The Recife Affair

An unresolved controversy at the Pontifical Academy for Life.

A year-long controversy over the tragic case of the rape of a nineyear- old Brazilian girl, the abortion of her twins, and the comments of a senior Vatican official continues to rumble on.

Catholics working in the pro-life movement say the “Recife Affair” is a very grave, scandalous, and unresolved matter that has sown confusion, given succor to the pro-abortion lobby, and continues to threaten the lives of thousands of unborn children.

This “very sad” episode for the Church, as one senior Vatican official described it, can essentially be divided into two chapters. It begins on the 25th of February 2009 when doctors in the Brazilian city of Recife were planning to perform an abortion on a nine-yearold girl, fictitiously called Carmen, made pregnant with twins by a man who was living with the child’s mother. The doctors argued it was necessary to abort the twins to save the mother, whose young age put her life at risk.

On hearing of the case, the thenarchbishop of Olinda and Recife, Jose Cardoso Sobrinho, quoted Canon Law 1398 in order to warn all medical staff involved that they would be excommunicated from the Church if they went ahead with the abortion. (Canon 1398 states that anyone actually procuring an abortion incurs latae sententiae excommunication, meaning they excommunicate themselves at the moment the abortion takes place.) Contrary to some media reports, Archbishop Cardoso did not say the girl would be liable to excommunication.

The doctors ignored the bishop’s warning and carried out the abortion on March 4. Following a media outcry over the excommunication of the doctors, Archbishop Rino Fisichella, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, was asked to write what became a highly controversial article for the March 15 edition of the semi-official Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano. The article, which was meant to counter media claims that the Church lacked compassion, was cleared by Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican’s secretary of state, but not by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

In one paragraph, Archbishop Fisichella appeared to offer his unstinting support for the Church’s teaching on abortion. He argued that procured abortions have “always been condemned by the moral law as an intrinsically evil act” by the Church; he wrote that the Second Vatican Council used “unequivocal and very hard words against abortion” and he stressed that formal cooperation in abortion “constitutes a grave fault which, when it is performed, automatically takes one outside of the Christian community.”

But the same article expressed sympathy with the doctors. Fisichella wrote that choosing to “help stop the pregnancy” was a “difficult decision for the doctor and the moral law itself.” He indirectly rebuked Archbishop Cardoso, implying that he had lacked compassion, that the case had been “hastily” handled, and that there was no need “for so much urgency and publicity in declaring a fact [excommunication] that is carried out in an automatic manner.” He also appeared to defend the doctors’ “choices,” saying that they are made only with difficulty, and that it was “unjust” to assume that the abortion was done lightly. The girl’s life, he contended, was in “serious danger” because of her young age.

“Carmen should first of all have been defended, embraced, held in tenderness to convey that we were all with her; all of us, without distinction,” said Archbishop Fisichella. “Before thinking of excommunication, it was necessary and urgent to safeguard her innocent life and restore her to a level of humanity of which we, the people of the Church, should be witnesses and teachers.” Addressing the nine-yearold girl, he wrote: “Others deserve excommunication and our forgiveness, not those who enabled you to live and who will help you to recover your hope and trust—despite the presence of evil and the wickedness of many.”


The Diocese of Recife swiftly denounced the article. In a seven-point statement issued March 16, it drew attention to a number of factual errors in the piece. The diocese stressed the girl was given all the pastoral care needed by her parish priest and that the Church made every effort to save all three lives. The statement rejected Archbishop Fisichella’s words that the “decision is difficult… for the moral law itself,” stating that the Church “continues to proclaim that the moral law is exceedingly clear: it is never licit to eliminate the life of an innocent person to save another life.”

The diocese’s statement also stressed that it was not necessary to carry out the abortion to save the life of the mother, and quoted a veteran obstetrician who said that in his experience, he and his colleagues “had never had to resort to an abortion to ‘save lives.’” The diocese also stated that Archbishop Cardoso didn’t publicize the excommunication until asked by a journalist on March 3, and took issue with Fisichella’s wish that the diocese had remained silent on the matter, saying such an approach would be interpreted as “collusion and complicity.” Finally, the diocese stressed that the doctors did not sense any moral dilemmas: their hospital often performs such abortions and the doctors in question said they carried out this termination “with great pride.”

