This week Sister Margaret McBride, a hospital administrator in Arizona who authorized an abortion in order to save the life of the mother, was excommunicated by the Catholic Church. The press has made much of the double standard of justice in the Catholic Church and the perennial debate about abortion. Let me say at the outset that this essay is NOT about abortion. It is about a much more profound and far reaching issue in the church today: are we expected to be obedient to the doctrines of the church, or the teaching of Christ?
What is at issue here is what the Nun did and what the Church did. The Church knew its doctrine and acted with swift and sure justice based on that premise. The Nun knew her Bible and acted with unflinching courage and mercy, based on the truth of Scripture. Faced with the prospect of letting a baby die or letting a mother die, she followed the advice of competent doctors, the ethical guidelines of the church and the wishes of the mother. Most importantly, she followed the example of Christ.
You see, Jesus of Nazareth was confronted with just such a quandary in Mark 3:1-6. He knew the constraints of the prevailing doctrine. As an observant Jew, he was prohibited from performing work on the Sabbath. And yet he healed an ailing man, asking not about the letter of the law but its intent: “Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath or evil?”
As Christians and moral people, we throw around the word “obedience,” but what does it really mean to be obedient? To obey means to hear, to really listen, not to the words, but to the message. When my teenager is told not to go out after dark, and she goes out an hour before dark and stays out after dark, she is clearly not obedient. Similarly, when the Pharisees asked Jesus how he could heal on the Sabbath, they took the word but not the spirit of the commandment to heart. Jesus was really listening to the commandment. Jesus was obedient.
Similarly, Sister Margaret McBride violated the doctrine of the church (though it is important to note that she did not believe that she was at the time). However, she obeyed the lesson of the Lord. She was truly able to “hear” the gospel in this case. In the coming days her religious order may find that she is a bad Catholic. To my mind, and in my reading of the Scripture, she is, never the less, a good Christian.