Time.com - July 18, 2009
A Sequel to the Case of the Pregnant 9-Year Old
By Jeff Israely / Vatican City
The Catholic Church (and Pope Benedict XVI) were presented with a public-relations powder keg in March when news broke that a 9-year-old Brazilian girl underwent an abortion after she'd been raped and impregnated with twins by her stepfather. Catholics from São Paulo to Paris were outraged by the swift public declaration of the local Archbishop, José Cardoso Sobrinho, that the girl's family as well as the doctors who performed the abortion were automatically excommunicated. Monsignor Rino Fisichella, a solidly traditionalist Rome prelate considered to be close to Benedict, tried to soften the church's approach to the case by writing in the Vatican's official newspaper L'Osservatore Romano that the girl "should have been defended, hugged and held tenderly to help her feel that we were all on her side." Two weeks ago, the Vatican announced that Sobrinho, who had been serving past retirement, was stepping down. And that's where the church stood. Until now.
In a tucked-away "clarification" published on page 7 of a recent edition of L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican produced a document that unequivocally confirmed automatic excommunication for anyone involved in an abortion — even in such a situation as dire as the Brazilian case. It settles any questions about the absolute nature of church doctrine on the matter of abortion — but it could potentially reignite the p.r. firestorm. [original story follows below]
Church conservatives have steadfastly defended Sobrinho, who had rejected Fisichella's criticism of insensitivity and said he was simply stating Catholic doctrine in response to reporters' questions. The L'Osservatore Romano document makes it more than likely that the Pope has felt it necessary to publicly defend the Brazilian prelate's hard line, ordering up the clarification to straighten out any confusion created by Fisichella's article.
The brief document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the orthodoxy office that Benedict personally led before becoming Pope, defends Sobrinho's "pastoral delicacy" and leaves no wiggle room on the standing of the family and doctors who carried out the abortion. "Formal cooperation in an abortion constitutes a grave offense. The Church attaches the canonical penalty of excommunication to this crime against human life," reads the statement, which widely cites past Vatican documents. "The Church does not thereby intend to restrict the scope of mercy. Rather, she makes clear the gravity of the crime committed, the irreparable harm done to the innocent who is put to death, as well as to the parents and the whole of society." (While the doctor and the girl's parents were excommunicated, the girl, being under age 18, was not subject to automatic excommunication.)
While the doctrinal stance breaks no new ground, the question now, like in March, is a matter of emphasis. Why, months after the difficult issue had largely faded from view, did the Pope feel compelled to return to a case that could leave the church looking coldhearted? A senior Vatican official says the Pope was forced to back up the Brazilian bishop. "[Sobrinho] was furious," says the official. "There was the impression that the local bishop had been subjected to immediate scrutiny by the Holy See."
But beyond the constant tug-of-war between Rome and local dioceses, there is a more important principle at stake. "We have laws, we have a discipline, we have a doctrine of the faith," the official says. "This is not just theory. And you can't start backpedaling just because the real-life situation carries a certain human weight." Benedict makes it ever more clear that his strict approach to doctrine will remain a central pillar to his papacy, bad publicity be damned.
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Time.com - March 6, 2009
Nine-Year-Old's Abortion Outrages Brazil's Catholic Church
By Andrew Downie / São Paulo
The case of the pregnant 9-year-old was shocking enough. But it was the response of the Catholic Church that infuriated many Brazilians. Archibishop Jose Cardoso Sobrinho of the coastal city of Recife announced that the Vatican was excommunicating the family of a local girl who had been raped and impregnated with twins by her stepfather, because they had chosen to have the girl undergo an abortion. The Church excommunicated the doctors who performed the procedure as well. "God's laws," said the archbishop, dictate that abortion is a sin and that transgressors are no longer welcome in the Roman Catholic Church. "They took the life of an innocent," Sobrinho told TIME in a telephone interview. "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."
