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Open season on Catholicism

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Nov 16, 2012

It’s open season on Catholicism. In Ireland and in Australia, public opinion is being whipped into frenzy in crusades against Church teachings. In both cases the arguments are thoroughly irrational.

  • In Ireland, Savita Halappanavar died a horrible, painful, needless death. But rather than mourning her death, and demanding a full accounting of where the doctors went wrong, pundits are blaming the tragedy on teachings of the Catholic Church. We really don’t know, at this point, what caused her death. But one thing is quite clear already: it was not due to Catholic teaching, nor to Catholic influence on Ireland's laws.
  • In Australia, there are angry demands for Catholic priests to break the confessional seal. This campaign is fueled by the notion that the seal has protected perpetrators of sexual abuse. There is zero evidence—zero—to support that notion. And there is ample evidence that the campaign against the Catholic Church is tinged by political motives.

Let’s examine each case rationally.

The Irish case

Savita Halappanavar, we are told, was already miscarrying when she reported to the hospital in October. We don’t know what the doctors said or did, because the hospital has—quite rightly, protecting the confidentiality of medical records—declined to comment on the case. News reports allege that she asked for an abortion, and the doctors refused. We don’t know whether those reports are completely accurate. We do know that the reports are confusing, because a woman who is having a miscarriage cannot have an abortion; it’s medically and logically impossible. A miscarriage ends a pregnancy; in fact miscarriage is also known as “spontaneous abortion.”

But let’s assume, for the sake of the argument, that doctors refused to hasten the process that was ending this ill-fated pregnancy. And let’s assume, too, that the doctors refused because they felt the laws or Ireland and/or the laws of the Catholic Church prevented them from taking the action necessary to save Savita Halappanavar’s life. If that is what happened, and that is what the doctors thought, then the doctors were wrong!

The moral teachings of the Catholic Church require doctors to treat the life of an unborn child as precious—but not more precious than the life of the mother. If the lives of both mother and child are in jeopardy—as was evidently the case here—doctors are morally obligated to do whatever is possible to save both lives. If the life of the unborn baby was already doomed, as a miscarriage was beginning, the doctors were morally obligated to devote their attention to saving the mother’s life.

As for Irish law, the existing statutes allow for abortion if it is necessary to save the mother’s life. If the facts of this case have been accurately presented, the doctors had the legal authority to perform an abortion (or hasten the miscarriage, if that is a more accurate description).

So when editorialists cry that the Irish laws must be changed, to eliminate the influence of Catholic teaching on abortion laws in such cases, they are wrong in two respects. First, Church teaching did not forbid the doctors from taking appropriate action to save Savita Halappanavar’s life. Second, existing law gave doctors the authority to do what they needed to help the poor woman.

Something went badly wrong in this case, and Savita Halappanavar did not receive the medical treatment that she needed. But the tragedy cannot rationally be laid at the feet of the Catholic Church or the Irish abortion law.

The Australian case

The Australian government has formed a commission to investigate the abuse of children, and the top question on the minds of political commentators is whether the commission will demand that Catholic priests disclose what they have heard in sacramental confessions.

The Church in Australia is certainly vulnerable; the stories about sexual abuse by priests have been both shocking and yet at the same time depressingly familiar. There is abundant evidence that Church leaders ignored complaints of clerical abuse, shuffled abusive priests off to new assignments, and covered up evidence. However—here’s the first critical point—this evidence has been drawn from diocesan personnel files and other public accounts. There’s plenty of evidence already on the record, and much more available in chancery offices. The federal commission might read through the diocesan files and find damning evidence; that’s roughly what happened in American sex-abuse cases.

But—here’s the second critical point—that evidence has absolutely nothing to do with sacramental confession. The confessional seal is absolute; a priest can never disclose what he has heard from a penitent. So if there is material in the diocesan files to show that a priest was known to be abusing children, that material did not come from sacramental confessions. By the same token, if a bishop or priest hears reports of abuse outside the confessional, then he is obligated—certainly morally obligated, and probably legally obligated as well—to pass those reports along to civil authorities.

So if the Australian investigatory commission finds documentary evidence that bishops and priests have protected predators, those bishops and priests deserve whatever condemnation they will receive. But the documents—which should be readily available to the investigators—will have nothing to do with the Catholic practice of sacramental confession.

A straightforward investigation would examine the documentary records first, and worry later about other potential sources of evidence. So why has this debate about the confessional seal erupted, even before the investigation begins? It is not paranoid to note that Prime Minister Julia Gillard has frequently been at odds with the Church on moral issues. Nor is it irrelevant that her main political rival, opposition leader Tony Abbott, is a Catholic who is well known to take his Church’s teachings seriously. So an attack on the confessional seal—a sacramental discipline that few Australians fully understand—can yield some political dividends.

In Ireland and in Australia, the attacks on the Church are political and opportunistic. In Ireland, doctors may have made a fatally bad decision—again, we don’t know that yet—and commentators have been quick to blame not the doctors but the Church. In Australia, diocesan officials have protected abusers, and commentators are pinning the blame not on those corrupt officials but on the sacrament of Penance. In each case, a calm logical analysis shows that the attack against Catholicism is misguided. But all sorts of attacks, misguided or not, are likely when it’s open season.

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Show 1 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: spledant7672 - Nov. 17, 2012 1:29 PM ET USA

    It is always open season on the Catholic Church and ever shall be. The blessing for the Church's opponents is that their opposition provides the occasion for receiving correction such as this, that they might turn and be saved. Thank you for your ministry to all.

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