Sr. McBride: Intent to kill?

 |  NCR Today

I have a confession to make. Catholic moral teaching has me utterly confused.

It's the recent news of a Mercy Sister's decision to allow an abortion to take place that has brought the confusion upon me. And I think Sr. McBride, who let doctors in a Phoenix hospital go forward with a procedure to separate an 11 week old fetus from her mothers womb in late 2009, must have been faced with something similar to my confusion.

Here's some background. I live at a Catholic Worker House. As part of our way of life here we try (and frequently fail) to live out Christ's mercy. Two of our guideposts are Matthew 5 and 25, particularly the bits that say 'love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you' and 'what you do for the least of these, you do for [Christ].'

Those two exhortations bookend the entire point of our enterprise. We provide meals and social services day in and day out because we want to serve Christ, who is always so visibly present in those considered least in society. As an extension of that service we speak out against all forms of violence because we feel compelled to extend Christ's love to everyone, even those who might be considered hostile to us or our safety.

This service and love lead us to a life of nonviolence - a life where we consider intentional harm towards any person, from the innocent child in the womb to the adult about to commit violence, simply wrong.

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Here's where the confusion starts to come in. In order for harm to be grievously wrong, it obviously must involve intent. Although you can certainly blame someone for violence they didn't intend to occur, that sort of violence isn't the same. At least I think so. But how do you determine when an act of violence is intentional?

I can't imagine McBride's quandary as she decided whether to allow the abortion to occur or not. The end of whichever path she chose was death. Yet, was there a choice that wouldn't have involved an intentional act of killing?

Professor Cathleen Kaveny over at the Commonweal blog seems to think so. Simply put, Kaveny argues that McBride could have acted with the intent to separate the fetus from its mother's womb, but without the intention to kill the baby. As such, Kaveny says "one could make a case that it is fair to go ahead with the procedure without much difficulty."

Does that make McBride's action morally acceptable? I don't know. But it's an argument that at least seems to have some merit.

Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of the Phoenix diocese says McBride was automatically excommunicated from the church for her action. Yet, if McBride acted without the intent of killing the baby, why would that be the case?

Our moral teaching allows soldiers to kill people, so long as their intention is otherwise. St. Augustine said one could kill an enemy, so long as your intention was to love the enemy at the same time. Why does McBride's action, which may not have involved intentional killing, and which saved the mother's life, deserve such immediate condemnation?

Maybe it's that Catholic Worker background of mine, but a moral teaching that full heartedly supports the destruction of war and its supposedly non-intentional killing, yet condemns McBride's action just confuses me.


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March 24-April 6, 2017