What is this “mercy” you speak of?

On the issue of whether or not to excommunicate those who helped a 9-year-old rape survivor have an abortion in order to preserve her life, there appears to be dissent in the Catholic ranks:

An influential prelate said Brazilian doctors didn’t deserve excommunication for aborting the twin fetuses of a 9-year-old child who was allegedly raped by her stepfather because the doctors were saving her life.

The statement by Archbishop Rino Fisichella in the Vatican newspaper Sunday was highly unusual because church law mandates automatic excommunication for abortion. Fisichella, who heads the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy for Life, also upheld the church’s ban on abortion and any implications of his criticism of excommunicating the doctors and the girl’s mother weren’t clear.

“How should one act in these cases? An arduous decision for the doctor and for moral law itself,” Fisichella wrote, urging respect for the inner “conflict” that the Catholic doctors must have suffered before deciding on the abortion.

Earlier this month, the archbishop of Recife, where the child and her family lives, made a public announcement about the excommunication, which is the church’s most severe penalty. Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, a top Vatican official, has supported the archbishop.

But Fisichella criticized the archbishop’s public denunciation, writing that 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.”

Fisichella stressed that abortion is always “bad.” But he said the quick proclamation of excommunication “unfortunately hurts the credibility of our teaching, which appears in the eyes of many as insensitive, incomprehensible and lacking mercy.”

The Vatican teaches that anyone performing or helping someone to have an abortion is automatically excommunicated from the church, and the Vatican prelate underlined that abortion is “always condemned by moral law as an intrinsically evil act.”

“There wasn’t any need, we contend, for so much urgency and publicity in declaring something that happens automatically,” Fisichella wrote.

Writing as if he were addressing the girl, Fisichella said: “There are others who merit excommunication and our pardon, not those who have allowed you to live and have helped you to regain hope and trust.”

Good on him.

It’s worth emphasizing that the Catholic view of contraception and abortion isn’t nearly as hard-and-fast as Church higher-ups would often like to portray. There is debate and dissent even amongst Church leadership, and the Church’s position on reproductive rights has changed pretty substantially over the centuries. I don’t think the Church as a whole will be following Fisichella’s example any time soon, but it is refreshing and heartening to see that someone in the Church leadership is embracing a moral ideology that leaves room for mercy and kindness, at least toward the most vulnerable.

Of course, I don’t doubt that Fisichella would oppose abortion rights for a less sympathetic girl or woman, but sometimes you take what you can get.

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15 comments for “What is this “mercy” you speak of?

  1. March 16, 2009 at 11:19 am

    How is anyone who performs or assists in obtaining an abortion automatically excommunicated? If this story wasn’t publicized, no one from The Vatican would even know about this. They don’t know about almost every abortion, since most of them don’t make headlines.

  2. estraven
    March 16, 2009 at 11:28 am

    My impression (I read the original version of Fisichella’s declaration) is that he didn’t deny the correctness of the Brasilian bishop’s statement, but only their opportunity.
    Sounds like a reaction to the enormous scandal about that first statement, not a proposal of a doctrinal change.

    “There is debate and dissent even amongst Church leadership” This might be true. However, the catholic church does have an official position (e.g. in the Catechism, written under Ratzinger’s direction) and it is perfectly consistent with the original statement of the Brasilian bishop.
    There are no occasions in which abortion is allowed; moreover, all contraception is banned, in a very extended sense. E.g., it is forbidden even if a woman has a medical condition such that neither she nor the fetus would survive a pregnancy.

  3. March 16, 2009 at 12:15 pm

    While the Church itself does indeed have an official position, members of the church, even clergy, etc., have their own opinions, and in this instance, one such member felt a need to speak out and say what needed to be said- that the Church had effectively told a little girl to go fuck off and die, and that’s not merciful or loving at all.

    Essentially, the Church needs to pick a stance- are they merciful or not? Mercy requires seeing the world in shades of grey, which the official Church seems incapable of. This case has proven that much.

    That girl is going to need SO much counseling.

  4. Dalandra
    March 16, 2009 at 12:22 pm

    I’d also like to point to Project Rachel: http://www.hopeafterabortion.com/

    There is a clear pro-life bias on the site… But there’s also an understanding that sometimes, it’s the choice that sucks the least, and your entire life should not be ruined over it – they offer counseling, help to get back into communion with the church, and, in recognition of circumstances that may lead to the abortion, victim advocacy.

