In Catholic Circles

An International News Roundup

Vol. XXX- No. 1

In this Issue:

The Church and Abortion

The Church and Bioethics

The Church and Contraception

The Church and Sexual Abuse

The Church and Abortion

Brazilian Bishops Condemn Family and Doctors in Rape Case


Brazilian bishops caused an outcry around the world when they condemned a nine-year-old girl, her family and the doctors who treated her when she had an abortion following a rape by her stepfather.


Catolicas pelo Direito de Decidir, CFC’s sister organization in Brazil, asked the question, “If this child—who has a real and concrete existence, with a life story, personal relationships, affections, feelings and thoughts—if this child does not deserve to have her own life protected, whose life are they trying to save?”


Despite the tragic circumstances surrounding this case, the hierarchy of the Catholic church in Brazil denounced the family’s decision, suggesting that her life would not have been in danger if she had continued the pregnancy and had a cesarean section. Archbishop José Cardoso Sobrinho went so far as to suggest that the girl’s family and her doctors had been excommunicated. Adding to the furor, top Vatican officials immediately supported the actions of the Brazilian bishops.


Following a storm of adverse reaction to the church hierarchy, the Vatican was forced to back down and acknowledge that the matter had not been handled well.


Archbishop Rino Fisichella, head of the Pontifical Academy for Life, noted that the rush to condemn the girl and her family had damaged “the credibility of our teaching which appears in the eyes of so many as insensitive, incomprehensible and lacking in mercy.” He continued, “Before thinking about excommunication, it was necessary and urgent to save her innocent life and bring her back to a level of humanity of which we men of the church should be expert and masters in proclaiming.”


Under the current law in Brazil, abortion is permissible in cases of rape or when a pregnant woman’s life is threatened by the pregnancy. It was clear to all that this case qualified on both counts as it would have been nearly impossible for the young girl to carry the pregnancy to term with her immature body.


Spain to Liberalize Abortion Laws


In February, legislators in Spain took a step towards liberalizing the country’s abortion laws. Under the current law, abortion is only legal in the case of rape during the first twelve weeks or in the case of fetal malformation during the first 22 weeks. The proposed legislation would make early abortions available on request and liberalize later term abortionswith some restrictions.


The Spanish bishops have led the opposition to the proposed law and sponsored an antiabortion march protesting the legislation. Organizers claimed 100,000 attendees, but official attendance figures were closer to 5,000.


The process of changing the law could take until the end of the year and prochoice advocates have ramped up their efforts in support of the new law. La Red Estatal de Organizaciones Feministas, a group of 200 women’s organizations which includes Catolicas por el Derecho a Decidir in Spain, have provided a strong counterpoint to the church hierarchy and their conservative allies. They are actively lobbying Spanish members of parliament and intend to flood Spain with messages of support for the new legislation.


Northern Ireland Health Department Issues Guidelines on Abortion


The Department of Health in Northern Ireland has published guidelines on abortion for health professionals. Under the current law, abortion is only legal in cases where the pregnancy is likely to damage the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman. While these guidelines will not ease the restrictions on abortion, prochoice supporters welcomed the publication of the guidelines as a step towards greater clarity as to which abortions are permitted in Northern Ireland.

Audrey Simpson of the Family Planning Association said, “I think it is the first time the Department of Health has had to formally acknowledge women in Northern Ireland are no different from the women in the rest of the UK, that they want to access abortion services and in fact they are accessing abortion services.”

Indeed, women in Northern Ireland have gone to great lengths to seek these services. Recent figures show that between 2003 and 2007, 6,400 women from Northern Ireland were forced to travel to England and Wales to access safe abortion services.

Surveys Show Most US Catholics Support Access to Abortion

When the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) did a poll on the opinion of US adults on abortion, they sought to hide the results by releasing them on December 30th when few journalists were paying attention.

The results, which the bishops have failed to make available in full, show that a mere 11% of the nation’s adults support a complete ban on abortion. This figure is one of the lowest found in a large-scale poll in recent years.

Similarly notable, a Gallup poll found that Catholic opinion is nearly identical to non-Catholic opinion on abortion. In this poll, 40% of Catholics found abortion to be morally acceptable compared to 41% of non-Catholics. Broken down even more, the poll found that 24% of Catholics who regularly attend church and 52% of irregular churchgoers find abortion morally acceptable. These numbers show that by and large US Catholics do not share the values of the church hierarchy on abortion.

