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Archbishop Fisichella: Please Apologize

Recently, a meeting of the Pontifical Academy for Life occurred in Vatican City. It was suggested by some members of the Academy prior to the meeting that there could be a bit of “fireworks” due to the questionable statements that had been made by Academy President Archbishop Rino Fisichella during the previous year. As a member of the Academy, I commented at length about those statements and joined with my fellow Academy members in protesting the statements and requesting a clarification of them from the Holy Father.

For those who are unfamiliar with the problematic nature of the archbishop’s comments, this might seem irrelevant, but such is not the case. In March of 2009, a nine-year-old Brazilian girl who was raped by a family member was diagnosed as being pregnant with twins. The girl’s mother agreed with the doctors—all Catholic—that the twins should be aborted. Responding to this case, Archbishop of Olinda and Recife, Brazil, Jose Cardoso Sobrinho announced that he was excommunicating the doctors and the young girl’s mother. During the uproar that followed the archbishop’s announcement, the Vatican’s Cardinal Re, who heads the Church’s Congregation for Bishops and the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, told the Italian newspaper 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.

However Archbishop Rino Fisichella, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life disagreed. Zenit news reported,

The archbishop lamented the image given by the Church in this case, as “before giving thought to excommunication, it was necessary and urgent to safeguard the innocent life of this girl, and return her to a level of humanity of which we, men of the Church, should be expert heralds and teachers.”

In this case, he said, the girl “should in the first place have been defended, embraced, caressed with tenderness to make her feel that we are all with her.”

He stated that Archbishop Sobrinho’s “hasty” reaction has caused resentment and has undermined the credibility of the Church’s teaching, “which in the eyes of many seems insensitive, incomprehensible and lacking in mercy.”

Following what I personally felt was an imprudent statement coming from Archbishop Fisichella, I wrote a letter to him requesting a clarification. Previous to that, I publicly praised the Brazilian archbishop for defending the truth of Catholic teaching and acting in accord with that teaching. In the days and weeks that followed, many Pontifical Academy members voiced similar concerns regarding the archbishop’s unfortunate remarks. To my knowledge, none of the members received an adequate response from Archbishop Fisichella.

Sadly, the matter was not resolved prior to or during the February 11-13 Academy meeting and, as a result, the following statement was issued by five Academy members. As I have told them, I would have been delighted to sign this statement had I been in attendance, but health problems prevented that. Therefore, I present the statement here with a firm voice of endorsement for their well-chosen, carefully stated words of defense for Catholic truth:

The challenge to Archbishop Rino Fisichella’s position as President of the Pontifical Academy for Life, which a number of commentators anticipated, did not occur at last week’s Assembly of the Academy. Why? Essentially because of a political decision made by a number of those who had been signatories of a letter of 2 April 2009 to Archbishop Fisichella and of a subsequent letter to Cardinal Levada of 1 May 2009, seeking correction of the seriously misleading impression of the Church’s teaching about direct abortion created by Archbishop Fisichella’s article in L’Osservatore Romano of the 15th of March 2009. The reasons for that political decision were twofold: (a) an open challenge to Fisichella in the Assembly would have divided the Academy, not necessarily because Academicians agreed with his behavior but because many would have thought it inappropriate to treat a Papal appointee who is also an Archbishop in that way. Moreover, an open challenge by lay Academicians would have run the risk of leading the Curia to close ranks around Fisichella because of the clericalist culture of that body and despite the lack of support for him in many quarters. (b) There is credible information that Fisichella is widely perceived in the Curia to be an inappropriate President of PAV and there is a reasonable hope that the Holy Father will recognize the need to provide him with an occupation better suited to his abilities.

The absence of an open challenge to Fisichella has created the unfortunate impression that Academicians are behind his Presidency, resignedly or otherwise. This is an impression he is evidently interested in propagating. Nothing could be further from the truth, and one of the main reasons it is false is because of the seriously ill-judged address he gave at the opening of the Assembly. He showed not the slightest consciousness of the gravely damaging effects of his L’Osservatore Romano article of 15 March 2009 or of his own responsibility for those effects. The respectful efforts of Academicians to seek a correction of it from him (which he rejected at the time) he described as personal attacks upon him motivated by “spite”; none of the signatories had the slightest reason to entertain such sentiments towards him. He claimed that the ‘Clarification’ eventually published on the 11th of July 2009 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith vindicated him. In other words, he retracted nothing of what he said in his article. Fisichella is plausibly able to make this claim of being vindicated because of the unfortunate first paragraph of the ‘Clarification’ which reads as follows:

“Recently a number of letters have been sent to the Holy See, some of them from prominent figures in political and ecclesial life, explaining the confusion that has been created in various countries, especially in Latin America, following the manipulation and exploitation of an article by His Excellency Archbishop Rino Fisichella, President of the Pontifical Academy for Life, on the sad affair of the ‘Brazilian girl’.” [Emphasis added]

What is not generally known is that this is not the original wording of the opening paragraph which it was intended to publish in L’Osservatore Romano. Fisichella obtained sight of the text prior to publication and demanded that the original paragraph be changed to read as in the published version. In this way he has been permitted to disclaim, with the apparent authority of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, all responsibility for the damaging impact of his article on the defense of innocent pre-born human lives. Responsibility for this damage belongs entirely to the way others have ‘manipulated and exploited’ his article! But not content with disclaiming responsibility for the damage his article has done, Fisichella in his address to the Academy on the 11th of February claimed that the vindication extended to the content of his article. This claim is indeed grave because the clear implication of the wording of that article is that there are difficult situations in which doctors enjoy scope for the autonomous exercise of conscience in deciding whether to carry out a direct abortion. It would appear, then, that the CDF ‘Clarification’ has failed to clarify the mind of Archbishop Rino Fisichella, and, if that is the case, it raises a troubling question about just how generally effective the ‘Clarification’ has been in dispelling the false understanding of the Church’s teaching about direct abortion conveyed by the 15 March 2009 article.

Far from creating unity and genuine harmony in the Academy, Archbishop Fisichella’s address on the 11th of February had the effect of confirming in the minds of many Academicians the impression that we are being led by an ecclesiastic who does not understand what absolute respect for innocent human lives entails. This is an absurd state of affairs in a Pontifical Academy for Life but one which can be rectified only by those who are responsible for his appointment as President.

Professor Luke Gormally, Ordinary Member of the Academy; former Director (1981–2000), The Linacre Centre for Healthcare Ethics, London, UK.

Mrs. Christine de Marcellus de Vollmer, Ordinary Member of the Academy; Chairwoman, Alliance for the Family. Venezuela.

Monsignor Michel Schooyans, Ordinary Member of the Academy; Professor Emeritus of the University of Louvain, Belgium.

Dr. Maria Smereczynska, Corresponding Member of the Academy; Poland.

Dr. Thomas Ward, Corresponding Member of the Academy; President, The National Association of Catholic Families; Retired General Practitioner, UK.

This statement, issued February 16, 2010, is not only accurate, but principled, courageous and definitive. I stand with my five fellow Academy members and pray to God that Archbishop Rino Fisichella ultimately sees the damage created by his imprudent comments of the past, publicly corrects them and reconciles with those Academy members who have taken this public position in an effort to bring healing based on Christ’s truth rather than church politics.