Thursday, December 9, 2010

10-12-12: 3rd Sunday of Advent (A)

Third Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 35:1-6,10 / Psalm 146 / James 5:7-10 / Matthew 11:2-11
Contemporary Moral Problems and that Slippery Slope (in two parts)
Part II

When Jesus hears that John the Baptist’s been arrested for his disruptive protest against the king’s marriage, he praises the Baptist as the greatest of prophets. But might we not read into this nuanced scene a bit of Jesus, not as zealous “Baptist,” but as consummate politician? Note: Jesus does not take up John’s protest; Jesus seems little concerned with the king’s marital arrangement; he lets that political quagmire go – he has other fish to fry. By lauding John without endorsing his message, Jesus gains the admiration of the Baptist’s disciples and many decide to follow him rather than continue the Baptist’s cause. It’s been my contention in these reflections that the pope’s recent remarks, vis-à-vis the use of condoms in certain situations, can serve as a corrective paradigm, resisting the increasing tendency on the part of some leading Catholics to adopt a more Baptist-type fundamentalism regarding contemporary moral issues. Life is often messy. The Church, in her two thousand years of experience, has become well acquainted with life’s ambiguities and has developed a nuanced way of dealing with thorny moral issues. The Church understands that in seeking to do the right thing, it’s not simply a question of what we do, but why we do it, and realizing that the circumstances in which we act are often themselves mitigating factors in judging the morality of our actions.

A few months back Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix issued a statement declaring that Mercy Sister, Margaret McBride, incurred automatic excommunication when she gave her consent, as head of a hospital ethics committee, to permit the abortion of an unviable fetus in order to save the life of the baby’s mother. Prescinding from the intriguing ethical question of how the bishop was privy to the confidential information that the abortion had taken place, what could have been the purpose of the bishop’s pronouncement? He said he wanted to avoid scandalizing the faithful by making evident the teaching of the church (as if we didn’t already know) that direct abortion is always immoral, always inherently evil. Yet, if there had not been an abortion, both mother and baby would have certainly died. Even the most conservative of moral theologians has suggested that in the case where a fetus is unviable and the mother would die if she attempted to carry the pregnancy to term, there might be ample reason to judge the abortion permissible. In fact, since this story first came to light, there has been significant medical testimony that, because of the mother’s particular medical condition, the abortion was indeed indirect and therefore permissible. The point, however, is not to argue medical particulars but to question the bishop’s wisdom in publicizing what he did. Remember: the excommunication, if there was one, would have been automatically incurred – and thus not dependent on the bishop exercising his judgment or his authority. I can’t help but think that, in a less extremist atmosphere, if a bishop was pressured into making a statement regarding this case he would have first expressed his sympathy to the parents for the loss of their unborn (though unviable) child, pronounced the abortion indirect (unfortunate, but justified) and encouraged the mom to rest assured she did all she could have done, but now it was time to go home and be a mother to her other children. Did Bishop Olmsted really think his pronouncement would win a slew of converts or make any of us feel more secure in our faith if no abortion had been performed, and both baby and mother had died, leaving those other young children motherless - all to avoid scandalizing the faithful? That slippery slope toward fundamentalism just got steeper – even if the terrain in Phoenix seems, at first, to be pretty flat.

There’s a slew of other moral issues that come to mind as worthy of discussion: frozen embryos, euthanasia, assisted suicide and advanced directives, not to mention Cardinal Burke and pro-choice politicians - but space for these reflections has run out. Let me know if you’d like me to continue...

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