“[Fisichella] believed he could speak about [a situation] he did not know, and, what is worse, he did not even take the trouble of first speaking to his brother in the episcopate,” the diocesan statement concluded. “For his imprudent attitude, he is causing great scandal among the Catholic faithful in Brazil, who are believing that Archbishop José Cardoso Sobrinho was rash in his pronouncements. Instead of seeking his brother in the episcopate, he chose to believe in our openly anticlerical press.”

According to informed sources, the majority of the members of the Pontifical Academy were “horrified” by Archbishop Fisichella’s article but preferred not to say so publicly for “protocol reasons.” Msgr. Ignacio Barreiro CarÁmbula, Rome director of Human Life International, told CWR on March 19 that the article continues to create “a very serious confusion on the teachings of the Church on abortion” and has since “been interpreted by many promoters of abortion as if the Church has changed its position, that in some extraordinary cases when the life of the mother it is at risk it is licit to do an abortion.”

Frances Kissling, the notorious honorary president of the pro-abortion Catholics for a Free Choice, wrote on March 23, 2009 that Fisichella’s article represented “an amazing shift” in the Vatican’s position on abortion. What is perhaps more interesting, she added, is that Fisichella implied doctors can make moral judgments of their own, regardless of established Church teaching. She concluded: “The fact is, he has opened a crack, through which women, doctors and political decisionmakers can slip in. I am grateful for small steps.”

Christine de Marcellus Vollmer, a Venezuelan senior member of the Pontifical Academy for Life and board chairman of the Alliance for the Family, said the archbishop should have instead focused on the root causes of this tragedy, namely the pitiful conditions in South America in which many people are forced to live in one-bedroom shacks. “This is what has to be addressed,” she said. “This poor little girl will never be able to live a normal life, so to add abortion on top of all that is simply heaping more abuse on an already horrible situation.”

Shortly after Fisichella’s article appeared, 27 of the Pontifical Academy for Life’s 46 members wrote him a letter asking that he correct the “mistaken” positions he had expressed. He replied on April 21, curtly rejecting the request. That led to 21 of the signatories of the previous letter taking the case to Cardinal William Levada, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, asking for a clarification on the Church’s teaching on abortion. When they received no reply (it had been forwarded to the office of Cardinal Bertone as officials at the Secretariat of State had requested the article), two members sent a dossier directly to the Pope.

On June 8th, Benedict XVI discussed the case with Cardinal Bertone, and ordered that a statement be published reconfirming that the Church’s teaching on abortion was unchanged. The CDF published a clarification July 11 in which it upheld the Church’s teaching and quoted the Catechism of the Catholic Church and John Paul II’s encyclical Evangelium Vitae. Although it didn’t state that Archbishop Fisichella had made mistakes—only that his article had been subjected to “manipulation and exploitation”—the clarification satisfied some of the academy’s members, who considered the matter closed. (Pro-life doctors, however, were still not satisfied with the clarification as the issue of conscience was not addressed.)

In January, one respected member of the Academy for Life, Msgr. Michel Schooyans, professor emeritus at the Catholic University of Louvain, wrote a scathing criticism of Archbishop Fisichella’s article. Without naming Fisichella directly, he denounced what he called “pseudo-compassion” invoked in favor of the perpetrators. Such a position, he said, can lead to heresy and division within the Church because it incites the faithful to deviate from a non-negotiable element of the doctrine of the Church: the duty to respect innocent life. “Pseudo-compassion reinforces the movement toward the ‘tyranny of relativism’ observable in some pastors and/or theologians,” Schooyans wrote. The severity of excommunication, he continued, is actually “a high expression of charity” as it is an “urgent call to a change of life” and “nothing more than an expression of the love of the Church for the weakest and an invitation to repentance.”


Schooyans’ thoughtful essay, however, helped to spark what would become the second chapter in this ongoing saga. At the Academy for Life’s plenary meeting in February, members were “massively shocked” when, in a speech on February 11, Archbishop Fisichella criticized those in the academy who had asked him, and then the CDF, for a clarification. He told them members were carrying out personal and political attacks, borne out of “malice” and “spite.” When asked in an interview with Catholic News Service on Feb. 12 about Msgr. Schooyans’ critique, he said: “If a member of the academy, if some people, for reasons of political exploitation, wanted to misconstrue my words, it is not my responsibility. Rather it’s the responsibility of those who wanted to create a situation of conflict.”

