Thursday, March 26, 2009

Abortion and the Catholic Church. Almost a year ago I published a post on here in which I expressed my horror at the story of Joseph Fritzl, the Austrian man who imprisoned and raped his own daughter. That case is back round again with Mr Fritzl in court for his crimes. Another recent story caught my attention which has left me similarly aghast, but its closer to us here in Brazil. Maybe, you heard about it. It's the story of the 9 year old girl, pregnant with twins, who was allegedly raped by her stepfather. The girl and her family live in Rachel's home state (Pernambuco) and the aftermath of her abortion - supposedly, on twins in the womb - has caused a furore here and abroad. The controvesy? The Catholic church excommunicated the doctors who performed an abortion on her, in spite of the fact that the girl's fragile frame would not have withstood the pregnancy. Abortion is illegal in Brazil, but it is permitted if there is significant risk to the mother - as there was in this situation. To this, the Catholic line was that she have a c-section, but the babies should live. The Catholic church did not excommunicate the man alleged to have raped her.

I've just read in Veja magazine an interview with the Bishop of Recife who announced the Catholic church's position - that the Doctors and mother, as those who approved and carried out the abortions, should be excommunicated. It is extremely revealing to me - not only on how the Catholic church functions as regards to its laws, but also how the official position is now at odds with the majority of Catholics in the country.

Here are a few pointers from his interview that I found interesting. What this case represents is very much a clash of two worldviews and the Bishop articulates this stating early on that God's law must come first and that the life of an unborn child has as much value as a grown human adult. As it happens, the Catholic church excommunicates people for nine different reasons, but rape is not included in the list. Abortion is included because it is considered to be wilful murder against an innocent. The Bishop goes onto explain some of the other 8 possible reasons for excommunication - physical harm to the Pope, apostasy and desecrating the bread and wine. In other words, excommunication can occur for (to a non-believer) seemingly trivial things while other crimes, so heinous, "appear" to go unpunished by the church.


In a small way, I have grudging respect for the Bishop. He is caught between a rock and a hard place and he is simply the mouthpiece for church law - it was not, per se, actually his own decision, rather the decision of Rome. Also, as I am a Christian who is often misunderstood by people who have no faith and as someone who has made and continues to make seemingly odd decisions based on my beliefs that there is a God and we can know what he wants us to do based on the Holy Sprit and the Bible, I relate to the Bishop and his quandary. He is, in his way, trying to do the right thing. Through the prism of Catholic law and in such a context as this inflammatory story, his words seem calaous and harsh. I can also see in a him a genuine desire to stop abortion (and rape and murder) - as he recounts several "positive" stories of mothers being talked out of potenitally reckless (and illegal) abortions by Catholic Doctors.

I guess what I'm really trying to say is that my critique would not be against him as a person. (Veja opens the article by saying that there are those who base their lives on the "Doctrine of Love" and others who live out their lives because of the "Love of Doctrine" - the Bishop being an example of the latter). Rather, I think, it would have to be against Catholic doctrine which elevates certain acts into an untouchable territory liable for excommunication. For me, this contradicts biblical teaching which suggests every sinful act is an abomination to God - be it, on the one hand, a seemingly insignificant "white lie" or, on the hand, a Joseph Fritzl-style lifetime of abhorant acts. Therefore, we all stand accused. But the Christian message is that absolutely anyone can claim forgiveness through Jesus Christ, regardless of their past transgressions. In this sense, none of us can ever be "excommunicated" - Jesus accepts all of us in spite of our position vis-a-vis any established church. My prayer is that everyone in this story - be it those in or out of the Catholic church will come to realise this.

One final note to show what this case means for Brazilian society. The editorial of the Veja issue concluded by saying how thankful it was the church was seperated from the state so that Catholic law was not punishable through state channels. Likewise, the Minister for Health roundly criticized the church's position as being impractical in real life and out of touch with modern society. And one letter from a reader caught my attention. It said: "I cannot believe the Catholic church has taken a decision out of the middle ages. Is it any wonder the protestant churches are growing in this country like a plague?"

POST-SCRIPT: I should say, that I consider myself to be very much "pro-life" in my beliefs, but that being "pro-life" includes honouring the lives of all involved including the little girl as well as the unborn children. Therefore, in this extreme case - in which a young girl is unwittingly pregnant at an age in which she lacks the maturity and even physical development to care for children, and with the health risks involved, I would say that the decision to take an abortion is at the very least understandable. The question is, if I was a Catholic clergyman - would I be able to say that? And if so, would I lose my job?

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