The facts of the case are both heartbreaking and surprisingly sparse in English-language media. A nine-year-old girl near Recife, Brazil, was repeatedly raped by her stepfather and became pregnant with twins. The girl’s mother and physicians elected to perform an abortion upon her for medical reasons, and now the mother and physicians are excommunicated from the Catholic Church.
This reporting generally advances three related ideas: that the Church imposed excommunications in retaliation for the abortions, that the Church imposes a lesser sanction upon a pedophiliac rapist than upon a well-meaning abortionist, and that the Church believes the little girl’s life is worth less than those of her unborn children. All three are false.
Myth No.1: The Church imposed excommunications in retaliation for the abortions. The standard media narrative is that the girl’s mother and physicians were excommunicated at the order of Archbishop Don Jose Cardoso Sobrinho of Recife, whose decision was supported by the Vatican in the person of Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re of the Church's Congregation for Bishops. CNN, the Associated Press, and the the New York Times, all reported that the archbishop excommunicated the mother for authorizing the operation and the doctors for performing the procedure.
Thus the narrative assumes its form, with a suffering little girl, a punitive archbishop, and an unfeeling Vatican bureaucracy. It is moving, it is rightly enraging, and it is wrong.
Wholly unreported in English-language media are the nature of the excommunications of the mother and physicians, and the theology of Catholic excommunication itself. A bit of basic reporting on the part of the relevant journalists might have uncovered the pertinent Canon Law (specifically, Book VI, Part II, Title VI, Cann. 1398), which states, “[a] person who procures a completed abortion incurs a latae sententiae excommunication.” (This is not as obscure as it may seem: It’s all on the Internet, and in English.) Latae sententiae signifies a thing done automatically, by virtue of the law and the act, and not by any person or deliberative body.
What seems like a technical point is in fact profoundly transformative to the received narrative: The mother and physicians were not excommunicated by the Church; they excommunicated themselves. Furthermore, the nature of excommunication in the Catholic Church is such that it is neither irreversible nor intrinsically damning. Though cut off from participation in, and leadership of, the Church’s sacramental functions, the excommunicated are still under obligation to repent, attend Mass, and live the life of the faithful.
Although certainly a harsh punishment, it is not an ex post facto punishment from a vengeful archbishop or his Church. Nor is it the worst fate within the Catholic purview, in this world or the next. That fate is, of course, eternal damnationa grim prospect held to be possible by all Christian denominations, and most non-Christian faiths as well. Excommunication does not speak to this, and thus non-excommunication does not either.
Myth No.2: The Church imposes a lesser sanction upon a pedophiliac rapist than upon a well-meaning abortionist. Here we arrive at another source of the outrage against the Church in this terrible affair: the perception that the victim is punished at the Church’s hands (via the excommunication of her mother and physicians), but her rapist is not. Again, the exercise of basic journalism could have dispelled this false belief. The latae sententiae penalty for an abortion is enshrined in Catholic Canon Law, and none is explicitly prescribed for rape or pedophiliabut it does not follow from this that rape and abortion are unpunished (and still less in any way sanctioned) by the Church.
In fact, these crimes by a mentally competent person are defined as mortal sins, which “[result] in the loss of charity and the privation of sanctifying grace . . . [and cause] exclusion from Christ's kingdom and the eternal death of hell.” (Once more, this passage from The Catechism of the Catholic ChurchPart 3, Section 1, Chapter 1, Article 8.IV.1861is neither inaccessible nor obscure, being available online and in English.) This is, from a Catholic sacramental standpoint, the de facto equivalent of excommunication, with the potential for being quite a bit worse: The participant in the sacraments may not receive their benefit by virtue of his state of mortal sin, and he runs the risk of profaning them by receiving them at all. In this light, the state of the pedophiliac rapist’s soul is in rather more peril than that of the excommunicated mother and physicians. The latter have the benefit, in the Church’s eyes, of a defined and revocable state in the world. The former cannot know his measure of mercy until it might be too late.
