Monday, March 16, 2009

Stepping Back From A Precipice Of Absolutism

Vatican backtracks over doctors involved in providing abortion to a raped nine-year-old
The case of the Brazilian child impregnated by her stepfather has divided the Catholic Church
Richard Owen in Rome--Times Of London

The Vatican has backtracked over the excommunication of doctors in Brazil who performed an abortion on a nine-year-old daughter who became pregnant with twins after being raped by her 23 year old stepfather. (This isn't really true because two differing opinions have been offered. One by Cardinal Re and one by Archbishop Fisichella.)

Archbishop Rino Fisichella, President of the Pontifical Academy for Life, said the excommunication not only of the medical team but also of the girl's mother had been a mistake. "Before thinking about an excommunication it was necessary and urgent to save an innocent life", he said. The excommunication had been decided on and publicised "too hastily".

Writing in L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, Archishop Fisichella noted that the excommunications had rebounded on the Church. "Unfortunately the credibility of our teaching was dented. It appeared in the eyes of many to be insensitive, incomprehensible and lacking in mercy." The girl "should have been above all defended, embraced, treated with sweetness to make her feel that we were all on her side, all of us, without distinction." (You bet the credibility of Catholic teaching was dented, because this case clearly demonstrated that unborn life is held in higher esteem than any born life.)

Last week the National Conference of Brazilian Bishops admitted that the excommunications of the mother and doctors of the girl had been wrong. It said the girl's mother had acted "under pressure from the doctors", who told her the girl's life was at stake and she would die if she gave birth because she was physically immature. (What if the mother only acted out of love for her daughter, would that make her more culpable than deciding 'under pressure from the doctors'?)

Dimas Lara Barbosa, the secretary-general of the Brazilian bishops said "We must take the circumstances into consideration". He said that equally there was "no clear case" for excommunicating the doctors, since only doctors who "systematically" conducted abortions should be excommunicated.

Earlier Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, head of the Vatican Congregation for Bishops, had backed the excommunications, saying the Brazilian bishops were right to take the view that the abortion was a sin. He said attacks on them were "unjustified." (When has the Vatican ever thought an attack on a bishop was justified?)

The girl was found to be four months' pregnant after being taken to a hospital suffering stomach pains. Her stepfather, who is alleged to have sexually abused her since she was six, has been arrested.

However Monsignor Fisichella implied that the case was exceptional, saying it did not affect the Church's ban on abortion as a whole, which was "always bad". He added: "How should one act in these cases? An arduous decision for the doctor, and for moral law itself".

The excommunications were announced by Jose Cardoso Sobrinho, the Archbishop of Recife, the city in north-east Brazil where the girl's family lives. He said that all those involved had "broken God's law".

However Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva, the President of Brazil, praised the doctors for their decision to perform the abortion, saying that "as a Christian and a Catholic, I deeply regret that a bishop has behaved in such a conservative way. In this case, medicine is more right than the Church."

The row was inflamed when Archbishop Sobrinho said he had not excommunicated the stepfather because abortion was a more serious sin than rape. Abortion is illegal in Brazil except in cases of rape or when the mother's life is in danger. (Archbishop Sobrinho is absolutely right in his absolute interpretation of absolute abortion morality which in turn absolutely precludes the notion of any Catholic mercy.)


Kind of looks like Benedict has another internal communications problem on his hands. Another apparent case of the left hand not agreeing with the right hand. In this case Archbishop Fisichella disagrees with Cardinal Battista Re, but the Archbishop got space in L'Osservatore Romano and the Cardinal didn't. I'm sure that's got to be significant. That might be my own wishful thinking because I think the Archbishop has the far better nuanced and Christian response to this particular moral conundrum.

Perhaps Archbishop Fisichella sees that the Church has backed itself into a corner in which the unborn are more valued than the born. A position which is not and never has been part of the biblical or Catholic Tradition. Maybe now someone will sit down and ask a very simple question. How did we let ourselves get backed into this corner? They may not like looking at where that answer takes them.

I wrote yesterday that this story of the Brazilian girl has not left me alone. I think part of that is because she represents a loose thread in the seamless garment of life and if one pulls on that thread one is going to start to unravel the whole seamless garment.

Jesus taught that no life is to be held as more sacred or more innocent than any other life. We were called to see Him in all lives, and just as He made decisions about who would be or not be healed, and just as He did not raise all the dead, we too have to make decisions. Those decisions become really difficult in the case of absolute moral theology because there is no room for a right answer, only more, or less, wrong ones. Yogi Berra was quoted as saying "It ain't over till it's over." With absolutism too many times "it's over before it's begun".

Instead of trying to come up with absolute moral statements, perhaps we should have been asking how Jesus made His decisions. Why did Jesus raise Lazarus and not any of the other myriad of people dieing around Him? Was it because Martha and Mary had a special place in His heart? Was it because Lazarus himself still had some part to play? Was it because of their faith in Him or was it a combination of all those things. Here's the really interesting speculation, or was it because Jesus knew a whole lot more about how things actually work and we don't.

I tend to go with the He knew a whole lot more than we do. I also think the Church frequently operates from a position of assuming things we don't know. For instance, we don't know that aborted fetuses don't have the choice of incarnating again, to the same parents, or different parents or in different circumstances all together. Allowing for this choice seems to make more sense to me than assuming they stay in some sort of perpetual limbo just because that assumption validates Thomistic theology about baptism.

Admitting we don't really know what happens to aborted fetuses or when they are ensouled or any number of other unknowns should give us pause before we start excommunicating people because they saved the life of the innocent they did know something about. Perhaps that's the whole point Archbishop Fisichella is somewhat convolutedly hinting at. The Church might need to step back from a precipice where even Angels fear to tread.


  1. Archbishop Fisichella says that the excommunication "appears insensitive...incomprehensible, and devoid of mercy." APPEARS???
    Archbishop Sobrinho says, "the good aim of saving her life cannot justify the killing of two other lives." So unborn life IS MORE IMPORTANT than born life??
    And both Archbishop Fisichella and Cardinal Re seem to think that the problem is that since excommunication is automatic in such cases public declaration of such should have been avoided. In other words, the scandal is because WE FOUND OUT ABOUT IT?
    I am not feeling better about this.

  2. coolmom, I noticed that too that it seems as if they would have preferred things stayed hush hush so no one would know about it. Nice huh?

  3. The biggest problem I have with the Vatican rhetoric on this and other issues is that it is a clear violation of the scriptures to assign one sin as greater or lesser than another. The statement:

    "abortion was a more serious sin than rape"

    clearly violates the teachings in James 2:10:

    "For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it." (NIV)

    ALL OF IT!!! That is consistent across all translations

    Liberals are accused of being "cafeteria", taking what they want, yet the biggest cafeteria catholics in regard to scripture is the Magisterial Authority. The difference is, that if they want/dont want, they make it a law and attempt to force everyone else into their sin.

    Bottom line here is that "abortion was a more serious sin than rape." is a LIE. As I have said before, the one thing we can always count on from the Magisterial Authority is for them to lie to us.

    Finally James 2:9:

    "If you are hypocritical in your attitude, however, you are committing sin, and you are betraying the Law like those who transgressed the Law."(aramaic)

    Pretty well sums it up.

  4. Carl, your points are well taken. The real object of conversion is not avoidance of a hierarchy of sins, but conversion of attitudes.

    I imagine they would have preferred Sobrhino stayed silent so that the could avoid having to scandalize the simple laity with the fact their theology now makes the unborn more important than the born. Personally, I think that attitude is heresy.