2009 Brazilian girl abortion case
In March 2009, a controversy arose regarding an announcement of excommunication by the Catholic Archbishop of Olinda and Recife, José Cardoso Sobrinho, following a 4 March abortion on a nine-year-old girl performed by doctors in Recife, who judged that her life was at risk because of her young age and the fact that she was pregnant with twins. The girl had been raped by her stepfather. The Archbishop announced the latae sententiae (automatic) excommunication of the girl's mother and of the doctors who performed the abortion. The National Council of Bishops demurred from the Archbishop's announcement. abortion is legal under Brazilian law in cases of pregnancies resulting from rape or in which to give birth would endanger the mother's life.
The Archbishop's position
Cardoso said that "the law of God is higher than any human laws. When a human law — that is, a law enacted by human legislators — is against the law of God, that law has no value. The adults who approved, who carried out this abortion have incurred excommunication." In an interview, he added: "They took the life of an innocent. Abortion is much more serious than killing an adult. An adult may or may not be an innocent, but an unborn child is most definitely innocent. Taking that life cannot be ignored." Cardoso explained that the rapist stepfather was not excommunicated because abortion, the taking of an innocent life, is even worse than rape. The girl too was not excommunicated, because minors are exempt from excommunication.
Reactions of members of the Government
President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a Catholic, criticized what he called the "conservative attitude" of the Archbishop in a case where the doctors were trying to save the girl's life, adding: "In this case, the medical profession was more right than the Church."
Health Minister José Gomes Temporão directed his criticism against the Catholic Church's position, describing it as "extreme, radical and inadequate". Temporão, who had already frequently clashed with the Church on questions such as abortion and state supply of free condoms, called on the participants in a national convention on women's health to acknowledge the "brilliant" work done by the medical team who performed the abortion.
Church hierarchy's response
National Conference of Bishops of Brazil
The National Conference of Bishops of Brazil disowned the Archbishop's action. In a press conference, the Conference's Secretary General, Bishop Dimas Lara Barbosa, declared that the girl's mother was not excommunicated, having acted under pressure to save her daughter's life, and that there were no grounds for declaring excommunicated any of the doctors who performed the abortion, because this depended on the degree of awareness of each of them, and only such as were "aware and contumacious" were excommunicated. The journalists present were also handed a document on excommunication written by canonist Enrique Pérez Pujol, who stressed that the penalty should not be applied amid a polemic.
The Conference's President, Archbishop Geraldo Lyrio Rocha, avoided answering a question whether the Archbishop of Olinda and Recife had acted hastily in announcing the automatic excommunication, saying only that "at no time did he want to hurt someone who was already hurting, but only wished to draw attention to the gravity of the deed of abortion in the face of a certain permissiveness regarding the life of the unborn". He said that Cardoso had excommunicated nobody, but had pointed out that abortion entails the possibility of excommunication, which is a measure intended to make not only an individual but the whole Church community take note of the gravity of the deed. He added that, although rape is not listed among the crimes that give rise to excommunication, a rapist "is outside of communion" and "in grave mortal sin". "Rape", he said, "is something so repugnant that the Church does not need to call attention to it. It is punished by the state justice system, which does not punish abortion so much." He remarked that talk of the excommunication seemed to have made people forget the crime of the rapist, who must be punished.
The Vatican's semi-official newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, hosted on its front page an article highly critical of Archbishop Cardoso's action. The author was Archbishop Rino Fisichella, President of the Pontifical Academy for Life. Fisichella said that, since excommunication was automatic, to focus on it rather than on helping and supporting the child victim showed a lack of compassion which detracted from the credibility of the Church's anti-abortion teaching. Although his article reiterated the church's condemnation of abortion, he also stated that the moral situation was difficult because of the girl's young age and the risk to her life, and praised those who "allowed [her] to live and will help [her] to recover hope and trust". In view of what the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith called manipulation and exploitation of Archbishop Fisichella's article, it issued a clarification that the article did not signal a change of doctrine, reiterating that "the Church's teaching on procured abortion has not changed, nor can it change". The clergy of the Archdiocese of Olinda and Recife took issue with Fisichella's article, stating that the local Church had been supportive of the girl and her mother; and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith ruled that the Archbishop had acted "with all pastoral solicitude". The members of the Academy gave Fisichella a vote of no confidence because of his article, and he was reassigned in the next year to the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization.
Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, then Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops and President of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, deplored what he called an attack on the Church in Brazil: "It is a sad case, but the real problem is that the twins conceived were two innocent persons, who had the right to live and could not be eliminated. Life must always be protected. The attack on the Brazilian church is unjustified." He added that excommunication of those who performed the abortion was just.
Bishop Jean-Michel di Falco of Gap, France criticized, like Fisichella, what he saw as the un-Christlike nature of Archbishop Cardoso's statement, saying that bishops should act as pastors rather than executioners. And like the National Conference of Bishops of Brazil, he denied the applicability to the girl's mother of canon 1398 of the Code of Canon Law, which imposes automatic excommunication for procuring a completed abortion, pointing out that canon 1324 states that automatic censures, such as that which applies for such abortions, do not affect those who act out of grave fear.
On 9 March 2009, Health Minister Temporão interrupted the opening ceremony of a national medical convention on women's health in Brasília in order to compliment Dr Olímpio Moraes, one of the doctors who carried out the abortion and who was in attendance. Participants gave Moraes a standing ovation.
Moraes expressed gratitude to the Archbishop for the excommunication, which, he said, had drawn attention to Brazil's restrictive abortion laws. Another of the doctors involved said that he will continue attending Mass, "praying, conversing with God, and asking him to illuminate me and my colleagues in our medical team to help us take care of people in similar cases."
- Brazil attacks church opposition to girl's abortion Stuart Grudgings, Reuters. Retrieved 2010-4-13.
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- Mgr di FALCO, évêque de Gap, sur l'excommunication au Brésil