More excommunications miscommunication

Another coda to the terrible story of the 9-year-old girl in Brazil whose serially abusive stepfather impregnated her with twins, leading her mother to take her for an abortion on the advice of doctors who said her life was at serious risk. The story shocked Brazilians, but it was made worse when the local archbishop announced that the girl’s mother and the doctors were excommunictaed. (There were early reports that the child was declared excommunicated, too, but as she is under 17, that wasn’t canonically possible.) A top Vatican official, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, publicly backed the Brazilian churchman, Archbishop José Cardoso Sobrinho of Olinda and Recife, according to this CNS story.


Now another top Vatican official, Archbishop Rino Fisichella, President of the Pontifical Academy for Life and an apparent up-and-comer in Rome, wrotes in L’Osservatore Romano that the excommunications had been a mistake. Richard Owens of the London Times writes from Rome:

“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.”


Owens also notes that last week the National Conference of Brazilian Bishops said the excommunications of the mother and doctors were wrong–the girl’s mother acted “under pressure from the doctors,” who said the child’s life was at risk, and a church official said only doctors who “systematically” conducted abortions should be excommunicated. (The doctor in this case had publicly defied the archbisop and said he would continue going to Mass.)

Fisichella and the Vatican were no doubt keenly aware of the gap between the act of mercy toward the schismatic bishops of the SSPX and this apparent lack of pastoral concern. But his words are just right in this case, IMHO.


PS: A CNS story just moved with the latest, and more details. Some good stuff:

Fisichella criticized the way Archbishop Sobrinho handled the situation.

“Only because the archbishop of Olinda and Recife hastily declared the excommunication of the doctors” did this story of despicable, yet all too common, violence against girls and women make newspaper headlines, he said.

Fisichella said that because of the Brazilian girl’s young age and her “precarious state of health her life was in serious danger” by continuing the pregnancy.

“How should one act in these cases?” he asked, underlining that the girl’s case represented an “arduous decision for doctors and moral law itself.”


Doctors deserve respect for the difficult decisions they must often grapple with, he said, adding that no one nonchalantly makes life-and-death decisions and to even suggest it “is unjust and offensive.”

He said the Catholic principle that upholds the sanctity of life is unshakeable and “abortion has always been condemned by moral law as an intrinsically evil act.”

However, because excommunication is incurred automatically at the moment a direct abortion is carried out, “there was no need to declare with such urgency and publicity a fact that occurred automatically,” he said.


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posted March 16, 2009 at 1:13 pm

Interesting that even the RCC is in confusion over this excommunion thing. Also, what about the rapist, the step-dad? I’ve had it explained to me that he will most certainly go to Hell, UNLESS he does something to confess and get absolution? Whatever, apparently he stays in enough good with the church to be able to attend Mass and get communion? (in jail, where he should be).
My hat’s off to the doctor…says he’ll still attend Mass! :o)

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Charles Cosimano

posted March 16, 2009 at 1:50 pm

How could they manage to dent a credibility that does not even exist?

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posted March 16, 2009 at 2:29 pm

This becomes more and more interesting (unfortunately) with each news cycle. But I would take issue with the statement of Fisichella,
“Only because the archbishop of Olinda and Recife hastily declared the excommunication of the doctors” did this story of despicable, yet all too common, violence against girls and women make newspaper headlines, he said.
No, quite clearly this was in the news cycle before the excommunication was announced. It was in the news cycle before the abortion took place. So the Archbishop’s statement is demonstrably false.
Perhaps some good can be salvaged from this catastrophe if the Church and Brazilian society will begin to take a long, hard look at the apparent culture of child abuse that is present in that nation.

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Gerard Nadal

posted March 16, 2009 at 8:10 pm

Surely we can find more fertile ground for ridiculing Bishops! Why beat a dead horse?

