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An Important Quarrel in Rome

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Feb 19, 2010

You probably remember the case of the abortions performed on the Brazilian girl who was impregnated with twins by her step-father last year. Archbishop José Cardoso Sobrinho publicly stated that the doctors who performed the abortions would incur excommunication. But the President of the Pontifical Academy for life then wrote an essay in L’Osservatore Romano in which he sharply criticized Archbishop Sobrinho for an alleged lack of sensitivity to the difficulties of the situation, especially for the girl. Archbishop Salvatore Fisichella argued that the Church would have been better served by a strong display of mercy and tenderness rather than a pronouncement of justice.

If this had been all that was said, it would be a case of two prelates disagreeing about the best pastoral approach to a serious situation, something in itself as unobjectionable as it is common. It would have been rare and troublesome only because of the serious and rather obviously deliberate faux pas of an archbishop in Rome unilaterally using the Vatican’s newspaper to criticize the archbishop on the scene—a criticism which was also ill-informed, none of his business ecclesiastically, and leveled without any effort to discuss the issue in advance with his Brazilian brother. Moreover, his Brazilian brother was already under heavy secularist attack. If this was circling the wagons, then Fisichella is an Apache.

But, in fact, this isn’t all that was said, for Archbishop Fisichella also went on to wring his verbal hands over how difficult the moral case was, and how the conflicting values involved required that the moral decision be left to the doctors alone. Not only is this false; it is false in a way that should never be misunderstood by the man who leads the Pontifical Academy for Life. Nobody likes the fact that a prematurely fertile nine-year-old girl was raped repeatedly by her step-father until she became pregnant with twins. Nobody likes the horrible situation this put the girl in. Nobody likes the available options. Nobody likes the suffering each of those options entails. But the moral truth is exceedingly clear. The innocent babies in the womb cannot be murdered in order to lessen the immediate suffering of the girl or her family. Earth to Fisichella.

Archbishop Sobrinho, as may be expected, asked repeatedly for space in L’Osservatore Romano to refute the falsehoods spread by Archbishop Fisichella. He was just as repeatedly refused, a fact which speaks volumes against the current editor of L’OR, who seems to have no trouble finding room for more “relevant” topics like the evaluation of rock music and popular films. In fact, it was not until the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a statement to the effect that Archbishop Sobrinho had been perfectly right in his moral analysis that the Vatican’s own newspaper finally set the record straight by publishing that statement. But Archbishop Fisichella never apologized to his fellow prelate who, having reached the age of 76, has since resigned his post in Brazil.

While Archbishop Sobrinho was at length vindicated by the CDF, there is a rather serious sense of a vacuum of leadership at the Pontifical Academy for Life. Into the vacuum have stepped five members of the Academy who earlier this month demanded Archbishop Fisichella’s resignation. The demand comes from prominent pro-life champions and scholars from Belgium, the United Kingdom, Venezuela, and Poland—a priest, three lay men and a lay woman.

If you think it is rare for one archbishop to publicly and directly rebuke another in the press, I can tell you that it is even more rare for the members of a pontifical academy to publicly demand the resignation of their president. This is an unmistakable sign of both the growing militancy within what is, after all, supposed to be the Church militant, and the growing importance of faithful lay leaders in stiffening the ecclesiastical backbone.

This could be very interesting. Stay tuned.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: humblesoldier4christ - Feb. 21, 2010 1:58 AM ET USA

    "...a fact which speaks volumes against the current editor of L’OR, who seems to have no trouble finding room for more “relevant” topics like the evaluation of rock music and popular films...But Archbishop Fisichella never apologized to his fellow prelate..." Does this somehow support the long-suspected but never seriously discussed notion that there are people in the interior of the Church trying to destroy her from within?

  • Posted by: Frodo1945 - Feb. 20, 2010 9:56 AM ET USA

    "faithful lay leaders stiffening the ecclesiastical backbone" Amen. And may we get more and more of it.

  • Posted by: - Feb. 20, 2010 6:33 AM ET USA

    Fire the archbishop and the editor of Osservatore Romano.