Saturday, November 17, 2012

Colleen Baker at Enlightened Catholicism on Savita Halappanavar Story

Savita Halappanavar

Because I'm away from home and working on a number of non-blogging research projects right now, I'm blogging on the fly, as it were.  And so I didn't see Colleen Baker's outstanding commentary on the Savita Halappanavar story at Enlightened Catholicism when I blogged about this story yesterday.  I want to take note of Colleen's analysis this morning.

As I did in my commentary, she remembers the excommunication of Sister Margaret McBride by Bishop Thomas Olmsted in 2010 when McBride voted with the members of her hospital's ethics committee to terminate a pregnancy that, according to medical consensus, would have threatened the mother's own life if it were continued, and would not result in a viable birth.

I like Colleen's conclusion regarding Savita Halappanavar's story, which I find compelling:

It makes me sick that in this case, and I grant it's unique, that a woman lived three days in agony because a medical staff refused to act on their certain medical knowledge because a law was based on a moral absolutism which took any medical decisions out of their hands.  That is unless they wanted to do the truly humane and Christian thing and break the law.  They should have.  

A law was based on a moral absolutism which took any medical decisions out of their hands: that's the heart of the Savita Halappanavar story, it seems to me.   Moral absolutism, and rigid, unyielding, inhumane application of Catholic moral principles--of carefully selected Catholic moral principles (more on that in a moment)--trump everything outside the scope of that moral absolutism.  As if arriving at a single principle in any complicated moral case, and applying it ruthlessly and without regard for nuance and complexity, represents sound moral thinking . . . . As if the determination of the Catholic hierarchical figures who have assured that Irish law prevents a hospital's deciding to terminate a pregnancy under the conditions presenting in this case should overrule the moral determination of many Catholics who disagree with such rigid, monomaniacal moral thinking . . . . 

As Chris Morley notes in a valuable comment responding to my posting yesterday, it's important to distinguish between the Catholic people of Ireland and the Catholic hierarchical leaders of Ireland as one thinks about what happened to Savita Halappanavar.  The Catholic people of Ireland do not understand these situations in the morally absolutist way in which the hierarchy wants all Catholics to understand them--which is, as the leader of the U.S. Catholic bishops Timothy Cardinal Dolan said last week, a way centered on themes of "capitulation."

The hierarchy has drawn a line in the sand regarding highly selective moral principles having to do with abortion and same-sex marriage.  In stories like the story of Lennon Cihak in Barnesville, Minnesota, it's very apparent that the current non-capitulation stance adopted by the Catholic hierarchy regarding these two issues conflates them: if we yield an inch on either front, we forfeit everything.  We've lost the battle against modernity and secularism.

And so the same draconian punishments are now being meted out to Catholics who disagree with the hierarchical stance about marriage equality (at least in places like Barnesville, Minnesota) as have routinely been meted out to Catholics who disagree with the morally absolutist approach to abortion in complicated cases like Savita Halappanavar's: banishment.  Excommunication.  Denial of the sacraments.  Use of the sacraments as blunt instruments and weapons to bludgeon the people of God into submission to the hierarchy.  Even in the case of 17-year-old boys who attend Mass every week and participate in an admirable number of community volunteer activities as they seek confirmation . . . .

Responding yesterday to a fellow Catholic, Claudia Windal, with whom he (or she?)  disagrees  about what has been done to Lennon Cihak, someone with the username fleger9minus1 writes on a National Catholic Reporter blog thread,

The Catholic Church has every right, nay, the duty to withhold the Sacraments from one who is obstinate in serious sin. The sin, in this case, is the acceptance of the idea that same sex relationships that involve sexual activity are morally permissible. 
Whether or not you agree with Her, I'd have thought that you would know what the True Church teaches on this subject, and that the priest and bishop in question are following the proper protocol.

Think about fleger9minus1's claims for a moment: the Catholic church has the duty to withhold the sacraments from those obstinate in serious sin.  Rigidly applied (that is, as fleger9minus1 wants the principle to be applied), this principle would demand that pastors and parishes have sin-review committees akin to those that used to obtain in some Calvinist parts of the world far in the past, in which pastors and church elders went household to household to assure that no one was in a state of sin before he/she received the sacrament at the Lord's Supper.

