RDPulpit: Excommunicating the Victims

See related stories below for the latest on the situation. — ed.

The Roman Catholic Church stooped to a new low just in time for International Women’s Day. On Wednesday, March 4, 2009, at 10:00 a.m., a nine-year-old girl who was pregnant with twins had an abortion in Pernambuco, a state in the northeast of Brazil. The Archdiocese of Olinda and Recife was preparing to file a legal claim to stall or stop the abortion, but it was over before they were able to. The local archbishop, Jose Carolos Sobrinho, told the media that God’s laws are superior to human laws in declaring that the girl’s mother, as well as the doctors involved in the abortion, were excommunicated. At a time when a family most needs pastoral care, love and mercy (not to mention counseling and legal help), their church responds with a theological slap in the face. The Church is the cause of scandal.

And then the Vatican joined the chorus. Cardinal Giovanni Batista Re, Prefect for the Congregation of Bishops, surprised at the outcry against the local church, defended his brother bishop opining that the twins had a right to live. Such comments confirm just how out of touch they are. In Roman Catholicism, according to these men, the law rules; letter over spirit, teachings over persons. One could ignore it, write it off as meaningless, except it’s hard to pass over the harm done to the people involved. They have suffered enough. They don’t deserve it. No one deserves it.

Insanity, Cruelty, or Christian Principles?

The details of the case are grim. The little girl went to the hospital with stomach pains only to discover that she was four months pregnant. Brazilian law allows for abortion if the mother’s life is in danger and in cases of rape. This case fulfilled the law on both counts, with doctors determining that because the child weighed only eighty pounds it was doubtful she could carry the pregnancy to term. The girl’s 23-year-old stepfather admitted to sexually abusing her, something he had apparently done for several years, and there are reports that he has claimed paternity. He is also suspected of abusing her disabled 14-year-old sister. Police arrested the stepfather when he tried to leave the area and placed him in protective custody.

My colleagues at Catholicas pelo Direito de Decidir, an international partner to the Washington-based Catholics for Choice, asked in their editorial whether this was a case of Insanity, Cruelty, or Christian Principles? and I applaud them for stating the question so clearly and for answering it without equivocation. Let me simply add indignation, sadness, and affirmation.

It is hard to find words sufficient to convey the moral indignation elicited by the Roman Catholic Church’s actions. As a Catholic feminist theologian who is pro-choice, I have dealt with abortion for decades. I thought I was inured to its callousness. Maybe it’s because I have an 8-year-old daughter that I find the Church’s actions in this case violent beyond defense.

By any measure, the family involved is in big trouble. The father is gone, the mother has at least two children, one of whom is handicapped, and the stepfather is a sexual predator. It is a recipe for a disaster. The pregnancy happened because an adult male assaulted a girl child; an oft-told story, tragic every time. The mother endeavored to do the best she could in a bad situation. Medical personnel handled it according to the law. But the Roman Catholic Church used the tragedy to make a theo-political point. Have they no shame? Are they so heartless as to kick this family while it is down?

Whatever their relationship to the institutional church, the archbishop’s claim that those who help procure an abortion are automatically excommunicated tells this family that the mother is unwelcome, unworthy to receive the sacraments. One churchman had the gall to note that the church in its infinite wisdom does not excommunicate minors, so the nine-year-old is still in full communion. Small comfort. What he failed to mention was that the perpetrator, the stepfather, never even made it to the ecclesial radar screen. I am not suggesting the man be excommunicated; no one should be. But it is sickening and morally repugnant to realize that abortion, in this case the most humane solution to a terrible problem, is the cause of excommunication while sexual abuse is not. Something is seriously wrong with this picture, and it is the Roman Catholic Church.

Is there anyone among you, who if your child asks for bread, will give a stone?

My sadness in this case comes not only from what has been done in the name of God to people who are living a nightmare, but from what might have been done to help. Sexual abuse, especially incest, is hard to stop. But once perpetrated it need not be made worse by ecclesial sanction.

A proper pastoral response would include: support for the pregnant child as she lives through an abortion; care for the mother who is responsible for the child and the rest of the family; protection for the family from the stepfather whose arrest may trigger backlash behavior; sensitive work with the other daughter who has also been sexually abused; HIV and venereal disease testing for the girls and the mother; economic support for the family; counseling for the family, the community, even the neighbors and parishioners who have been affected by this trauma; prayer and pastoral attention, including reception of the sacraments according to the family’s wishes. They need a spiritual community more than ever. Instead they got excommunication. “Is there anyone among you, who if your child asks for bread, will give a stone?” (Matthew 7:9). Apparently there are several in Rome and Brazil.

Excommunication is a recognition that a person has acted in a way that violates the Roman Catholic Church’s rules. In the case of abortion, it is latae sententaite, that is, the “crime” is so serious that the person incurs it automatically rather than having anyone impose it. Much ink has spilled over this matter through the centuries, but wouldn’t you think in a case as tragic as the Brazilian one that good taste—to say nothing of human compassion—would have zipped the lips of the bishops? We teach children that it is better to say nothing than something hurtful; bishops, apparently, are exempt from common courtesy.

They claim to know the law of God. But here’s the rub: even if they do, an overwhelming number of Catholics and others of goodwill do not care. We do not believe in the cruel, vindictive, callous God they cite. Many believers put our faith in a loving, merciful divinity whose response to human tragedy is to weep not condemn, to embrace not exile. That is a Catholic view, well-supported by scripture and life experience. The bishops are welcome to their views, but beware of people who think they know more about God’s will and God’s law than the rest of us. They are selling a product we are not buying.

I believe that this case serves as further proof that the jig is up for Catholic clerics who dare to excommunicate a mother who has already suffered enough while they continue to embrace priest pedophiles and the bishops who hide their crimes. Let this case signal the end of any credible claim to authority such bishops might make, and the beginning of a new era when local communities determine their own members. I daresay the world will be a safer, kinder place.

A word of affirmation is in order for the family and people who care about them. There are many pro-choice Catholics in Brazil including their president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who is quoted as saying:

As a Christian and a Catholic I deeply regret that a bishop of the Catholic Church has such a conservative attitude. The doctors did what had to be done: save the life of a girl nine-years-old. In this case, the medical profession was more right than the Church.

Amen, Lula.

I am confident that in Pernambuco there are plenty of people who will welcome this family with open arms, both to help them move forward and to be part of a community of faith if they so choose. In fact, the deeply respected Brazilian feminist theologian Ivone Gebara, a Roman Catholic nun, lives there. She was silenced by the Vatican in 1995 for suggesting, in an interview with the Brazilian weekly VEJA, that abortion should be decriminalized. As punishment she was packed off to Belgium to do another doctorate, supposedly so she would toe the line. This tragic case only makes her prophetic stance more understandable.

If any good can come from this horrendous set of circumstances, it is that future generations will not have to tolerate either sexual abuse or excommunication because people today are unafraid to call them both acts of violence and to work to eradicate them. God help us.