A Sequel to the Case of the Pregnant 9-Year Old

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Jamil Bittar / REUTERS

People protest during an antiabortion march in Brasília

The Catholic Church (and Pope Benedict XVI) were presented with a public-relations powder keg in March when news broke that a 9-year-old Brazilian girl underwent an abortion after she'd been raped and impregnated with twins by her stepfather. Catholics from São Paulo to Paris were outraged by the swift public declaration of the local Archbishop, José Cardoso Sobrinho, that the girl's family as well as the doctors who performed the abortion were automatically excommunicated. Monsignor Rino Fisichella, a solidly traditionalist Rome prelate considered to be close to Benedict, tried to soften the church's approach to the case by writing in the Vatican's official newspaper L'Osservatore Romano that the girl "should have been defended, hugged and held tenderly to help her feel that we were all on her side." Two weeks ago, the Vatican announced that Sobrinho, who had been serving past retirement, was stepping down. And that's where the church stood. Until now.

In a tucked-away "clarification" published on page 7 of a recent edition of L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican produced a document that unequivocally confirmed automatic excommunication for anyone involved in an abortion — even in such a situation as dire as the Brazilian case. It settles any questions about the absolute nature of church doctrine on the matter of abortion — but it could potentially reignite the p.r. firestorm.

Church conservatives have steadfastly defended Sobrinho, who had rejected Fisichella's criticism of insensitivity and said he was simply stating Catholic doctrine in response to reporters' questions. The L'Osservatore Romano document makes it more than likely that the Pope has felt it necessary to publicly defend the Brazilian prelate's hard line, ordering up the clarification to straighten out any confusion created by Fisichella's article.

The brief document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the orthodoxy office that Benedict personally led before becoming Pope, defends Sobrinho's "pastoral delicacy" and leaves no wiggle room on the standing of the family and doctors who carried out the abortion. "Formal cooperation in an abortion constitutes a grave offense. The Church attaches the canonical penalty of excommunication to this crime against human life," reads the statement, which widely cites past Vatican documents. "The Church does not thereby intend to restrict the scope of mercy. Rather, she makes clear the gravity of the crime committed, the irreparable harm done to the innocent who is put to death, as well as to the parents and the whole of society." (While the doctor and the girl's parents were excommunicated, the girl, being under age 18, was not subject to automatic excommunication.)

While the doctrinal stance breaks no new ground, the question now, like in March, is a matter of emphasis. Why, months after the difficult issue had largely faded from view, did the Pope feel compelled to return to a case that could leave the church looking coldhearted? A senior Vatican official says the Pope was forced to back up the Brazilian bishop. "[Sobrinho] was furious," says the official. "There was the impression that the local bishop had been subjected to immediate scrutiny by the Holy See."

But beyond the constant tug-of-war between Rome and local dioceses, there is a more important principle at stake. "We have laws, we have a discipline, we have a doctrine of the faith," the official says. "This is not just theory. And you can't start backpedaling just because the real-life situation carries a certain human weight." Benedict makes it ever more clear that his strict approach to doctrine will remain a central pillar to his papacy, bad publicity be damned.