Matthew 7:1

March 16, 2009



A difference of opinion within the Catholic Church over a case of rape in Brazil calls attention to the destructive role that legalism and rhetoric can play in situations that are difficult enough on their own. This dialogue involves a nine-year-old girl who was raped – her stepfather is accused – and who underwent the abortion of twin fetuses after doctors determined that giving birth to the child would seriously endanger the girl’s life. I adhere to the Catholic position on abortion, but I don’t claim to have a pat answer for a girl who finds herself in such a situation, nor for her mother, who had to decide what to do. And the destructive rhetoric that I referred to stems from folks on both sides who think of abortion as a black-and-white  issue. I don’t advocate relativism, but things like rape occur in the real world to real people, and that is the context for our discussion of abortion, whether we like it or not. At the same time, the question of the beginning of human life is far from settled, and that, too, must color the discussion.

In this case, Jose Cardoso Sobrinho, the archbishop of Recife, Brazil, publicly announced that the Catholic doctors who had participated in the abortion, and the girl’s mother, had incurred excommunication. Archbishop Sobrinho also said that the accused stepfather had not been excommunicated and offered the absurd, misogynistic rationale that abortion is a more serious sin than rape.

The church’s approach to this case provoked a strong negative reaction, but despite an initial endorsement from the Vatican, the National Conference of Brazilian Bishops said last week that the excommunications were improper, because they did not “take the circumstances into consideration” – a reference to the stress under which the girl’s mother acted and the fact that the doctors involved do not regularly perform abortions.

But Archbishop Rino Fisichella, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, went further than that. Writing in L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, he upheld Catholic teaching on abortion but criticized the church in Brazil for acting in the first instance as though it were Thomas Becket tossing King Henry out of the fold – without regard to the “arduous” decision that was involved in this case, saying that such situations require “mercy.” Instead, Fisichella said, the girl “above all should have been defended, embraced, treated with sweetness, to make her think that we were all on her side – all of us, without distinction.”  As though he were speaking to the girl, Fisichella wrote: “There are others who merit excommunication and our pardon, not those who have allowed you to live and to regain hope and trust.”

I don’t know anyone who has formed an opinion on abortion, one way or the other, out of meanness or callousness, but the emotional outbursts that accompany the public debate can be hurtful and are never helpful. Abortion is a difficult, heart-wrenching matter, complicated by seemingly unsolvable psychological, social, and economic problems. The intransigence and name-calling that often accompany the debate over this issue – to say nothing of the violence that has at times erupted – does not help.  Archbishop Fisichella wrote that the inner conflict experienced by the doctors in this case should have been taken into account before they were held up to public oprobrium. I think that’s good advice to apply to any discussion of abortion.


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