency; violating norms governing alienation and acts of extraordinary administration; a flawed understanding of prayer and spiritual discernment.
While these are serious allegations, none of them alone are sufficient to justify suppression. But of course, it is not these irregularities that caused their suppression but rather refusal of the board to cede its governing authority to the bishop. According to Deacon Timothy F. McNeil, chancellor of the Archdiocese of Omaha, all Catholic institutions and apostolates in the archdiocese must have a connection to the Archbishop of Omaha. “…you cannot make the claim you’re a Catholic organization and at the same time separate yourself from the teaching, sanctifying, and governing role of the archbishop.”
Fair enough. But are there any checks on his authority? What channels are available to Catholic apostolates to appeal the decision of their bishops? What avenues are there for Catholics who want to know the facts which resulted in the exclusion of particular Catholic groups? Given the fact that the Church has reversed her decision on previously denounced persons, such as Biblical scholars using the historical critical method, there can be no doubt that these decisions are not infallible. There is clearly much about the canon laws that govern the Church that the ordinary Catholic does not understand but there is one clear precept that also needs to be understood: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and the great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you” (Matthew 20:25-26).