Last month we blogged about the Archbishop of Recife, Jose Cardoso Sobrinho, who excommunicated the mother and medical team of a nine-year old girl who got an abortion after being raped and impregnated by her stepfather. Archbishop Rino Fisichella, President of the Pontifical Academy for Life, took issue with Cardoso Sobrinho's action in an article in L'Osservatore Romano (3/19/2009), "Dalla parte della bambina brasiliana". Here is a good English translation of this compassionate while still canonically accurate response from the Novantiqua blog:
On the side of the Brazilian girl
Often the debate on some questions is carried out in a closed manner, and different perspectives do not always allow us to consider how high the stakes really are. It is precisely in these moments when we must look to the essentials and leave aside for a moment whatever does not touch upon the problem directly. The case, in all of its drama, is simple. There is a nine-year old girl—they call her Carmen—whose eyes we must look into without distracting our gaze even for a moment, to make her understand how much she is loved. At Recife in Brazil, Carmen was repeatedly raped by her young stepfather, she became pregnant with twins, and she would no longer have an easy life. The wound is deep because the utterly gratuitous violence destroyed her on the inside, and made it so that only with difficulty would she ever again look at others with love.
Carmen represents a story of daily violence, and she has had a place on the pages of the newspapers only because the archbishop of Olinda and Recife was swift in declaring excommunication for the doctors that helped her to interrupt her pregnancy. A story of violence that, unfortunately, would have gone unobserved, accustomed as we are to the occurrence of facts of an incomparable gravity every day, if it weren’t for the sensation and the reactions aroused by the intervention of the bishop. The violence on a woman, already grave in itself, takes on an even more appalling character when the one who suffers it is a child, with the aggravating circumstances of the poverty and social decay in which she lives. There are no words fit to condemn such episodes, and the feelings that arise from them are often a mixture of anger and rancor that only die down when justice has really been done and there is the certainty that the punishment inflicted on the delinquent in question will be served.
Carmen should have in the first place been defended, embraced, sweetly caressed, to make her feel that we are all with her; all, without any distinction. Before thinking about excommunication, it was necessary and urgent to safeguard her innocent life and bring it up to a level of humanity for which we men of the Church should have been the professional heralds and teachers. It did not happen so, and unfortunately, this has affected the credibility of our teaching, which in the eyes of many appears as insensitive, incomprehensible, and bereft of mercy. It’s true, Carmen bore within herself other innocent lives like her own, even if they were the fruit of violence, and these lives were suppressed. Nevertheless, this is not sufficient reason to give a judgment that falls like an axe.
In the case of Carmen, life and death confronted each other. Due to her very young age and her precarious health conditions, her life was in serious danger because of the pregnancy under way. How to act in these cases? It is a tough decision for the doctor and for the moral law itself. Choices like this one, even if under different case studies, are repeated daily in intensive care units, and the conscience of the doctor finds itself all alone in the act of having to decide what might be the better thing to do. Yet no one arrives at a decision of this kind nonchalantly. It is unjust and offensive even to think so.
The respect owed to the professionalism of the doctor is a rule that has to involve everyone and cannot allow us to arrive at a negative judgment without first having considered the conflict that has been created in his inmost self. The doctor carries with him his own history and experience. A choice such as that of having to save one life, knowing that this will put another at serious risk, is never gone through easily. Certainly, some are so accustomed to these situations that they no longer even experience emotion. But in these cases, the choice to be a doctor is reduced to a mere trade, lived without enthusiasm, and soon only passively. Nevertheless, to stereotype would be unjust, let alone incorrect.
Carmen has again presented a moral case that is among the most delicate. To treat it hurriedly would not render justice either to her fragile person or to those who were involved in different capacities in the event. Nevertheless, like every unique and concrete case, it deserves to be analyzed in its particularity, without generalizations. Catholic morality does have principles from which it cannot turn away, even if it would like to. The defense of human life from the moment of its conception belongs to one of these principles and is justified by the sacredness of existence. Every human being, in fact, bears the image of the Creator impressed upon it from the first instant, and hence, we are convinced that the dignity and the rights of every person must be recognized as belonging to it, primarily that of its untouchableness and inviolability.
Procured abortion has always been condemned by the moral law as an intrinsically evil act, and this teaching remains unchanged from the very origins of the Church into our own day. In the constitution Gaudium et Spes — a document of great openness and forethought in reference to our contemporary world — the Second Vatican Council unexpectedly uses unequivocal and very hard words against direct abortion. Formal cooperation in it constitutes a grave fault which, when it is performed, automatically takes one outside of the Christian community. Technically, the Code of Canon Law uses the expression latae sententiae to indicate that the excommunication is implemented precisely in the moment itself in which the deed takes place.
There was not a need, we believe, for so much urgency and publicity in declaring a fact that is carried out in an automatic manner. A need is more greatly felt for the sign of a testimony of nearness to those who suffer, an act of mercy which, while firmly maintaining the principle, is capable of looking beyond the juridical sphere to arrive at that which the law itself foresees as the goal of its existence: the good and the salvation of those who believe in the love of the Father and of those who receive the Gospel of Christ like the children that Jesus called to his side and squeezed in his arms, saying that the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to such as these.
Carmen, we are on your side. We share with you the suffering you have experienced, we would like to do everything to restore to you the dignity which you have been deprived of and the love which you will need all the more. Other people deserve excommunication and our forgiveness: not those who have allowed you to live and who will help you to recover hope and trust, despite the presence of evil and the wickedness of many.
Francis Rocca, writing for The Washington Post, indicates that Fisichella's article contradicts Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, head of the Vatican's Congregation for Bishops, who publicly defended Cardoso Sobrinho's action and sees it as symptomatic of the divisions in the Curia. Quoting respected Vatican journalist Sandro Magister: "It is yet another sign of the disorder that reigns in the Curia...It shows that Benedict XVI is paying the price for refusing to reform the Curia."