Recently, in Brazil, a 9-year-old girl (excuse me if I emphasise this – that’s a girl aged only 9) was taken to hospital complaining of abdominal pains. On investigation, it was discovered that the reason for these pains was that she was four months pregnant with twins. The child’s father has been arrested on suspicion of molesting his daughter. It is alleged that he was arrested while trying to flee. It has been further alleged that he has also abused his other daughter, who is 14 years old, and is physically handicapped.
Brazil, a country with a strong catholic tradition, has very restrictive laws on abortion. Terminations can only be carried out in cases of rape, or when there is a risk to the health of the mother. Given that the 9-year-old girl is substantially under the age of consent (which is 14 in Brazil), the sexual activity she was subjected to, whether or not it was perpetrated by her father, must, by definition, have been rape. Most people would, I think, agree that this is not just a matter of legal technicalities – there is no way a 9-year-old child can give meaningful and informed consent to sex. Given her excessive youth, the risks to her health if she were to proceed with the pregnancy would also have been significant and severe. Since the little girl clearly satisfied both criteria for a permitted abortion (and, of course, she only needed to satisfy one), doctors carried it out last Wednesday.
The catholic hierarchy in Brazil were, understandably, outraged by these events. Unfortunately, they were outraged in a rather different way to that which you may have anticipated. Jose Cardoso Sobrinho, the archbishop of Olinda and Recife, decided that the abortion had violated god’s law, and as a punishment excommunicated not only the doctors who had carried out the abortion, but also the girl’s mother. The archbishop took the decision not to excommunicate the little girl herself, since she is so young.
So much about this is wrong, it’s hard to know where to start.
But, ok, let’s start with the punishment. To lots of people, the concept of excommunication seems like a ridiculous medieval hangover, but if any of the doctors or the mother are devout catholics, it will be a serious thing to them. As I understand it, a person who has been excommunicated is denied access to all the ‘sacraments’ of the church. This means they are not able to confess their ‘sins’, and are unable to receive ‘absolution’ from them. If they are guilty of only minor ‘sin’, this means they are doomed to spend an indefinite amount of time in ‘purgatory’ after they die. But, since the ‘sin’ for which they have been excommunicated (which the catholic church, in its warped logic, calls ‘murder’) is a ‘mortal sin’, excommunication means they are ‘damned’ to spend ‘eternity’ in ‘hell’. (Personally, I’ve always wondered about the church’s presumption in believing they can tell god who to ‘forgive’ and who to ‘damn’, but this seems to be the orthodox (or maybe just traditional) view.)
It’s worth noting that the archbishop has not pronounced a similar sentence on the man or men who are guilty of raping a 9-year-old girl. They continue to be entitled to receive the ‘sacraments’ of the church. They will be encouraged to make a full ‘confession’ of their guilt, will be instructed to perform sufficient ‘penance’, and will then be ‘absolved’. If I understand correctly, they may still have to spend time in ‘purgatory’, but they will not be ‘damned’, and at some point they will proceed to an ‘eternity’ of perfect bliss in ‘heaven’. Having achieved this ‘state of grace’, the rapist(s) will be able to look down into ‘hell’, where he will see the little girl’s mother, who only wanted to prevent her child from suffering, and the doctors, who acted to save her life, burn in torment for all ‘eternity’.
How warped, I mean, seriously, how warped does your view of justice, your view of ethics, your view of morality, your view of basic fairness, have to be to think this is right? That a man (or men) motivated by an evil motive are more (not equally, note, but more) deserving of god’s ‘grace’ than is a woman motivated by a good one? Even if you accept that abortion is wrong (and I, emphatically, do not), to deny the child’s mother the opportunity to atone for her ‘wrong’ is monstrous. It is especially monstrous since the punishment is not applied consistently around the world. A catholic woman in the UK confessing to an abortion carried out even though she had not been raped, and was not in danger if she continued with the pregnancy, would, almost certainly, not be excommunicated, but be allowed to do ‘penance’ and receive ‘absolution’. So how is it right that an abortion carried out in order to protect a 9-year-old child from agony and suffering can be treated as ‘worse’?
Of course, the other thing that is, to most of us, monstrous is the approach the catholic church takes to individual rights. A senior Vatican figure, cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, has explicitly endorsed the actions of the Brazilian archbishop. The BBC quote him as saying:
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. Life must always be protected
I will set aside, for now, the compassionless idiocy involved in stating that the rape of a little girl is only ‘sad’ and not a ‘real problem’. The catholic church has worked long and hard to shake off its image as an organisation unconcerned by allegations of child abuse – it really does itself no favours when senior clerics are seen to be so publicly dismissive of the horror that is the raping of children.
But let’s look at the last part of that statement – ‘life must always be protected’. Well, I’m no medical expert, but it seems highly unlikely to me that a 9-year-old child could carry a baby (let alone twins) to term without encountering life-threatening complications. I’m willing to hazard a guess that, if the abortion had not been carried out, the most likely outcome is that all three of them – mother and twins – would have died. The action the doctors took, and the mother gave her consent to, was explicitly aimed at the protection of life.