If fleger9minus1's moral absolutism were rigidly and universally applied in Catholic parishes, hardly anyone at all would be receiving communion--since few of us are without "obstinate" sins.  But as fleger9minus1 suggests, the real problem in the case of Lennon Cihak is, more precisely, that he has accepted an idea: he has accepted an idea that same-sex relationships involving sexual activity are moral permissible.  He is obstinately sinful in his mind merely by entertaining the thought that justice and charity might demand that LGBT citizens be allowed the right to civil marriage.

What his/her comment reveals is that fleger9minus1 and the legions of Catholics who think as (s)he does want to police ideas and not precisely sins.  And those ideas are carefully selected ones.  The flegers of the church are not in the least concerned to police ideas that people of color are inferior to white people, or that the rich should thrive while the poor suffer.  What they want quite specifically to rule totally out of bounds is the idea that abortion may be a moral option in some morally difficult cases (e.g., that of Savita Halappanavar), along with the idea that same-sex civil marriage may be a morally praiseworthy goal for people who care about those who are gay to pursue.  

And this is why I say that the hierarchy and its cheerleaders have conflated abortion and same-sex marriage and placed both of them in cannot-capitulate, lines-drawn-in-the-sand, morally absolutist categories: in both cases, draconian penalties are used (and applauded by hierarchical cheerleaders) to whip Catholics sinful in their "ideas" in these carefully selected areas into shape.  

These coercive, punitive, morally absolutist approaches to abortion and same-sex marriage--or any other issue, for that matter--don't work, of course.  And the growing exodus of Catholics from a Catholic church that would punish a 17-year-old boy for even thinking about marriage equality proves how little they're working, as does the abysmal failure of the bishops who have just spent millions of dollars to defeat the current president at persuading Catholic voters with their phony "religious liberty" campaign does, too.

As I suggested above, the morally absolutist approach to abortion that now dominates the thinking of the Catholic hierarchy, which it wants to enshrine in law and force lay Catholics to accept, is not even adequate to the complexity of traditional Catholic moral thinking.  In response to what I posted yesterday about the Savit Halappanavar story, Jim McCrea offered a link to a valuable reflection by the Irish Association of Catholic Priests which points out that Catholic moral theology has long applied a principle of double effect that has very direct bearing on the case of Savit Happanavar and similar cases, including the one in which Sister Margaret McBride was excommunicated.

This principle assumes that in the messiness of real life, we are sometimes confronted with situations in which we have no choice except to choose a less than ideal option in order to achieve a more ideal option.  We do not wish for the less than ideal option, and in other circumstances, we'd avoid it.

But in some situations, that option is our only way of avoiding more evil, pain, and suffering, and of effecting an end that promises to result in less evil, pain, and suffering.  In a case in which a still-living fetus has been declared as almost certainly non-viable by sound medical consensus, and in which the life of the mother is at stake if she continues the pregnancy, the principle of double effect would maintain that one can morally decide to terminate the pregnancy in order to save the life of the mother.  

We Catholics have been told by our hierarchy that this moral principle does not obtain in any case having to do with abortion, because the issue of abortion is "non-negotiable."  It involves "intrinsic evil."  It is a do-not-capitulate moral issue.  The right to life trumps all other rights (though invoking that very principle indicates the moral quandary we create for ourselves with such rigid moral absolutism, since there are two lives at stake in situations like Savit Happanavar's).  

My point with this brief excursus: adult moral thinking that shows any signs of adult conscience involves grappling with complexity and ambiguity that the current top-down, dictatorial, and ruthlessly repressive approach of the Catholic hierarchy to sinful "ideas" refuses to see in the moral equation involving abortion (or marriage equality).  At its best, traditional Catholic moral teaching has much more respect for complexity and ambiguity than the contemporary hierarchical model has--and more more sober awareness that in many real-life situations, the choices with which we're faced are never totally ideal, anywhere we turn.

That they, in fact, involve tragedy.  And part of being an adult fully awake in the important sphere of moral decision-making is learning to face the tragedy of real life head on, and not by relying on infantile formulas spoonfed to us by authority figures . . . . 

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