Take the case of the dreadful rape of a young girl of nine in Brazil recently.
Let's recap the facts first.
The Lifesite reports them as follows.
The step-father of a child abused her and she became pregnant with twins. The mother wanted her to have an abortion. In most countries in these circumstances, the child would have been placed under the protection of the State until the situation had been fully investigated, and someone neutral appointed to be her guardian, but for whatever reasons this didn't occur.
The Church urgently counselled against precipitate action, and was preparing to go to court to protect the interests of all of the children involved. The hospital the girl was admitted to, after a proper medical assessment, refused to carry out an abortion at that point. Before the Church could act, the mother approached another hospital who agreed to proceed with an abortion, and once it was done, the second hospital declared after the fact that her life had been in danger.
All of those involved (save for the child) were presumed to be automatically excommunicated in accordance with canon law, and the local bishop 'declared' the fact in view of the circumstances. The doctors concerned stated that they would ignore the excommunication and go to church as normal (and presumably receive)...
Clearly this was a tough situation, but the person on the ground with knowledge and authority to act in the situation was the local ordinary, Archbishop Jose Cardoso Sobrinho. So you would expect his brother bishops and the Vatican to back him up unless the decision was clearly and outrageously incorrect, right?
Well, on the plus side, Cardinal Re of the Congregation for bishops did come out in support a few days after the decision was announced.
That didn't stop a few French bishops publicly coming out against the decision. Then last week the Brazilian bishops conference came out and said the mother shouldn't have been excommunicated because she was under pressure from the doctors involved in the case, and that the case against the doctors was weak because only doctors who 'systematically' conduct abortions are excommunicated. Really? Not an obvious reading of the relevant provisions of canon law.
And now Cathnews reports that Archbishop Fisichella, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, has an article in L'Osservatore Romano arguing that "mercy" should be applied in the case of Brazilian doctors who carried out the abortion and criticising Archbishop Sobrinho for declaring them.
Talk about mixed messages!
I don't read Italian well enough to know if the article is being spun unduly in the media (including Cathnews). In a way it doesn't matter - pretty much any concessions on the case are bound to be interpreted as a backdown.
Yes the issues are complex, and yes the reality is that in any case of excommunication the pressures on people and other circumstances are taken into account, and maybe that is all the article was trying to say. The problem is that the doctors involved in the case have been publicly defiant of their Ordinary, claiming they will ignore the excommunication. And now it all sounds like the Church backing away from its strong pro-life stance, and even worse, not backing up its bishops when they make the tough calls.
This should have been an opportunity to put out some strong messages:
- that the Church totally condemns child abuse and rape, and those who carry it out or permit it to occur must face the consequences of their actions both in the courts of the land and before God;
- that the Church is deeply concerned about the terrible breakdown of modern family life that permits such horrors to occur;
- but that there are three lives at stake here, not just one;
- that given that, no precipitate decisions should have been taken, but rather carefully considered ones based on concern for the spiritual and physical health of all of those at risk;
- that sometimes in the interest of truth, hard calls have to be made.
And really, why not just abolish Bishop's Conferences altogether - their primary purposes seem to be to suck up resources into dodgy projects, weaken practice by abolishing holydays and traditional penances, and ferment dissent.