But, of course, the catholic church has this weird and warped definition of ‘life’, where it’s only to be protected if it’s prenatal. The ‘sanctity of life’ only extends as far as birth, and, as this case proves, the church will actively seek out and punish doctors who try to preserve the life of an equally innocent 9-year-old child.
People who read this blog regularly will know that I tend to respond to declarations of religious faith by pointing out that there’s no evidence that ‘god’ or ‘christ’ exist. But the character who appears in the bible stories – he’s pretty clear, and his attitudes are pretty clear too. Does the catholic hierarchy really believe that ‘Jesus Christ’, the man who, we’re told, looked down from the cross in the midst of the agony of his execution and was moved by compassion when he saw his mother’s tears – do they really believe that man would condemn, without possibility of reprieve, a mother who tried to protect her child from suffering and harm? Do they really believe that the man who made friends with prostitutes and tax gatherers, who pardoned adulterers and told stories about the good that could live in the hearts of presumed enemies – do they really believe that man would condemn, without possibility of reprieve, a doctor who tried to save the life of an innocent child?
The fact of the matter, as so often, is that the actions of the allegedly holy have nothing to do with god and eternity, and everything to do with life on earth and their own political power. Brazil is in the middle of a social and political revolution. It’s current president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, has radically re-ordered his country by building a new political force from scratch. His extraordinary democratic success has seized power from the old-established political elites and given it to the workers.
Lula, as he likes to be called, is himself a catholic, and he has widespread support amongst liberal and working-class catholics, but the catholic hierarchy despise him, because he’s responsible for a massive drop in their power and prestige. The higher echelons of the church were used to thinking of themselves as the representatives of ‘the people’, and filtering everything through their own ultra-conservative view of the world. (You know, the same view that argues it’s good for peasants to stay poor, because it means they’re not subject to the ‘temptations’ of money, and it’s good for them to remain ill-educated, because then they aren’t ‘troubled’ by questions about their faith.) It outrages them that things like social welfare and medical treatment should now be treated as secular rights, and not as religiously-mediated charity.
The excommunication of these people is, it seems to me, an attempt by the catholic hierarchy in Brazil to do two things. First of all, having lost most of their political authority, they’re desperate to cling on to their position as the ultimate arbiters of moral authority. Specific issues (like abortion, or contraception, or homosexuality) generate a lot of heat, but they’re not actually important. What matters is that people should accept the pre-eminent right of the church to decide what is and what is not morally acceptable. There are persistent rumours that the Vatican is on the verge of ‘allowing’ the use of condoms in marriage in order to halt the spread of disease. If they do finally take this step, some secularists will get over-excited and see this a climb-down by, and humiliation for, the church, but it won’t actually be one. The use or otherwise of condoms is irrelevant to the catholic hierarchy – what matters is that people only do what the church tells them it’s ok to do. Far from it being a humiliation, the fact that an announcement about the use of condoms will be listened to, and will make a practical difference in people’s lives, will be a confirmation of the fact that the church, sadly, still possesses much of its power, at least in the less well-educated parts of the world.
The second thing the upper echelons of the Brazilian catholic church hope to achieve by means of the recent excommunication is to provoke a row with the leaders of the popular revolution in Brazil. They seem to have had some success with this – according to the BBC, Lula responded to news of the excommunication by saying:
The doctors did what had to be done: save the life of a girl of nine years old
It seems likely that the archbishop is hoping that ordinary catholics, terrified by the reminder that the church has the power to ‘damn’ their ‘immortal souls’, will respond to the row by abandoning their interest in secular reform and rushing back into the arms of mother church.
The problem with this theory is that, outside the tiny clique of ultra-conservative catholics, the actions of the doctors and the child’s mother are so demonstrably right. Most people hearing about this story will be taken-aback by the thought of a 9-year-old girl getting pregnant, and horrified by the thought of the sexual abuse she has suffered. They will be unable to stop themselves empathising with the child’s mother, and the terrible anguish she must have felt when she realised what had been happening. Even if they disapprove of abortion in general, they will recognise this abortion for what it was – an attempt to begin to right some of the wrongs the little girl has suffered, and to allow her the chance to grow up into adulthood.
By describing the rape of a child as merely ‘sad’, and action to save the child’s life as ‘against god’s law’, the catholic hierarchy have succeeded in demonstrating how out of touch with real, living morality they are. It’s only inside their tiny, warped, bubble that the ‘lives’ of two foetuses (who almost certainly had no chance of making it into actual, autonomous life anyway) are worth more than the life of a horrifically abused child. And by basing their actions on that warped perception, the archbishop and his supporters in the Vatican have actually increased the chances that ordinary people in Brazil will reject the idea that the catholic church is always, by ‘divine right’, correct on matters of morality. In that sense, there’s something to cheer here – the possibility that the days of hardline moral authoritarianism in Latin America may be numbered.
But there’s still no question that this whole thing stinks.