    Since it’s a project that’s run more or less independently for each diocese, the quality of the project varies – some may be little more than an extra guilt trip – but I hear a lot of them are pretty good.

  5. March 16, 2009 at 1:29 pm

    Why is anyone who helps facilitate an abortion automatically excommunicated, when other murderers (I mean the ones who fit the legal definition of murder) are not?

  6. Lis
    March 16, 2009 at 2:14 pm

    ThickRedGlasses, SarahMC: Excommunication means that the person in question can’t receive Communion. Anyone in a state of mortal sin (like a murderer) cannot receive communion, and must confess and repent to a priest to be welcomed back into communion. Anyone in a state of excommunication must do the same thing to their bishop, or the Pope. Quite often this isn’t policed–you’re just expected to know that if you’re in a state of mortal sin, you can’t go up for Communion.

    Yes, there is a difference, and I think it’s wrong–but it’s not as big of a difference as some people think.

  7. sly c
    March 16, 2009 at 2:16 pm

    excommunication, like other church law functions, only applies to Catholics. So to Red Glasses, the idea is that any Catholic should already know this. So if they have or assist in an abortion, even if unknown to anyone else, they know that they should consider themselves excommunicated. It’s entirely possible to incur an automatic expulsion, yet still attend church. It just adds another no-no, taking communion in an unworthy state.

  8. Ismone
    March 16, 2009 at 2:21 pm


    I understood that people with PCOS and other hormonal issues could take the pill–that there was a dispensation. I also thought there was a mother’s life exception, but it has been years since I have seen my catechism.

  9. March 16, 2009 at 2:48 pm

    In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, I have to mention this.

    The early Irish church used to be pro-abortion. Not pro-choice, pro-abortion. If you read the sources from pre-1100 on St. Brigid and St. Patrick, you’ll find situations like how Patrick declared that if a nun were to get pregnant and abort, she’d have to do 2 years of penance, but if she kept the kid she’d do 7 years, or how St. Brigid would perform miraculous abortions on her nuns that got pregnant.

    None of the hardcore Irish Catholics I know believe me when I tell them this, but it’s there.

  10. March 16, 2009 at 3:43 pm

    The church is getting enough flack for this right now, so they’re going to wait quietly and then discipline Fisichella once people aren’t paying attention to the case anymore.

  11. ACG
    March 16, 2009 at 4:16 pm

    I think (as a matter of fact, I’m pretty sure) this has been discussed in previous posts, but for someone significantly involved in the Catholic Church, excommunication is a bigger deal than it might seem. It’s not just refusal of communion; it’s refusal of all the sacraments, including matrimony, anointing of the sick, last rites, and even reconciliation (which can’t be administered until the person has been absolved and allowed back into the church). The person would be forbidden from participating in Mass and could, in some cases, even be forcibly removed from the church.

    It all sounds kind of pointless to some, but for someone who is deeply connected to his or her Catholic faith (which I’m guessing this woman probably is), it’s a huge deal. It’s basically being shunned from the church community (which, in some places, is pretty much the entire community) and being condemned to Hell unless the bishop decides you’re sorry enough and lets you back in.

    So, yeah, an excommunication for abortion is considerably more serious than punishment for murder in the eyes of the church. Shows you where their priorities are.

  12. estraven
    March 16, 2009 at 6:00 pm

    @Ismone: I stopped being catholic about 5 years ago, so you might be right. I know that having a spouse with AIDS is not enough justification enough to use a condom, and that you are not allowed to have tubal ligation if you have a permanent medical condition that would make pregnancy lifethreatening.
    I’m also sure you’re allowed to take the pill for medical reasons if you don’t have sex :-).

    @ACG: you’re so right. In particular, to be readmitted to church this woman would have to declare that she’s sorry. Sorry she saved her daughter’s life. I’m not sure I would be able to do that in her place (I have a 9-yr old daughter and this whole story has made my blood boil).

  13. Ismone
    March 16, 2009 at 7:10 pm


    The HIV thing is just sick. I told my dad, the non-Catholic, and he said whaa? It is one of those “got logic” moments. Really. Just like–you can remove the fallopian tube with the conceptus, but you can’t remove the conceptus from the tube. Way to condemn women with ectopics to only a 60% change of ever getting pregnant again. That is a sort of penny-wise, pound-foolish pro-life ethic.

  14. March 20, 2009 at 7:33 pm

    “you are not allowed to have tubal ligation if you have a permanent medical condition that would make pregnancy lifethreatening.”

    Depends on the bishop you ask.

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