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Little Bear

posted March 16, 2009 at 11:37 pm

Sorry, Gerard, the Bishops need to be ridiculed—because their example makes a mockery of Catholicism. The Catholic religion now looks like a religion of LAW—like the Law the Jewish Pharisees upheld at any cost. The slavish attendance to the LAW, that Paul preached against (since we are in the Year of Paul). Excommunications should never be issued wholesale—but should be studied well, case by case!
And why is it—that rape is not punishable by excommunication—or warfare? Because these crimes are usually committed by men. But abortion (even to save a child’s life) is punishable by excommunication and it is foisted on women. Did the Archbishop who issued the excommunications even bother to visit the mother of the little girl (and she also has a mentally challenged 14 year old who has been raped also) and did the Archbishop visit the little girl to see her himself?
There is no law that does not have exceptions to it. And that includes Canon Law—which is man-made law. This instance should have been the exception—but the Archbishop was too dense to see it. Until Archbishops/Bishops stop sitting like the Norse god, Thor, hurling their ecclesiastical ‘thunderbolts’ down on the people and act more like the servants, Christ commanded them to be—they should be ridiculed for being less than the One they are called to put on and imitate—Christ, Jesus our Lord.

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Gerard Nadal

posted March 17, 2009 at 12:06 am

Little Bear,
Ouch! Uncle! Uncle! ;o)
On a couple of other threads on this topic I spoke extensively of how Church law provides in this case for saving the life of the mother and that there seemed to be a rush to judgment. A Bishop does not need to proclaim excommunication in abortion. It’s automatic (laetae sententiae). But, the person needs to be aware of the penalty beforehand for it to apply.
In this case, nobody is excommunicated because of the circumstances. That too is Canon Law. My point was that the Bishop was already ridiculed. I don’t square ridicule with the abundance of Scriptural passages dealing with fraternal correction. It’s just as easy to write the Bishop a letter pointing out one’s concerns and offering one’s prayerful best wishes as it is to go online and ridicule him.
One shows respect for his Office and builds the Body of Christ. The other simply tears at the Bishop and tears down the Church. Which do you think is more productive? When I wish to effect a change in my children’s behavior, I sit down with them and explain what I want and why. I don’t ridicule them. I don’t denigrate them. I build them up and let them know that my esteem of them is unconditional. To which do you think they are drawn? Which do you think binds us up as a family?
These men sacrificed family, career, etc. for a life of service in a Church where the only thing people do is bitch and moan about how their sacrifice and service is never enough. Maybe they don’t always get it right, but then neither do I as a husband and father. Do you? Does any one of us? I don’t say don’t criticize. But do it charitably and constructively. And couple it with praise for things done well and gratitude for a life of service.

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posted March 17, 2009 at 8:59 am

The story states,
(Abp Fisichella) said the Catholic principle that upholds the sanctity of life is unshakeable and “abortion has always been condemned by moral law as an intrinsically evil act.”
However, because excommunication is incurred automatically at the moment a direct abortion is carried out, “there was no need to declare with such urgency and publicity a fact that occurred automatically,” he said.
Abortion is an evil act if it is an act of murder, not otherwise. Killing in circumstances in which the killing is not murder is not sin. Were that not the case, every soldier goes into battle at the expense of his own soul; every police officer patrols the street facing damnation. Not every killing is murder; not every abortion is murder. Therefore, abortion is not “intrinsically,” but may be extrinsically, evil. In this instance, I can’t see how it was.
Failure to embody the love of Christ, which is one of the purposes of the Church, however, is intrinsically evil, I think.

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Little Bear

posted March 17, 2009 at 8:42 pm

There is an older duty each Archbishop/bishop is called to, a duty that has existed long before there ever was a Canon Law—the law of mercy, compassion, and love. And precious little was demonstrated by the Archbishop in this situation.
And as long as there are Catholics like you who keep excusing them—they will never realize that they are accountable to US—the People of God. They are not accountable to the Pope, but to us. This is their first responsiblity. They are called to be shepherds, not medieval lords. We need more pastoral bishops—there are precious few of them.
And Gerard, I work with enough Bishops to know that their lifestyle is better than anything you can imagine. Don’t feel too sorry for them.