The Gallup poll also determined that Catholic sentiment is either equivalent or more liberal to that of non-Catholics on nine issues, ranging from abortion to stem-cell research.


Archbishop Burke Forced into Humiliating Apology

Archbishop Raymond Burke, the former bishop of St. Louis and current head of the Vatican’s highest court, was forced to make an embarrassing retreat after giving an interview in which he criticized US bishops for neglecting to withhold Communion from prochoice politicians.

While still in St. Louis and in the lead up to the 2004 election, Burke gained notoriety for supporting the denial of Communion to prochoice politicians. A small handful of bishops supported his efforts, but the vast majority demurred from turning the altar rail into a political battleground.

In the interview with the notorious antiabortion self-publicist and founder of Operation Rescue, Randall Terry, Burke stated that the bishops’ inaction “is weakening the faith of everyone. It’s giving the impression that it must be morally correct to support procured abortion.”

Burke was forced to apologize for his comments, claiming that he did not know how the interview would be used. “I am deeply sorry for the confusion and hurt which the wrong use of the videotape has caused to anyone, particularly, to my brother bishops.”

During the interview, Burke named two bishops,  Washington Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl and Arlington Bishop Paul Loverde, and called on Catholics to confront them about their alleged inaction. “I would encourage the faithful when they are scandalized by the giving of Holy Communion to persons [who] are publicly and obstinately in sin, that they go to their pastors, whether it’s their parish priest or to their bishop, to insist that this scandal stop,” he said.

Bishop Paul Loverde of Arlington, Va, responded to Burke’s statement suggesting that it is a matter of individual conscience. He said, “If you are Catholic, you have the responsibility to think carefully about what it means to present yourself for Communion. You should present yourself for Communion when you are in harmony with the church’s teaching, free of mortal sin and living your life accordingly, and not receive when you are not.”

In an interview with the Washington Post, Rev. Thomas Reese, a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University, said that Burke “really violated the episcopal etiquette. You don’t criticize other bishops in public, and you don’t tell other bishops how to run their diocese,” he said.

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The Church and Bioethics

Italy Liberalizes Assisted Reproductive Technology Law; Bishops Protest

In 2004, Italy passed a law restricting the use of assisted reproductive technology. One part of the law limited the number of embryos that could be implanted in a woman to three.

However, after a series of decisions by lower level courts, the Constitutional Court in Italy rejected this part of the law, noting that it failed to ensure that a woman’s health was taken into account upon implantation.

The hierarchy of the Catholic church denounced the ruling. Bishop Elio Sgreccia, honorary president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, asserted, “Without limits, it is clear that a much bigger number of embryos will be sacrificed.”

As a result of the three-embryo limit, which came about in part because of Vatican pressure when the original law was drafted, many Italian couples went abroad to seek assisted reproductive services. In fact, 40 percent of European couples travelling to other countries for assisted reproductive services were Italian.

Vatican Absolves Charles Darwin

A century and a half after the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, the Vatican has come out in support of Darwin’s theory, long thought to be incompatible with Catholic teachings. In doing so, the Vatican warded off any speculation that Pope Benedict might come out in support of Intelligent Design.

Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi, head of the Pontifical Council for Culture, declared that the theory of evolution was compatible with Christianity and could even be traced back to St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. He said, “What we mean by evolution is the world as created by God.”

President Obama Lifts Stem-Cell Research Restrictions; Catholics Are in Support

On March 9, 2009, US President Barack Obama lifted many of the restrictions on embryonic stem-cell research imposed by the Bush administration. The US bishops immediately denounced the measure as “a sad victory of politics over science and ethics.” However, as an overwhelming majority (63 percent) of Catholics support stem-cell research, the bishops’ denunciation is not indicative of church-wide sentiment.


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The Church and Contraception


Catholics Decry Pope’s Denunciation of Condom Use to Prevent HIV

Governments and organizations around the world were quick to respond to Pope Benedict’s denunciation of condom use as a mean to prevent the transmission of HIV made en route to Cameroon.

Both the French Foreign Ministry and the German Health Minister expressed “strong concern” about the pope’s comments as did UNAIDS. Spain announced that it will send one million condoms to Africa to fight the spread of HIV. The Belgian parliament went so far as to pass an official resolution denouncing the pope’s remarks.

Bishops, too, spoke out against the pope’s comments. Hans-Jochen Jaschke, a Catholic auxiliary bishop of Hamburg, Germany, spoke of the need for “no taboo on the condom issue.” And two bishops from Portugal suggested that condom use to prevent the transmission of HIV is “ethically obligatory.”

