Child abuse, abortion, and the catholic church

This stinks.  I mean, this really, really stinks.  I found out about it at the excellent Notes & Comment blog on Butterflies & Wheels.  The BBC has coverage of the story here.

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.

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12 Responses to Child abuse, abortion, and the catholic church

  1. This kind of thing makes me so angry. The Catholic churches views on morality are so warped and outdated.

    Then again I’m not their biggest fan as our parish priest (who was later imprisoned for sexual abuse of young boys I might add) told my father that he should stay with my mother after admitting he was having an affair with a man. And who told my mother she was comitting a terrible, terrible sin for having an affair and would be damned if she left my Dad. It seems to me that the Church is all to willing to forgive male sinners than it is female sinners. To rank allowing an abortion on a 9-year old abused child as more heinous than impregnating that child in the first place, it just beggars belief. Just gah *fumes*

  2. Alex says:

    Bloody hell, Aethelread, this is heavyweight stuff coming after talking about blog layouts.
    I’d read about this before, when da Silva’s response hit the press, and it struck me that not only was he right, but also surprisingly outspoken for a politician, given the Catholic church’s influence in his country. That, if nothing else, should give the church some pause for thought.
    We can only hope that organised religion in Brazil, and indeed the rest of the world, goes the way it has in Britain – wheeling out a couple of figureheads every time a social-issue story comes up, with neither of them realising how increasingly fucking irrelevant they’ve become.
    To quote a much better man than me, ‘if God existed, it would be necessary to abolish Him’.

  3. NiroZ says:

    I guess that is what happens when people get caught up in petty black and white views rather than appreciating some things are better judged on a case by case basis.

    What frustrates me more is that they still think that by preaching abstinence people will stay abstinent, when it’s been scientifically proved that it doesn’t work.

  4. Katherine says:

    The place where, it seems to me, that the Catholic church misses out is in its exclusion of women from church hierarchy. It took a few months after coming out for me to realize that I would never again be at any risk for becoming pregnant unintentionally. Once I did realize it, my attitude towards abortion shifted and the meaning of pregnancy changed for me.
    If I, as a person who is still physiologically capable of becoming pregnant, could shift towards a slightly more negative stance on abortion (still very much pro-choice, thank you and not in the business of being judgemental about it, either) then what might be happening inside the minds of all these men creating policies and laws without ever being able to be pregnant? Try as they might to imagine it, I doubt they could ever really understand what that possibility means in a very literal, bodily way.
    The change in my own opinion has led me to distrust my own opinions on abortion to some extent. I do really think that the people who have the authority to decide what is right and wrong about pregnancy and abortion are only those people who stand an active chance of becoming pregnant. Others like myself and men are certainly allowed to have opinions and join in the debate but I don’t think that the authority to make that moral judgement really vests in me anymore.
    So, without anyone who ever stood a chance of becoming pregnant, it is hard to imagine how the Catholic church hierarchy could ever come to a good understanding of the matter.
    On another note, to be excommunicated means to be disbarred from taking communion. Anyone may ask God’s forgiveness at any time and receive it; the sacrament of confession is an act of reconciliation with the church, not with God. The church does not tell God whom to pardon and whom to damn. Knowing priests as I do, I would be very surprised to find that those people who have been excommunicated would be actually unable to receive the sacraments. Many parish priests go quietly against church doctrine if their conscience bids them to.
    Having said this, the new pope still scares the daylights out of me.

  5. Katherine says:

    I should have said, parish priests often go quietly against church doctrine for the good as well as for the bad: obviously, paedophilia is not church doctrine, either.

  6. bluesilk says:

    Oh dear, what a horrible thing to happen to a young girl. The issues involved seem so complex, I can’t imagine how you would decide the best course of action.

    I hope this girl had some say in what happened to her. I know she isn’t of an age to fully understand things but it seems like an abortion is a second assault on her body and one which she will have to accept psychologically as she grows up.

    Regarding the application of religious viewpoints it does seem intensely harsh to condemn what the mother did, but I can understand the view “life is sacred” would have to overrule the potential for psychological or physical harm to the young girl by carrying the babies to term in a strictly Catholic society.

