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excommunicating reason

Excommunicating reason and humanity
Concerning the immoral tunnel vision of the Catholic Church

By George A. Ricker

You may have read about the incident* but, in case you did not, here are the facts as I understand them. A nine-year-old Brazilian girl had been repeatedly raped by her stepfather and, when she was taken to the doctor complaining of stomach pains, it was learned she was four months pregnant with twins. The girl’s mother and the doctors attending her agreed the girl should have an abortion. Abortion is illegal in Brazil except in cases of rape and when the mother’s health is at risk. The first condition was obviously met, and doctors attending the girl said her uterus was too small to handle one child, let alone two, so the abortion was necessary to save her life as well.

The Catholic Church’s efforts to prevent the abortion were unsuccessful. Following the abortion, Archbishop Jose Cardoso Sobrinho declared the child’s mother and the doctors who performed the procedure were excommunicated, The girl, because of her age, was not. Sobrinho said the law of God was above any human law and those who had been complicit in the abortion had violated God’s law.

I must confess when I first read this story I assumed wiser heads would prevail and the Catholic hierarchy would back away from such a harsh action because of the extraordinary circumstances surrounding the case. How could any sane adult demand that a nine-year-old child who had been so cruelly victimized be forced to carry any pregnancy to term, let alone a pregnancy that very likely put her own life in jeopardy? How could any rational person fail to see this as anything but an indecent imposition on an innocent who already had been made to suffer grievously? Surely the church would recognize that the adults involved were only doing what was best for the girl and was probably necessary for her own survival. So I thought. I was wrong.

Not long after Archbishop Sobrinho had declared the excommunications, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, a senior Vatican cleric, defended the archbishop’s actions. Re, who heads the Roman Catholic Church’s Congregation for Bishops and the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, told the Italian newspaper La Stampa that Sobrinho had done the right thing.

“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. “Life must always be protected. The attack on the Brazilian Church is unjustified.”

While the Catholic Church may have been outraged by the decision to obtain an abortion for the nine-year-old rape victim, many Brazilian Catholics were outraged by the archbishop’s excommunication of the adults involved. The harshness of the penalty drew criticism from many in the mostly Catholic nation. Brazil’s president, Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, was among them.

Saying he regretted the archbishop’s decision, the president stated, “The doctors did what had to be done: save the life of a girl of nine years old.”

For Catholics, excommunication is a serious matter. The church has fairly elaborate rules concerning how and when one may be cut off from the community of faith. A person who obtains an abortion, and anyone who facilitates an abortion is to be excommunicated, according to church doctrine, which, unlike Brazil’s “human” law, makes no exception for cases of rape or incest or threats to the health of the mother. Children may not be excommunicated because they have not yet attained full use of their rational faculties.

So the Catholic prelates who have commented on this matter are on solid ground, as far as church dogma is concerned. The stepfather, who thankfully is now in jail, apparently will not be excommunicated for the sexual abuse of either this child or an older, physically handicapped sister he also is suspected of abusing. In the eyes of the church, it seems, child abuse is a much less serious matter than abortion, even when the person who needs the abortion is a child who has been sexually abused, as is the case here.

The church and its priests claim to be upholding their god’s law and asserting its primacy over the laws of mere humans. Of course, such claims always must be considered with the qualifier that even if a god of all the universe actually did exist, it is difficult to see how any human could have the effrontery to claim to speak for it. I know of no biblical injunction against abortion. It’s true the Bible warns us not to kill one another, but even the Catholic Church allows some exceptions to that blanket prohibition. The Bible, after all, was written by men who may or may not have been inspired by some sort of divine insight. I think it was not because I believe in no divine agent who could have provided such an insight. But even if I am wrong about that, there is absolutely nothing to suggest that the Bible is an accurate reflection of the mind of any god, except the words of the Bible itself. It is an obvious tautology. Christian’s insist the Bible is “God’s” word. Why? Because the Bible says it’s “God’s” word.

However, in claiming to speak for “God,” the church insists it requires nothing else to justify its position. And because the Catholic Church also insists it is the one true church ordained and sanctified to be “God’s” representative here on earth, it is the only agent with the authority to make such claims. “God’s” word is what the church says it is because the church says so. It’s another tautology—one used by all religions, the Roman Catholic Church is not the only one, who claim to be the one true faith. The moral absolutism claimed by religions is shattered at the outset by the truth that there are so many claiming that unique status, and they are by no means in agreement about what does and does not constitute “God’s law.”

In its treatment of a nine-year-old Brazilian girl, the Catholic Church demonstrates clearly why human beings are much better off seeking moral guidance in human values agreed to by human beings living in human societies instead of looking to those who claim to speak for an absolute being. The truth is no religion, not even the Catholic faith, has ever practiced an absolute moral code that applied to all people for all time. Even churches revise and refine their moral dogma as they evolve through the centuries.

With the excommunications, the church has not only cast out human beings, it has effectively banished common sense from its deliberations. Theologians, especially those of the more tradition-rich denominations, often claim to honor the rational and insist their beliefs are the result of rational deliberation. However, when we actually examine their actions, we find they are, as often as not, an affront to reason.

Consider the comments of Archbishop Rino Fisichella, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, quoted in L ‘Osservatore Romano and repeated in the CBCP (Catholic Bishops’ Council for the Philipinne) News. While deploring the ‘precipitous’ nature of the announcement of excommunications by Sobrinho, the Vatican official made no apology for church dogma, which dictates automatic excommunication for anyone involved in an abortion. Children, as noted, may not be excommunicated. Fisichella does not quarrel with the excommunications so much as he quarrels with the proclamation by the Brazilian prelate which attracted so much unfavorable publicity and such negative reactions against the church.

