Earlier this month, in something of a surprise, a nun at a Catholic hospital in Phoenix was excommunicated for approving a first-trimester abortion last year at that hospital to save the life of a critically ill patient. “An unborn child is not a disease,” said Bishop Thomas Olmsted of the Phoenix diocese. “While medical professionals should certainly try to save a pregnant mother’s life, the means by which they do it can never be by directly killing her unborn child.” The irony here is thick: it has taken years, sometimes decades, to bring sex-abusing priests to justice, but this observant sister, Margaret McBride, was excommunicated in a matter of months for making a compassionate and impossible decision for one of her parishioners.
This decisive action against one nun in one ethically murky case comes as an “apostolic visitation,” or investigation, of all of America’s 60,000 religious sisters is underway. Its purpose is unclear, though the man who ordered it, Cardinal Franc Rode, is well known for his views about “irregularities” in post–Vatican II religious life. “You could say,” he told a radio interviewer last year, that the investigation “involves a certain secular mentality that has spread in these religious families, and perhaps also a certain feminist spirit.” Anxious observers and commentators worry that, as a result of the inquiry, nuns will be forced to take steps backward—into the head coverings and habits, for example, that were made optional after the Second Vatican Council in 1965. They worry further that sisters who have worked more or less independently for decades will have their independence curtailed: the church has been known to remove teachers from their posts, for example, for teaching an insufficiently orthodox theology. With dioceses still hurting for cash due to settlements from the sex-abuse crisis, they worry that with the number of sisters dwindling in the West, real estate that has belonged to a religious community for generations will be sold or reappropriated by the diocese. At a time when the male leadership can be blamed for leading the church to a state of crisis—a time when the voices of women are needed more than ever—even the modest roles accorded to female clerics have come under attack. The specific reasons for the investigation are unclear (or, more probably, not public), but the suspicion, clearly, can be put in the crassest terms: too many American nuns have gone off the reservation.