    It makes me relieved that I live in a country where there isn’t such strict adherence to a religion.

    I tend to think that any religion that is applied in an extreme or very strict way sets itself up to cause suffering due to an inability to look at the human side of an individual’s case. It’s the flexibility to apply the spirit of the law rather than the letter of the law that makes the difference.

  7. cb says:

    I hadn’t heard this story. It is sickening. I don’t see it as the religion itself but more the political use of religion and organised religion as a way of controlling people – which is far removed from faith and belief. Well, that’s my fuzzy agnostic view anyway. On a practical sense, I don’t understand how such inhumane decisions can be made.

  8. beetrootsoup says:

    May these bigoted dinosaurs burn in their own hellfire and see how they like it.

  9. I remember discussing this with my mum about 15 years ago when there was a similar scandal in Ireland regarding a 14-year-old rape victim who was prevented by the courts from going to the UK to get an abortion.

    My mum explained that to the people that run the Church, it’s all about hierarchy and position. The people at the bottom, especially women and children, just are not important. There’s no equality of the sexes or equality full stop. They genuinely don’t think that the ruining of the lives of women, especially young women, is a big deal, because they don’t matter and never will. If you realise that that is where they are coming from, it doesn’t seem so incomprehensible after all. Just evil.

  10. Amanda says:

    I have seen many attacks on my church, but I havent seen this one. First of all, do you really think that all of the Catholics believe that you should not ever have an abortion no matter what? Why is it that people just label us as having the same beliefs all around the world? The people I know (including myself) accept the choice of abortion ONLY IF they have a risk of death, or they have been raped. It made me angry when I read this. The heirarchy of Brazil is the only one that made the decision to “damn” the child. DO you think we all sat around a fire roasting marshmallows and said “Hey, why don’t we make the child unable to have any sacraments!” No, and we also would allow her to come back to our churches in America anyway. I think that if both mother and child would die from the childrens birth, (or the mother) they shouldn’t force her to have the children.

  11. aethelreadtheunread says:

    Amanda, thanks for commenting.

    If you take the trouble to read what i actually wrote (as opposed to what you think i wrote) you’ll find that i went out of my way to stress several times that i was talking about the attitudes and actions of the catholic hierarchy, not those of all catholics everywhere. For example, I wrote:

    Even if they disapprove of abortion in general, they [most people] 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.

    This would seem to me to be a reasonable summary of your views as expressed in your comment.

    In highlighting his disagreement with the archbishop, i also emphasised that the President of Brazil is a catholic, thus making it clear that, even within Brazil, there are disagreements between conservative and liberal catholics. In addition, a major aspect of my post focusses upon the fact that a woman who had sought an abortion would be treated very differently by the catholic church in the UK than the little girl was treated in Brazil. If all of this does not prove to you that i am fully aware that there are a range of catholic opinions on this issue, then i am unsure what would prove it to you.

    I strongly resent your suggestion that i have tarred all catholic believers with the same brush. The deliberate mis-representation of opposing views is a very common tactic of religious fundamentalists, and it is one that i avoid for that very reason.

    The heirarchy of Brazil is the only one that made the decision to “damn” the child.

    You are, i’m afraid, mistaken here. If you read my post you will find reference (with links to supporting news stories) to the fact that the decisions of the Brazillian archbishop have been specifically and agressively defended by the Vatican.

    Finally, if you are genuinely unaware that the catholic church has been criticised for its attitude to abortion then you must have led a very sheltered life.

  12. lavina says:

    This is a horrible story i think its horrible that the 9 year old child will be “dammd” for something done to her by a monster. I no that not all catholics think abortion is wrong but i am really sick of the ones that are agisnt abortion, i respect the views of everyone even when i do not agree so why the hell cant those “pro-lifers” respect other peoles choices, why try and force ur views on other peole, this 9 year old girl has been through rape then had to go through an abortion and yet peole still blame her for something that she has no blame for its disgusting

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