During an interview on the papal plane, the pope stated, “It is my belief that the most effective presence on the front in the battle against is in fact the Catholic church and her institutions. … The problem of HIV/AIDS cannot be overcome with mere slogans. If the soul is lacking, if Africans do not help one another, the scourge cannot be resolved by distributing condoms; quite the contrary, it worsens the problem.”

Although the pope received the reporter’s question on HIV two days before the flight, the Vatican press office was quick to backpedal on his words. When they published the quote, they changed the language of the last sentence from “worsens the problem” to “risks worsening the problem.” Compounding the uproar, which was international news for several days, the Vatican information service then changed the words back days later.


Bishops Support Refusal Clauses on False Pretenses

As the Obama administration prepares to review refusal clause regulations introduced by the Bush administration at the very end of its term, the US Catholic bishops tried to encourage the new administration to retain these regulations.

The USCCB’s press releases, editorials and YouTube videos suggest that in rescinding the refusal clause regulation, Catholic health-care workers would be forced to perform procedures which contradict their conscience. The tactic, while effective in arousing fear, does not reflect reality. Rescinding the regulations would prevent an extension of what procedures are covered by refusal clauses and prevent institutions from imposing institution-wide refusal clauses, but it would not interfere with the right of individuals to recuse themselves from certain procedures.

As was noted widely in the debate surrounding the process, the goal of any reasonable conscience clause must be to strike the right balance between the right of health-care professionals to provide care that does not offend their moral and religious beliefs and the right of patients to have access to the medical care they need.


US Bishops Misuse Federal Dollars; ACLU Speaks Out

In January, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a case contesting the government’s allocation of funds from the Trafficking Victim Protection Act to the USCCB on the basis that taxpayer dollars should not be used to impose religious beliefs on victims of trafficking.

The act funds organizations that provide direct services to trafficking victims. However, the USCCB prohibits the direct service organizations it supports with these dollars from providing the full spectrum of reproductive health services that might be needed to help women who have been trafficked. It also prohibits these subcontractors from using the funds to provide referrals for these services.

US bishops’ spokesperson Sr. Mary Ann Walsh responded to the case stating, “We will continue to provide those services in the contract that are consistent with our belief in the life and dignity of the human person.”

Daniel Mach, director of litigation for the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, remarked, “[This funding] has allowed USCCB to impose its religious beliefs on trafficking victims by prohibiting sub grantees from ensuring access to services like emergency contraception, condoms, and abortion care.”


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The Church and Sexual Abuse

Legionaries of Christ Founder Led Double Life; Vatican Visitation Announced

In February, reports broke throwing an even bigger cloud over the life of the founder of the Legionaries for Christ. It was revealed that the late Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, forced in 2005 by Pope Benedict to leave public ministry because of several accusations of sexual abuse, also fathered at least one child while he was a priest.

Following this disclosure, the Vatican has ordered an apostolic visitation of the Legionaries of Christ. According to the letter sent from the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the pope wants to help the Legionaries deal with problems with “truth and transparency.”

Maciel had been the subject of intense rumors for decades. But when then-Cardinal Ratzinger was asked about the accusations he dismissed them, even assaulting an American TV reporter who pursued the matter. Citing Maciel’s closeness to the pope, Ratzinger said, “One can’t put on trial such a close friend of the pope’s as Marcial Maciel.” Maciel died in 2008, rendering the possibility that he would be punished for his crimes moot.

There has been little remorse from the Legionaries, with most statements avoiding specifics and suggesting that there were “certain aspects of his life that are very hard to understand, aspects of his life that are not appropriate to the life of a priest.” The National Catholic Register, an ultraconservative weekly newspaper owned by the Legionaries, has virtually ignored the subject, apart from running a few newswire stories.

Critics of the Legionaries are heard from the most conservative and liberal sides of the church. Archbishop Edwin O’Brien of Baltimore, a self-professed conservative bishop, had placed the Legionaries under investigation in 2008 and since suggested that the order might have to be abolished.

Senior Irish Bishop Quits Over Dealing of Abuse Claims

Bishop John Magee of the diocese of Cloyne in Ireland and a former Vatican aide stepped down from his position in early March. The National Board for Safeguarding Children, a body set up by the Catholic church in Ireland, compiled a report on child protection in Cloyne that specified how Bishop Magee failed to inform authorities of sexual abuse allegations.