The case has caused a furor. Abortion is illegal in Brazil except in cases of rape or when the mother's life is in danger, both of which apply in this case. (The girl's immature hips would have made labor dangerous; the Catholic opinion was that she could have had a cesarean section.) When the incident came to light in local newspapers, the Church first asked a judge to halt the process and then condemned those involved, including the 9-year-old's distraught mother. Even Catholic Brazilians were shocked at the harshness of the archbishop's actions. "In this case, most people support the doctors and the family. Everything they did was legal and correct," says Beatriz Galli, the policy associate for Ipas Brasil, an NGO that fights to give women more say over their health and reproductive rights. "But the Church takes these positions that are so rigid that it ends up weakened. It is very intolerant, and that intolerance is going to scare off more and more followers."
Brazilian devotion to the Catholic Church has declined over the past several years. Whereas Brazil was once an almost entirely Catholic nation, only 74% of Brazilians today admit allegiance to Rome, with large numbers, especially the urban poor, having defected to Protestant Evangelical sects. Many more water down their Catholicism with dashes of African religions such as Candomble or spiritist beliefs such as Kardecism. Only recently has the decrease in Catholic affiliation seemingly leveled off.
Evangelicals have not projected a united pro-life platform in Brazil, certainly not one as monolithic as the Catholic Church's. But at least one major sect, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, has taken a stance that showcases its differences with its Catholic rival. The Universal Church's television channel TV Record recently aired spots featuring a woman declaring, "I decided who to marry. I decided to use the pill. With my vote I decided who'd be elected President. I decided to work so that I won't be discriminated against. Why can't I decide what to do with my own body? Women should be able to decide for themselves what's important."
The public-relations campaigns of the Catholic Church's rivals do not impress Archbishop Cardoso Sobrinho. He told TIME that the Vatican rejects believers who pick and choose their issues. Rome "is not going to open the door to anyone just to get more members," he said after comparing abortion to the Holocaust. "We know that people have other ideas, but if they do, then they are not Catholics. We want people who adhere to God's laws."
In Brazil, that hard line carries over into public life and government policy. While equally devout neighbors Mexico, Colombia and Uruguay have taken steps to give women more of a say in the matter of terminating pregnancies, Brazilian public opinion supports the status quo, and the country's Congress last year voted overwhelmingly to reject a modest attempt at decriminalizing abortion. The advances that have taken place are mostly local initiatives carried out almost surreptitiously, such as the move by São Paulo states to offer the morning-after pill and heavily discounted contraceptive pills at state-run pharmacies.
President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva did make a halfhearted attempt to spur a national debate last year, calling abortion a public-health issue — even as he declared himself steadfastly against it. But with the Church quick to stifle such talk and the general public not sufficiently engaged to demand action, the debate never took off. In truth, abortions and unwanted pregnancies are a sad constant in Brazil. Although abortion is illegal, an estimated 1 million women each year have one. The poor are forced into clandestine clinics or take medication, while the better-off are treated by qualified physicians at well-appointed surgeries known to anyone with money and overlooked by colluding authorities.
That secrecy has a price. More than 200,000 women each year are treated in public hospitals for complications arising from illegal abortions, according to Health Ministry figures. Those who don't have the courage or the money to be treated take the pregnancy to term. Although the fertility rate has fallen considerably in Brazil (from 6.1 children in 1960 to about 2 today), 1 in 3 pregnancies is unwanted, according to Dr. Jefferson Drezett, head of the Hospital Perola Byington, Latin America's largest women's health clinic. Meanwhile, 1 in 7 Brazilian women between the ages of 15 and 19 is a mother, and the average age at which women have their first child has fallen to 21, from 22.4 in 1996, according to a government-funded study.
Those numbers shock the Catholic Church. But the Church's response to the Recife rape and abortion has shocked public opinion. Some Brazilians hope the controversy may compel the country to deal seriously with an issue that affects so many of its citizens. "Brazil wants to be a world leader, but the government can't guarantee equality for women," says Galli. "This is not a topic that anyone wants to debate."
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