Catholic Bishops’ Theological Mistakes on Abortion Come at a High Price

Cardinal Dolan gives opening prayer at Trump's Republican National Convention on August 24, 2020.

The facts do not seem to be in dispute: a man from Vitória, Espírito Santo, Brazil raped his ten-year-old niece. By the time her pregnancy was discovered, her local jurisdiction declared that she was four days over the limit and the fetus was scant grams over the weight permitted for an abortion. She was transported 1000 miles to Recife, Pernambuco where she had an abortion as allowed under the circumstances by Brazilian law. 

In a decent, just world, the perpetrator of this morally reprehensible act of rape and incest would be tried, found guilty, and sent to prison for psychiatric help and personal rehabilitation. The child involved, who reported that her uncle had raped her repeatedly since she was six, would receive the medical treatment she needed, the psychological care she deserved, and the privacy to deal with it. Instead, the little girl was denied local medical attention on a technicality. She had to travel a great distance which meant that her pregnancy was further along by the time she actually had the abortion. 

People gathered outside the hospital to express their views in favor of and against the procedure. An anti-abortion advocate, who had worked in President Bolsonaro’s Ministry of Women, Family and Human Rights, revealed the child’s name in the press. Her young life, already turned upside down, was turned inside out. 

I observe this case from a distance. But it resonates with other such heinous examples of patriarchal thinking and doing that are common in the United States. The US is embroiled in deadly struggles because of systemic racism, a health crisis far beyond the magnitude of the virus in other developed countries because, like Brazil, the U.S. government’s response has been inadequate and absurd. Thirty million people are unemployed while the stock market is surging upward. So to hear Catholic religious leaders rail about abortion is to witness theological mistakes in the making. 

Three years into the Trump government, anti-choice rhetoric is baptized and confirmed by religious sycophants like Timothy Cardinal Dolan. U.S. Catholic bishops pass over Trump’s egregious immigration policies, economic injustice to people made poor, and racist rhetoric simply because the President professes to be anti-abortion. This singular focus on the fetus makes bad situations like that of the little girl in Brazil much worse. I’ve seen these dynamics play out repeatedly, with Catholic bishops intervening to fuel the fires rather than acting like pastors. Their suitability for ministry is in deep question. 

In the recent Brazilian case, Archbishop Walmor Oliveira de Azevedo Belo Horizonte, the president of National Conference of Bishops of Brazil (CNBB), opined: “Sexual violence is terrible, but the violence of the abortion is unjustifiable, considering all existing resources available to guarantee the lives of both children.” I beg to differ with him. Sexual violence and all that surrounds it is so terrible that abortion is not only justified, but to be recommended in this case despite whatever resources might be available for the child (singular) involved. A grievous crime is only made worse by the theological analysis and priorities that extend the suffering and give the wrong message about what’s at stake.  

First, the primary ethical issue in this case isn’t abortion but sexual violence. It wasn’t a one-off thing, but, according to the child, the uncle sexually abused her for years. Where were the bishops then? The courts will decide guilt or innocence of the perpetrator, but the reality is that no ten-year-old should even know what sexual assault is, much less how long they’ve experienced it. What happened to her was evil. 

Pregnancy at age 10, which is at least a year before many girls even begin to menstruate, is a biological and psychological event for which no child is prepared. There aren’t enough resources in the world to justify burdening a child with that experience. The issue at hand is the well-being of a child who’s in a physical and psychological state of extreme vulnerability. Focus on that child helps to prioritize what to do and why. Recourse to abstract concepts like “right to life,” “abortion on demand,” and “fetus is a person” skew the theological conversation away from the pastoral reality at hand and toward a patriarchal parochial norm that violates the pregnant woman once again.

To be clear, there is only one child abused in this case, not two as the bishops would have it. The fetus is simply not a child no matter how much the bishops wish that were the case. There is no consensus on when life begins, but there is consensus that children are to be nurtured not violated. A fetus is part of the reality here, but it is not a person and there is an important difference. 

Second, contra the Archbishop and his fellows, abortion is more than justified in this instance. In fact, justification is not necessary, as ethicist Rebecca Todd Peters spells out clearly in her insightful book, Trust Women: A Progressive Christian Argument for Reproductive Justice.   Women have been coerced into ‘justifying’ their reproductive choices for generations even when they’re raped. It’s the unpregnant Catholic bishops who need to justify having the nerve to do anything but support this child at her time of deep distress. Given that none of them will be involved in raising a child who would result from this crime, they have no right to proclaim what the person most deeply affected should do. 

Now that the girl’s name is public, it would simply be a matter of time before the offspring would be known publicly, an unspeakable burden to impose on any child and family. No one can say with certainty when human life begins. But we can say with absolute certainty when humane treatment ends. Forcing a child to bring a pregnancy to term against her wishes and well-being is clearly inhumane.

The bishops are the ones who need to ‘justify’ what moral standing they have to express an opinion, what ecclesial authority they possess to try to make their way normative. If they were to update their moral theology, they would learn that in postmodernity, when women are full and free members of society, women must evaluate and choose responses not in a vacuum but in the ravages of patriarchy. 

With a little study, the bishops would soon learn that abortion is viewed very differently when cast in contemporary scientific terms and in light of women’s oppression than when it’s seen in their medieval cosmology. A pregnancy is not a thing to be evaluated but a relationship to be respected in a family constellation of which bishops play no part. Poor, young women of color suffer abuse most often. There is no excuse to make it worse by ignoring the reality of women’s lives and the choices women make to survive. 

The bishops could learn a lot from SisterSong, women of color who advance a reproductive justice approach. Reproductive justice means “the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.” This would help the bishops understand that there are many good choices, including abortion, in hard situations. 

Third, child abuse is another factor in this case. I refer to the physical abuse of the young girl by her uncle. But I also refer to the abuse that anti-abortion activists heaped on her by revealing her name. They added stress to her young self by protesting the choice she, with her family, made. Those people abused her, forcing a private decision to be made public, a self-defense survival strategy cast as criminal activity. 

While these people act on their own, it is important to underscore that they’re informed and encouraged by Roman Catholic clergy who consider abortion the most important moral issue. The Brazilian bishops have a long history of this kind of rhetoric. But the U.S. bishops proclaimed abortion the “preeminent priority,” more important than economic injustice, racism, ecological disaster, war, and more. Such theological simplicity allows church officials to leave aside sexual violence, child abuse, racism, poverty, lack of healthcare and education, and so many other factors that go into a case like this. The bishops’ theology is missing an interstructured analysis which tough problems require. As a result, the bishops are complicit in the commission of grave mistakes. When governments and some in society take them seriously, their outdated approaches cost people dearly.

Finally, this tragic situation cannot be redeemed simply with analysis. Human care and compassion figure largely. Still, there are things we can learn going forward. One is that reproductive justice is a moral good. When further pain and suffering is avoided, when additional lives are spared devastating social stigmas, when men stop controlling women, justice accrues. When women are able to make choices that are best for themselves and their families, abortion and raising children are among the many ways women choose life. 

Theological mistakes are costly. The Brazilian bishops’ words ring hollow. They’ve perpetuated the ideology that abortion is worse than sexual assault, that it can never be justified, and that resources to raise children somehow mitigate the tragedy. In the real world, where young girls are raped, families are left to cope with the aftermath including another child to care for, and when children are abused, a theology of mercy, compassion, and justice grounded in the complex analysis of real social problems is required. 

A Portuguese version of this article was published by Católicas pelo Direito de Decidir (Catholics for Choice) in Brazil.