Flash! Catholic clergy may disagree

recife_matriz_de_santo_antonioTo disagree on an appropriate response to a tragedy, as a few Vatican church officials have done, is not to disagree on a core doctrinal belief. But the way the debate among high-ranking Vatican clerics has "gone public" may portend another, more interesting trend--the Pope's willingness to allow sunlight in arenas formerly keep priviate. Recent news coverage of a Brazilian archbishop's decision to excommunicate doctors who performed an abortion on a nine-year-old allegedly impregnated by her step-father has highlighted two different reactions from Vatican officials.

While this Associated Press story seems a little muddled to me, the reporter shows an appropriate reticence in reading too much into the controversy-and in interpreting Archbishop Rino Fisichella's words as a theological rather than a pastoral disagreement.

Here's the lede:

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.

Fisichella argued for a sense of "mercy" in such cases and respect for the Catholic doctors' wrenching decision, and strongly criticized fellow churchmen who singled out the doctors and mother for public condemnation.

There's a reference in the story to Cardinal Giovanni Battasti Re, who has supported the decision by the Archbishop of Recife, but no quote. But it's clear from Fisichella's words that they aren't having a doctrinal dispute. However, what isn't clear from the quotes here, contrary to the lede or headline, is whether Fisichella is distressed so much by the excommunications themselves as by the way the nine-year-old girl was treated.

"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."

A story from the CNN.com website covers the Brazilian flap from another perspective-that of the doctor and the secular government. I'm linking it here because it includes this interesting quote from Archbishop Sobrinho, the excommunicating prelate.

Archbishop Don Jose Cardoso Sobrinho of Recife excommunicated the doctor, the child's mother and the medical team involved in the procedure.

However, the stepfather was not excommunicated, with Sobrinho telling Globo TV that, "A graver act than (rape) is abortion, to eliminate an innocent life."

The child was not excommunicated, Sobrinho said, because Catholic Church law says minors are exempt from excommunication.

If you are interested in the 'J'accuse" smackdown style so beloved of some in the British media, check out the reliable Telegraph website for this article about how Rome's "credibility" has been bruised. One interesting detail--apparently Brasilian bishops have challenged the excommunications.

Put aside for a moment the way the press has mined the drama for all that it is worth, sometimes incorrectly. There's another story here that I hope will get some reasoned analysis-an apparent openness on the part of the Vatican hierarchy, perhaps of Pope Benedict himself, to allow these strategic disagreements to surface. One could, and some have, look at this as a sign that the Vatican is at sea-but another, alternate explanation is that top officials believe that as long as prelates don't challenge core doctrine, publicizing the occasional disagreement is not a bad thing. It's worth keeping an eye out to see if this is a trend, or an oddity.

Picture of Recife Catholic Church Matriz de Santo Antonio is from Wikimedia Commons

Please respect our Commenting Policy