The Catholic church: A house divided?

When a church is divided over a matter of faith there are no easy answers, particularly when the divide is over some very fundamental principles that sometimes involve matters of life and death. Our cover story is reported by Barry Petersen:

It's a battle between Catholic and Catholic, a battle between the past and the present. A battle centuries old that rages yet today.

In Phoenix, it's a battle between Bishop Thomas Olmstead and the city's oldest hospital, St. Joseph's, whose staff includes a respected nun.

It began in November 2009, with a pregnant 27-year-old mother of four who, in her 11th week, was admitted with severe pulmonary hypertension. Her doctors say it was dramatically worsening because of the pregnancy.

"The hormonal changes of pregnancy, the changes in blood flow in this patient created a situation where her heart began to fail," said Dr. Charles Alfano, St. Joseph's chief medical officer. "And that failure, despite the efforts of the physicians, progressed to the point where she was very near death."

Modern medicine presented two equally grim options: Terminate the pregnancy and save the mother, or lose both mother and child.

"And as a result we made the difficult decision, but the decision that we had to make, to terminate the pregnancy," said Dr. Alfano.

"No matter [what] you guys would have done, the child would have died?" asked Petersen.

"Correct," said Dr. Alfano.

Before moving forward, doctors consulted the hospital's ethics committee, which included Sister Margaret Mary McBride. The committee approved terminating the pregnancy, which doctors did ... saving the mother's life, losing the fetus.

In the months following, word of events at St. Joseph's reached Bishop Olmsted, whose role includes being the moral leader of Catholics in his diocese, and he began his own inquiry, speaking with - among others - Sister Margaret.

"I sat down and visited with her," recalled Bishop Olmstead. "So, I gathered information from her directly. Now, that didn't involve her giving me the charts and things. But in that description I did not hear, not equal concern for the mother and for the child. The child was not, nor was the uterus - infected, or there was nothing wrong with that. So, what was directly intended was to kill the unborn child."

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The Bishop ultimately found that officials at St. Joseph's "had not addressed in an adequate manner the scandal caused by the abortion," and for that he decreed, "St. Joseph's Hospital is no longer Catholic."

As for Sister Margaret, Bishop Olmsted informed her that she'd been excommunicated.

That prompted a lot of comment in the press. But, as she has consistently in this matter, Sister Margaret said nothing.

Father Thomas Doyle, who specializes in church law and once worked for the Vatican's Embassy in Washington, D.C., said, "The excommunication of the sister, I thought, was an extremely cruel act. I can't describe it in any other way."

Father Doyle is now an outspoken critic of the church, and says what happened in Phoenix points to an unfolding trend within the church.

"It tells me that within the hierarchy, there is a great deal of fear, that there is almost an obsession with control, that there's an inability, I think, to deal with the 21st century.

"The bishop in Phoenix is not unique," Father Doyle said. "There are many, many like him."

Take Archbishop Allen Vigneron in Detroit, who has spoken against the American Catholic Council, a group promoting change within the church, including the ordination of women.

Or the U.S. Conference of Bishops: They've critiqued and investigated the writings of Sister Elizabeth Johnson, a feminist theologian whose book "Quest for the Living God" has become popular among liberal Catholics.

Some see these events - taken together - as symptomatic of a larger effort to reverse reforms set down by the 1960s advisory council that came to be known as Vatican II - reforms which, back then, were seen as an effort to bring the church closer to modern times.

"There was a sense that we should try to bring Catholicism up to the 20th and then the 21st century," said Gary Macy, a professor of theology at California's Jesuit Santa Clara University. "In all kinds of ways - in scholarship, how do we relate to psychology? How do we relate to political science? How do we relate to modern ethics? All of those questions were opened up. There was much more involvement of the laity in the liturgy, so people felt much more involved. There were less spectators and more participants."

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