In Bureaucracy, History, Politics on May 23, 2010 at 1:24 pm

On May 22, 2010, Nicolaus Copernicus, the 16th-century astronomer whose findings were condemned by the Roman Catholic Church as heretical, was reburied by Polish priests as a hero, nearly 500 years after he was laid to rest in an unmarked grave.

The burial occurred at the cathedral where he once served as a church canon and doctor. And this, in turn, proves how far the church has come in making peace with the scientist it once condemned as a heretic.

It was Copernicus who taught that the Earth revolves around the Sun–and helped usher in the modern scientific age. For the church, this removed Earth and humanity from their central position in the universe.

Copernicus (1473-1543), died as a little-known astronomer working in what is now Poland, far from Europe’s centers of learning.

The reburial and celebration occurred 18 years after the Vatican rehabilitated the Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei, who was persecuted in the Inquisition for carrying the Copernican Revolution forward. In 1992, Pope John Paul II, said that the church was wrong in condemning Galileo’s work.

Religious institutions are by nature highly conservative–especially if they stretch far back into history. Even religions as radically different as Catholicism and Islam share the belief that there was once a “Golden Age” to which their followers must return if they are to find God’s favor.

Which is why most religions are unwilling to change their doctrines–and behavior of their members. Consider the following news story:

In November, 2009, a 27-year-old woman who was 11 weeks pregnant with her fifth child was admitted to St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix. The pregnancy was causing severe health problems for the woman, who suffers from pulmonary hypertension.

Her doctors warned her that if she continued the pregnancy, she risked an almost 100% chance of death–and the fetus would die as well.

So the ethics board of the Catholic hospital deliberated with the woman and her doctors and decided this was an exception to the code of Catholic health care directives that govern hospital ethics and care. One of the members of the ethics board was Sister of Mercy Margaret McBride, a top administrator at the hospital.

The abortion was performed, and the woman survived.

But in May, 2010, Phoenix Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted learned of the hospital’s actions. Taking a “fetus first, mother last” stance, he decreed that Sister McBride–and every other Catholic involved in the decision–were automatically excommunicated. This included the patient.

Said Olmstead in a statement: “”We always must remember that when a difficult medical situation involves a pregnant woman, there are two patients in need of treatment and care, not merely one. The unborn child’s life is just as sacred as the mother’s life, and neither life can be preferred over the other.”

Olmsted does not have direct control of the hospital. But his decisions on matters of faith and morals can regulate whether the hospital and its employees maintain a Catholic status.

St. Joseph’s reassigned Sister McBride to a lower-ranking administrative post. But the hospital also defended the decision, saying the directives–which it adheres to–do not cover every possible situation.

In a letter to the The Arizona Republic on May 18, Dr. John Garvie, chief of gastroenterology at St. Joseph’s, called Sister Margaret “the moral conscience of the hospital” and said, “There is no finer defender of life at our hospital.

“What she did was something very few are asked to do, namely, to make a life-and-death decision with the full recognition that in order to save one life, another life must be sacrificed. People not involved in these situations should reflect and not criticize.”

In this case, as in the case of Nicolaus Copernicus, what we see is an “I-Am-the-Law” decision made at the highest levels of an organization by men (literally) who utterly lack scientific training and/or experience but whose power to make decisions remains absolute.

Nicolaus Copernicus was branded a heretic by men who knew-and cared–nothing about astronomy. What they did care about was the primacy of the Catholic Church over the lives of others–and their own privileged positions within it.

They feared that all of this would change if people started to believe that the Earth–and the Church–did not lie at the center of the universe. (And for people of that era, our own solar system meant the entire universe.)

Similarly, a Catholic bishop who cannot become pregnant or a parent, is allowed to make decisions governing the lives of women who can. A man who utterly lacks the medical training to save a life is authorized to punish experienced physicians who save lives daily.

In this we see the constant bureaucratic tension between those who are forced by cruel fate to make life-or-death decisions, and those who make decisions based on power and the arrogant belief that they–and they alone–speak for God.

  1. […] CHANGE AND CHURCHES May 2010 3 […]

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