In Defence of the Vatican, In Praise of Brazil

The lead story in the Americas section of the BBC News website is this:

A senior Vatican cleric has defended the excommunication in Brazil of the mother and doctors of a young girl who had an abortion with their help.

The nine-year-old had conceived twins after alleged abuse by her stepfather.

Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re told Italian paper La Stampa that the twins “had the right to live” and attacks on Brazil’s Catholic Church were unfair.

It comes a day after Brazil’s president criticised the Brazilian archbishop who excommunicated the people involved.

Brazil only permits abortions in cases of rape or health risks to the mother.

Doctors said the girl’s case met both these conditions, but the Archbishop of Olinda and Recife, Jose Cardoso Sobrinho said the law of God was above any human law.

He said the excommunication would apply to the child’s mother and the doctors, but not to the girl because of her age.

Cardinal Re, who heads the Roman Catholic Church’s Congregation for Bishops and the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, told La Stampa that the archbishop had been right to excommunicate the mother and doctors.

“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,” he said.

“Life must always be protected, the attack on the Brazilian Church is unjustified.”

The abortion was carried out on Wednesday.

Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, himself a Catholic, said on Friday that he regretted what he described as the cleric’s deeply conservative attitude.

“The doctors did what had to be done: save the life of a girl of nine years old,” he said.

I cannot think of a more terrible story. My wife prosecutes and defends sex offences, and I hear of some pretty gristly cases: but this is worse than them all.

The notion that a nine year old girl should be under some moral obligation to bear twins, in circumstances in which her life cannot have been but in the gravest danger, is absurd and wrong, in my view. To have forced this tiny child to have died, trying to give birth to two other children, would have been terrible.

So, what of the position of the Church on this case?

The teachings of the Catholic Church prohibit the killing of the unborn. The Church makes no exception for rape or incest. Although there is some fuzziness around abortions that occur as a secondary effect of treatment designed to save a mother’s life, it does not permit what it would regard as the intentional taking of the life of an innocent human.

The English legal system also does not permit the intentional taking of an innocent human life, even – in certain circumstances at least – to save that of another. Although self-defence is a defence to murder, duress is not. In other words, if a person puts a gun to your head, and requires you to shoot a baby, and you do, you will be convicted of murder. English law expects you to accept death, rather than to kill.

That is not an absurd position. The wrongness of the Catholic Church’s teachings on abortion is a product of their conception of the soul: not the injunction against intentional killing.

The Church does intervene in politics, at national and international level. Its activity around the issue of abortion is intense. Nevertheless, Brazil is a country in which an abortion is permitted, in the case of rape or where the life of the woman is at serious risk. Brazil is not a theocracy: it is a democracy in which laws reflect the will of the people. Neither are clerics the guardians of its constitution, or the dictators of its laws.

Churches are, in effect, clubs of people who adhere to a set of beliefs, and consensually submit themselves to the jurisdiction of the institution. Private clubs are entitled to expel their members. Members are free to leave, if they want to.

Many Catholics are, in fact, leaving their Church. The Washington Post reported:

[I]f the evangelical Christian movement continues to spread at the pace it has in recent years, statistics suggest that by 2022 Catholics will be a minority in a country that was about 90 percent Catholic in 1980.

To be frank, I doubt that many leave over the question of abortion. As far as I can tell, the major Protestant churches in Brazil are also opposed to abortion: although they are many and varied, and so there may be considerable variations between their positions.