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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.