Blog Post

Anti-Catholic Op-Ed in New York Times Sparks Controversy

Commentary by Susan Brinkmann, OCDS Staff Journalist

Controversy is raging over an ill-informed and blatantly anti-Catholic op-ed that appeared in the New York Times yesterday condemning the Church for the automatic excommunication of a Phoenix nun who authorized an abortion in a Catholic hospital.

The article, entitled, “Sister Margaret’s Choice” and written by Nicholas Kristof, concerns Sr. Margaret McBride, the senior administrator of St. Joseph’s hospital in Phoenix who allowed an abortion to be performed on a woman who was suffering from pulmonary hypertension. The hospital claimed the “treatment” was necessary in order to save the woman’s life.

However, the Church explicitly forbids any cooperation in the procurement of an abortion, and by willfully authorizing the abortion to take place, Sr. Margaret incurred an automatic excommunication upon herself.

“The Roman Catholic hierarchy is entitled to its views,” Kristof writes, erroneously equating Church teaching to the “views” of bishops. “But the episode reinforces perceptions of church leaders as rigid, dogmatic, out of touch — and very suspicious of independent-minded American nuns.”

Of course, he can’t resist dragging the sex abuse scandal into the mix, and asks why Sr. Margaret was excommunicated from the Church while priests who abuse minors are given a pass and allowed to “receive the sacrament.”

First of all, no one in a state of serious sin should be receiving Communion and anyone who repents – even the excommunicated – can be received back into the Church. Second, it’s inaccurate to suggest that priests get a pass just because they aren't automatically excommunicated. The standard penalty for priests who are accused of sexual abuse is immediate removal from ministry and, if convicted, in many cases expulsion from the priesthood.

Kristof then goes on to paint Sr. Margaret in the most glowing terms he can muster: “Sister Margaret made a difficult judgment in an emergency, saved a life and then was punished and humiliated by a lightning bolt from a bishop who spent 16 years living in Rome and who has devoted far less time to serving the downtrodden than Sister Margaret. Compare their two biographies, and Sister Margaret’s looks much more like Jesus’ than the bishop’s does.”

Quoting a letter written by Dr. John Garvie, chief of gastroenterology at St. Joseph’s Hospital to The Arizona Republic, Kristoff continues her canonization.

“Everyone I know considers Sister Margaret to be the moral conscience of the hospital,” Dr. Garvie wrote. “She works tirelessly and selflessly as the living example and champion of compassionate, appropriate care for the sick and dying.”

Kristof ads: “Dr. Garvie later told me in an e-mail message that ‘saintly’ was the right word for Sister Margaret and added: ‘Sister was the ‘living embodiment of God’ in our building. She always made sure we understood that we’re here to help the less fortunate. We really have no one to take her place.’”

Kristof then boasts that he has written several times about the “gulf between Roman Catholic leaders at the top and the nuns, priests and laity who often live the Sermon on the Mount at the grass roots. They represent the great soul of the church, which isn’t about vestments but selflessness.”

Commenting on Kristof’s diatribe, Catholic League president Bill Donohue points out the man’s not-so-hidden agenda, which has been to convince Catholics that he likes them while categorically condemning the institutional Church.

“. . . (H)e has condemned the ‘patriarchal premodern’ Vatican as an ‘out of touch’ and ‘self-absorbed’ ‘old boys’ club’,” Donahue writes. “Today’s article is no different.”

What Kristof just can’t seem to “wrap his head around”  is the fact that by her involvement in the abortion decision, Sr. Margaret automatically excommunicated herself,” Donohue says.

“What really gets his goat is the Catholic Church’s unwavering position that no abortion can ever be justified. On par with the Times, Kristof loathes the Church for its stance on abortion, contraception and women’s ordination.”

Unfortunately for Kristof, he mistakenly believes that the “true” Church is the grassroots one,” Donohue explains.

“While it is true that lay Catholics play an integral role in the Church—just as reporters at the Times play a critical role for the newspaper—the decision making body in the Church is the Magisterium (the pope in communion with the bishops), just as the editorial board makes the decisions at the Times.

“In Kristof’s bifurcated world there are two Catholic Churches. He needs a reality check: there is but one Roman Catholic Church.”

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1. What does the Church teach regarding excommunication? (See the Catechism No. 1463 available here: )

2. Why does the Church explicitly state that those who cooperate in the sin of abortion automatically incur excommunication? (See Catechism No. 2272 )

3. Is there a Scriptural basis for excommunication? (Read 1 Gal 8; 1 Cor 16:22; 1 Cor 5: 9-13)