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Dr John Smythe

posted March 18, 2009 at 12:29 pm

What is intrinsically wrong is the fact that no Catholics today seem to have any idea of what is right or wrong and why.
Bishops need to ensure that basic Catechism is taught. Period.
Bishops also need to publically state excommunications so people remember what is right and wrong.
“deacon”scott, since when is abortion NOT an act of murder?! (Ectopic pregnancy aside)
The saddest part of all this is no one seems to remember the baby that was murdered.

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posted March 18, 2009 at 5:20 pm

Interesting post and comments.
If we want to examine Catholic “law”, the excommunications were invalid because the individuals involved meet the standard of “lack of liberty”: “Considered from a moral and juridical standpoint, the guilt requisite for the incurring of excommunication implies, first, the full use of reason; second, sufficient moral liberty; finally, a knowledge of the law and even of the penalty. …
(2) Lack of liberty resulting from grave fear: Such fear impairs the freedom of the will, and while it exists contumacy or rebellion against the laws of the Church cannot be presumed.”
I am a mother, and if a doctor found that my daughter’s life was in danger by bearing a child (or in this case, twins), then I would experience “grave fear” for her life. If an abortion was required to protect her life, then I would take that step. I pray I am never in this horrific situation.
I think, Dr. Smythe, that’s what DeaconScott meant when he said this was not murder. If you kill in order to save another’s life, it is not considered to be murder – just like if you shot and killed someone who had intruded into your home and held a knife to your spouse’s neck.
These twins, according to the doctor who treated the pregnant child, were endangering her life. Since we have not reviewed her medical records, I feel we must believe the doctor’s diagnosis and any subsequent discussion of the morality of the abortion has to stem from the assumption that the doctor was correct and carrying the pregnancy to term may very likely have killed this child. That is the moral dilemma that the mother faced, and that is the context for judging her decision to abort the pregnancy.

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Dr John Smythe

posted March 19, 2009 at 10:42 am

Sorry to say it, but that is a modern error.
The Catechism is quite clear:
1790 A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience. If he were deliberately to act against it, he would condemn himself. Yet it can happen that moral conscience remains in ignorance and makes erroneous judgments about acts to be performed or already committed.
1791 This ignorance can often be imputed to personal responsibility. This is the case when a man “takes little trouble to find out what is true and good, or when conscience is by degrees almost blinded through the habit of committing sin.” In such cases, the person is culpable for the evil he commits.
1792 Ignorance of Christ and his Gospel, bad example given by others, enslavement to one’s passions, assertion of a mistaken notion of autonomy of conscience, rejection of the Church’s authority and her teaching, lack of conversion and of charity: these can be at the source of errors of judgment in moral conduct.
1793 If – on the contrary – the ignorance is invincible, or the moral subject is not responsible for his erroneous judgment, the evil committed by the person cannot be imputed to him. It remains no less an evil, a privation, a disorder. One must therefore work to correct the errors of moral conscience.
In short, the ignorance has to be invincible. ie you grew up on an isolated island somewhere and never had the opportunity to know what is right and wrong beyond your daily existence. In reality, how often can this happen in today’s world!?
Growing up, living and being highly educated in a Catholic country is no excuse (in the case of the doctors and the mother).
As for “feeling” we have to believe what others tells us is not an excuse either. How often have we heard “seek a second opinion”? To ignore this is sheer folly.
How can we be sure what moral dilemma the mother faced? Only she (and her confessor (which would have to be a Bishop now, as a Priest can not act in Persona Christi for the very grave mortal sin of abortion) and God) can know. It could have been fear of her child’s life, it could have been the embarrassment, it could have been anger, it could even have been fear of the cost, it could be many more various things. We will never truly know (until the Final Judgment).

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posted March 23, 2009 at 10:18 pm

I look forward to the day when the Catholic leadership recognizes the full humanity of females. Does the Church really believe that a nine-year-old girl should put her life at risk to carry and deliver her rapist’s twins? Does the Catholic Church have no shame?

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