The report went on to state, “Any meetings that were convened by the diocese, such as the Child Protection Management Committee, are apparently focused on the needs of the accused priest. There is no documentary evidence that the ongoing risk to vulnerable children was discussed or considered at any time by them.”

Bishop Magee will not be stripped of his title and according to a diocesan statement he will now “devote the necessary time and energy to co-operating fully with the government Commission of Inquiry into child protection practices and procedures in the Diocese of Cloyne.”


Cardinal Mahony under Investigation for Failure to Properly Handle Abusive Priests

Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles is the subject of a federal grand jury investigation. During this investigation, US attorney Thomas O’Brien will determine if Mahony was at all fraudulent in his handling of priests accused of sexual abuse.

For several years, the cardinal has been accused of moving priests accused of abuse to other parishes instead of removing them from ministry. He has also refused access to the church’s personnel files.

Two years ago, the archdiocese agreed to pay $660 million to 508 victims of sexual abuse—the largest payout since the scandal broke in the 1990s.

The Los Angeles diocese, unlike the dioceses of Lincoln, Neb. and Tulsa, Okla., is considered to be compliant with the US bishops’ child protection charter, which was adopted in 2002 and calls for annual audits.


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“To tell the truth I cannot help laughing a little about this myth of my solitude. I do not feel alone at all. Every day I hold meetings with my closest collaborators, first among them the secretary of State. … Truly, I am surrounded by friends in a marvelous collaboration.. and I am grateful for this.”

— Pope Benedict answers a reporter’s question about his lack of contact with the outside world just minutes before he suggested that condom use would increase the spread of HIV. [1]

“He’s out of touch with the real world. On the condom issue, for example, there are priests and bishops in Africa who accept that condoms are a key part of the fight against AIDS, and yet the pope adheres to this very conservative line that they encourage promiscuity.”
—A Vatican insider remarks on Pope Benedict’s isolation from the real world. [2]
“The choice for a husband is clear. … A man can stand by silently and allow his wife to suffer the physical and spiritual consequences of contraception. Or he can defend her virtue, body and soul by using [natural family planning].”
—NFP instructor Tom Mealey, in an article on natural family planning for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Web site. [3]
“Turn off your cell phones, computer, the TV and the lights. See what’s left to do without electricity. Sing old songs, have a pillow fight, recount stories of how you met, plan for the future.”
—One of the ten cheap (and sex-free) date suggestions listed on the USCCB’s For Your Marriage Web site.[4]

“From a medical point of view, I have no doubt that there are obviously circumstances where prohibiting condoms is to consent to the death of many people… the people who are advising the pope should be more cultured.”
—Januário Torgal Ferreira, bishop of the armed forces of Portugal, responds to Pope Benedict’s comments denouncing condom use as a means to prevent the transmission of HIV. [5]
“One of the fundamental weaknesses of modern Christianity is its ambivalence to women, and particularly for Catholicism. Until the traditional churches fully resolve their relationship with the female half of the population, how can they expect Christianity to have a future in the modern world?”


—Cherie Blair urges the hierarchy of the Catholic church to advance women’s equality in the church. [6]
“It’s a small way to remember the importance of concrete and not virtual relationships. It’s an instrument to remind us that our actions and lifestyles have consequences in distant countries.”


—In a statement, the diocese of Modena in Italy urges the faithful to go on a high-tech fast for Lent. [7]
“Be careful with love. Think twice before marrying a Muslim, think seriously because it brings loads of hassleand even Allah can’t say where all that will end.”


—Cardinal Jose Policarpo of Lisbon warns Catholic women against marrying Muslim men. [8]



  1. Vatican Information Services, “Pope replies to questions from journalists,” March 17, 2009.
  2. Nick Squires, “Vatican insiders declare the pope a ‘disaster’,” Telegraph (UK), March 19, 2009..
  3. Tom Mealey, “Be Her Joseph!” USCCB, March 20, 2009.
  4. USCCB, “Ten Cheap Dates,” 2009.
  5. Mario de Queiroz, “Africa: Pope on condomsout in the cold,” IPS, March 24, 2009..
  6. Laura May, “Cherie attacks ‘sexism’ of the Catholic church,” Scotsman, March 2, 2009.
  7. Ariel David, “Italy faithful told to go on high-tech fast,” Associated Press, March 4, 2009.
  8. Agence France Presse, “Portuguese cardinal reportedly tells women not to marry Muslims,” January 14, 2009.
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