A Plea To The Vatican For Clarity

Two months have passed since Archbishop Rino Fisichella, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life,  wrote a commentary for the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, in which he muddied the waters regarding the situation involving a nine-year-old Brazilian girl whose twins were aborted.

The doctors, Archbishop Fisichella noted, had said the child's life was in danger if the pregnancy continued.

"How should one act in these cases? An arduous decision for the doctor and for moral law itself," Fisichella wrote, urging respect for the inner "conflict" that the Catholic doctors must have suffered before deciding on the abortion.

Immediately after the archbishop’s commentary appeared, I wrote him a letter because, as a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life, I had grave concerns. The text of my letter follows:

March 17, 2009

Most Reverend Rino Fisichella, President
Pontifical Academy for Life
Via della Conciliazione 1 – 00193 Roma

Your Excellency,

We recently read a spate of media on the case in Brazil involving a nine-year-old girl alleged to be pregnant with twins, her mother, the abortionists and the bishops of that country. It was terribly unsettling for us to see the banter between two “Vatican officials” and the subsequent decision of the Brazilian National Conference of Bishops to “back down” from the original decision to excommunicate those involved in the act of killing two preborn children.
We realize the nature of the problem, and we are well aware of Catholic teaching in the area of alleged threats to the life of the mother. As Pope Pius XII stated so clearly,

Every human being, even the child in the womb, has the right to life directly from God and not from his parents, not from any society or human authority. Therefore, there is no man, no human authority, no science, no "indication" at all—whether it be medical, eugenic, social, economic, or moral—that may offer or give a valid judicial title for a direct deliberate disposal of an innocent human life, that is, a disposal which aims at its destruction, whether as an end in itself or as a means to achieve the end, perhaps in no way at all illicit. Thus, for example, to save the life of the mother is a very noble act; but the direct killing of the child as a means to such an end is illicit. (“Address to Italian Midwives on the Nature of Their Profession,” October 29, 1951

The situation in Brazil is horrific, Your Excellency. Of that there is no doubt. But the fact is that two innocent babies were murdered by abortion. And as Pope Pius XII states, the “direct” killing of the child as a means to an end is not licit.

How then do we explain to our fellow Catholics why, in this case, the Church backed down and argued against excommunicating those directly involved in the deaths of these two babies? Wasn’t it urgent to save all three innocent lives? Weren’t the two preborn children equally to be protected by any means possible as was the nine-year-old? Why shouldn’t those who execute innocent preborn children be punished for their heinous crimes against humanity?

We ask these questions with all due respect, Your Excellency, but with equal concern over the apparent contradiction that has occurred in this case. We simply wish to understand, as many American Catholics are seriously troubled by this situation.

We seek your counsel on this serious question and your further comments. 

Thank you for your attention to this matter! May the Lord be with you and bless you.

Within a week of the archbishop’s commentary being published, there were those within the "establishment" pro-abortion movement who expressed pleasure at what they had read. This commentary's overall effect has been confusion and consternation. When Frances Kissling, founder of the National Abortion Federation and former president of Catholics for a Free Choice, is pleased, those of us committed to defending the preborn child should be horrified. Just days after Archbishop Fisichella’s commentary appeared, Kissling wrote,

In an amazing shift in the Vatican’s strategy of no dissent from its position that direct abortion is never permitted, even to save a woman’s life, the Vatican’s top bioethics official, Archbishop Rino Fisichella opined that the doctors in Brazil who performed an abortion on a nine-year-old who was 15 weeks pregnant with twins did not merit excommunication… But, this modest deviation by the [a]rchbishop who heads the Pontifical Academy of Life opens the door for Catholics who follow [C]hurch teachings on reproduction to discuss the possibility that there are some cases officially acknowledged where individuals can choose abortion and have a calm conscience.

Kissling is clever, if not cunning, in her analysis of what the archbishop’s commentary means and does not mean. Clearly, as Kissling reminds her readers, the archbishop’s comments do not change the Church's teaching, but they do create a dilemma not only for Brazil’s bishops, but for Catholics around the world.

The Washington Post picked up on this as well, and in a disturbing report entitled “Vatican Official Defends Child’s Abortion,” a reporter for the Religion News Service wrote,

Another extraordinary aspect of Fisichella's article was its frank rebuke of José Cardoso Sobrinho, archbishop of Olinda and Recife, whom it accused of having "rushed" to declare the excommunications — "a judgment as heavy as a meat cleaver" — when his first task should have been the pastoral care of the victim.

Cardoso Sobrinho's action harmed the "credibility of our teaching, which appears in the eyes of so many as insensitive, incomprehensible and lacking in mercy," Fisichella wrote.

In Brazil, however, the response to Archbishop Fisichella’s commentary was immediate and crystal clear. Several officials from the Archdiocese of Recife, who were involved in the case, denounced Archbishop Fisichella's statements and defended the actions of Archbishop Jose Cardoso Sobrinho. In part, their statement reads,

We do not agree [with Archbishop Fisichella] that the "decision is hard… for the moral law itself". Our Holy Church continues to proclaim that the moral law is exceedingly clear: it is never licit to eliminate the life of an innocent person to save another life. The objective facts are these: there are doctors who explicitly declare that they perform and will continue to perform abortions, while others declare with the same firmness that they will never perform abortions. Here is the declaration written and signed by a Brazilian Catholic physician: "…As an obstetrician for 50 years, graduated in the National Medical School of the University of Brazil, and former chief of Obstetrics in the Hospital of Andarai [Rio de Janeiro], in which I served for 35 years until I retired in order to dedicate myself to the Diaconate, and having delivered 4,524 babies, many from juvenile [mothers], I never had to resort to an abortion to 'save lives', as well as all my colleagues, sincere and honest in their profession and faithful to their Hippocratic oath.”

While this action is remarkable and represents a departure from the diplomacy usually exercised among Catholic bishops, the fact is that the Vatican has not clarified the matter and has not corrected the misperception, on the part of many, that there has been a weakening of the infallible Catholic teaching that the act of abortion is always – and in every case – wrong.

Due to the seriousness of this situation and the fact that Archbishop Fisichella's position on his original statements remains unchanged, I recently wrote to Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Secretary of State for the Vatican. I have asked him to clarify the matter and have provided him with all of the information that is contained in this commentary.

It would be a great blessing if you, the reader, would do likewise. Please send your letters to this address:

His Eminence Tarcisio Bertone, SDB
The Secretariat of State of His Holiness
Apostolic Palace
Roma, Italy