It is that measure of mercythat state of love or its lackthat lies at the heart of this case and the poor reporting on it. Among the many things unremarked by the media in its woeful coverage is the centrality of the immense moral difficulty of Catholicism and, indeed, Christianity in nearly all its forms. This difficulty comes not, as the shallow analyses of ordinary journalism have it, in comprehending the Church’s reaction to this abortion. Whether or not one agrees with it, that reaction is logical and predictable within the context of the Church’s teaching. Rather, the tremendous difficulty comes in whom the Church commands us to love.
Myth No.3: The Church believes the little girl’s life is worth less than those of her unborn children. “Love is patient, love is kind,” wrote Saint Paul, but he did not say it was either easy or obvious. Christian love, properly understood, is tremendously difficult. This central point is reiterated time and again in the gospel, in Christ’s exhortations to forgive, in his commands that we seek forgiveness, and in his parable of the Good Samaritan. The expansion of love and its demands is among the central facts that set the New Testament apart from the Old, and Christianity apart from other faiths.
The media incomprehension of the Brazilian case, and the outrage accompanying it, rests on more than just factual ignorance. There is also a moral ignorance that sees the Church failing to love the afflicted little girl, when in fact it demands an equal love for her unbornand now deadchildren. Alas, for the cause of insightful journalism, the Church (and most Christianity) delves far beyond a surface appreciation of basic affection in its demands on our love. The faithful get little credit for loving those whom they find easy to love. The imitation of Christ comes in loving the enemy, in loving the alien, in loving the unseen, and in loving the unborn.
Here we come to the final key error of the media narrative, asserting that the Church believes the little girl’s life is worth less than those of her unborn children. Leave aside the physicians’ proposition that pregnancy would have killed the girl in itself: This is unverifiable and unknowable, even if we may justly recoil in horror at the terrible fact of a pregnant nine-year-old, and the undeniable burdens thus placed upon her too-young body. Once more we acknowledge the baleful truth that every journalist reporting on this story has neglected to research or note that the Church has an established teaching on this very contingency.
It is worth quoting the relevant passage from Pope Pius XII’s 1951 Allocution to Large Families:
Never and in no case has the Church taught that the life of the child must be preferred to that of the mother. It is erroneous to put the question with this alternative: either the life of the child or that of the mother. No, neither the life of the mother nor that of the child can be subjected to an act of direct suppression. In the one case as in the other, there can be but one obligation: to make every effort to save the lives of both, of the mother and of the child.
The Catholic Church, Archbishop Don Jose Cardoso Sobrinho, and Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re did not and would not demand the death of an innocent girl. They wished for every effort to be made that the girl and her own children would live. To allege or imply otherwiseboth direct effects of the horrendous media coverage of this caseis grotesque in the extreme.
What, then, explains the failures of English-language, and specifically American, journalism in this awful affair? Partly it is a professional laziness, or more charitably, an inexactitude encouraged by understaffed newsrooms and deadline-driven reporting. Partly it is the foreignness of it all, with everyone directly involved speaking Brazilian Portuguese, and a consequent reliance upon translations and paraphrases transmitted from bureau to bureau.
Unfortunately, the foreignness doesn’t end there but also includes the stark unfamiliarity of faith and its demands. And so what we get is paraphrase that swiftly becomes inaccuracy, and inaccuracy that evolves into a series of fantastical lies: A self-imposed penalty becomes a mean-spirited rebuke; an Archbishop pleading for the life of the unborn becomes a malicious clerical martinet; and a depraved rapist of children becomes a Catholic in good standing. At the end of it all, the only truths in the media reports are those of two unborn children dead, one nine-year-old child horrendously violated, and the morass of anger and incomprehension resulting thereof.
Joshua Treviño is an Orthodox Christian writing from Sacramento, California.