To his credit, Fisichella does, at least, acknowledge the grievous harm done to the young girl at the center of the controversy.

“Violence to a woman, already grave in itself,” he stated, “assumes an even more blameworthy dimension when the one suffering is a girl, with the additional burden of poverty and the social degradation in which she lives.”

But all of these fine words of sympathy and compassion for the real victim of this incident do not mitigate the position of the Catholic Church, they only make it more reprehensible. An automatic penalty, inflicted with no consideration for the facts and circumstances in the case is not only irrational, it is inhumane. The indecency of expecting a little girl to carry to term a pregnancy that is the result of incestuous abuse by her own stepfather is only compounded by excommunicating the adults who tried to help her for acting responsibly, ending the pregnancy and saving her life.

The notion that it is morally superior to blindly follow edicts handed down by an organization that claims to speak for the god it worships rather than applying human reason, tempered with compassion and understanding, to resolve moral questions is both inhumane and irresponsible. Catholic prelates who treat this situation as though the chief problem is one of public relations and perception have no business instructing the rest of us on what constitutes a moral choice.

Now I should pause here to state for the record that I am well aware there are many Catholics who are as outraged by the church’s actions in this case as I am. But here’s the rub. While they may be outraged and may even speak out about it, I seriously doubt it will lead very many of them to reexamine either the institution or the theological assumptions on which that institution bases its actions. Christians always cry “foul” when the actions of other Christians are criticized.

“But that’s not me,” they protest. “I don’t think that way.”

Somehow, I suspect those demurrals are small comfort to those who are made to suffer by the obstinancy of the various institutions that claim to represent their god on earth. Nor does it in any way mitigate the culpability of Christianity to note that not all its members march in lockstep on all issues. The institutional churches must bear responsibility for their actions, whether all their members endorse those actions or not.

While opposing all abortions, regardless of the circumstances, the church also opposes condom use and virtually all other forms of contraception. As a consequence, family planning becomes much more problematic, and there are more unwanted children conceived every year. It spite of the illegality of abortion, it is estimated about one million of them are performed annually in Brazil, which has a population of about 200 million people, and about 200,000 women are treated in public health clinics and hospitals because of complications arising from abortions.

Not to be outdone by a Brazilian archbishop, Pope Benedict garnered some headlines of his own when he reaffirmed the Catholic Church’s prohibition of condom use in the fight against AIDS during his recent visit to Africa, where the disease has killed more than 25 million people since the 1980s and about 22.5 million people suffer from the HIV virus. Drawing on his vast medical knowledge, the Pope not only prohibited condoms but stated their use actually made the AIDS problem worse. This in spite of solid medical evidence that condom use is one of the best ways to prevent the spread of the disease.

There is no question the church is correct when it proclaims that abstinence is the only sure-fire prevention against the spread of the HIV virus, which leads to AIDS. That logic applies to all sexually transmitted diseases and, by the way, to unwanted pregnancies as well. However, it is not just unrealistic but inhumane to expect human beings to refrain from sexual activity altogether, and it borders on the criminal to suggest that one of the most effective tools in the fight against AIDS actually makes the problem worse. Spreading such dishonest information virtually guarantees there will be more deaths. Yet the church absolves itself of any responsibility on the grounds it is occupying the moral high ground.

The heightened focus enabled by tunnel vision can be useful when one is attempting to work on a project or pursue a career and wants to minimize distractions. However, it is immoral to apply tunnel vision to the issues arising out of human sexuality and pretend to be dispensing the rules handed down by a moral tyrant who speaks only in absolutes and has no capacity for a nuanced understanding of human behavior. It is indecent to condemn the adults who helped a nine-year-old Brazilian girl after she had been raped and made pregant by her stepfather. It is morally unconscionable to deny potentially life-saving tools to people threatened by a horrific pandemic like AIDS and to claim, as the Pope did about condoms, that their use only makes matters worse.

Human morality is the product of our own genetic and social evolution. As human societies have evolved, we have constantly refashioned the rules we agree to follow. Human morality has never been about absolute moral prescriptions to be followed by all people for all time. It always has been a work in progress. Attitudes that once were accepted, by the religious and non religious alike, as perfectly moral are today deplored as primitive and barbaric.

But while churches also adapt their moral principles, they do so at a much slower rate than human societies. That is why they so often seem out of date and out of step. The kind of immoral tunnel vision articulated by the Catholic Church in the case of a girl in Brazil and potential AIDS victims in Africa demonstrates, for all who will see, just how bankrupt its version of human morality has become.

* I first learned about this while reading P. Z. Myers excellent blog Pharygula.

© 2009 by George A. Ricker

bbc.com. “Rape row sparks excommunication” –http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/7926694.stm
bbc.com. “Vatican defends abortion row bishop” –http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/7930380.stm
time.com. “Nine-year-old’s abortion outrages Catholic Church” –http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1883598,00.html
cbcpnews.com “Prelate denounces lack of mercy in Brazil Abortion” –http://cbcpnews.com/?q=node/7939
reuters.com “Pope in Africa reaffirms “no condoms” against AIDS” –http://www.reuters.com/article/worldNews/idUSTRE52G2RH20090317?sp=true

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