But for Vollmer, what was “more grave” was that Fisichella told the members at the meeting that his position on the Recife case had been totally “vindicated” by the CDF’s clarification. She claimed he was referring to the first introductory paragraph concerning “manipulation and exploitation” of the letter—words, she said, which had “actually been doctored by himself, as a member of CDF.”

Speaking to CWR on March 22, Vollmer said it was “mendacious” of Fisichella to claim that the Vatican had backed him totally. “What was happening was that we were back to square one: he was reiterating that what the doctors had done was correct and justified, and that the archbishop [Cardoso] was the one who should have been castigated.”

The February 12 Catholic News Service article also unfortunately gave a false impression that all was well within the academy, mainly because its reporter had interviewed Vollmer before Archbishop Fisichella had addressed the meeting and, at that time, all did seem well. But it wasn’t published until five days after Vollmer was interviewed and after the archbishop’s “incendiary” remarks. CNS defended itself, saying the date Vollmer was interviewed was clearly written in the article.

To help clarify the situation, Vollmer, together with four other academy members, including Msgr. Schooyans, decided to go public. In a signed public statement issued February 16, the five signatories stated that it seemed the CDF clarification “failed to clarify” the archbishop’s mind, “and, if that is the case, it raises a troubling question about just how generally effective the ‘clarification’ has been in dispelling the false understanding of the Church’s teaching about direct abortion” conveyed by the L’Osservatore article. The signatories were also concerned that failure to issue such a statement as a challenge to Fisichella would create “the unfortunate impression that Academicians are behind his presidency, resignedly or otherwise.” Such an impression, they wrote, was one he was “evidently interested in propagating.”

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” the statement continued. It concluded: “Far from creating unity and genuine harmony in the academy, Archbishop Fisichella’s address on the 11th of February had the effect of confirming in the minds of many Academicians the impression that we are being led by an ecclesiastic who does not understand what absolute respect for innocent human lives entails. This is an absurd state of affairs in a Pontifical Academy for Life [their emphasis] but one which can be rectified only by those who are responsible for his appointment as president.”

In comments to journalists in response to the statement, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said he found it “a bit strange that persons who are members of an academy address a request of this kind without addressing it to the competent authorities.” He added that he had serious misgivings that such a document “should be given public circulation.”

Father Lombardi believed that such a statement, which involved people who had all been appointed by the Pope and other high authorities, should really be addressed privately to those same authorities. He also mentioned that Msgr. Schooyans was not present at the academy’s plenary meeting (for reasons of ill health), which would have been the obvious place “to bring up a problem of this nature.”

Vollmer wrote to Father Lombardi on March 7 stressing that the academy’s February 19 statement wasn’t a request to the Holy Father that Archbishop Fisichella be removed, but simply a request for the “clarification of important facts…to correct the false impression of unity conveyed to the press on February 12 by our president.” She asked Father Lombardi to correct his previous statement. But in her letter to him, she also made reference to words the Vatican spokesman allegedly said in support of therapeutic abortion while in Luanda, Angola with the Pope in March 2009.

Following an address by Pope Benedict XVI, in which the Holy Father denounced the idea of abortion being considered maternal health care, Father Lombardi was reported as saying: “The Pope absolutely was not talking about therapeutic abortion, and did not say that this must always be rejected.” Lombardi has said that these words were never said by him, but were a fabrication by journalists. Instead, he was explaining the specific African context to which the Pope referred in his address on the defense of life, namely the Maputo Protocol, which was adopted by several African states in 2003 to secure rights for women on the continent, including the right to an abortion. Lombardi said he was unaware of the misquotation as he was too busy on the papal trip.

Contrary to what some academy members believed, therefore, Father Lombardi was not aligning himself with Archbishop Fisichella on this case and that quotation wasn’t only false, it also bore no relevance to the Recife affair. “When I was asked to give a further explanation, I reiterated the traditional Church doctrine on abortion,” Father Lombardi wrote in a letter to Vollmer on March 11. Speaking to CWR on March 22, Vollmer said that what bothered the academy was that neither Archbishop Fisichella nor Father Lombardi have since told the world that therapeutic abortion is objectively evil and should not be done. “This is what bothers us because, as Pilate said, what is written is written, and that is what people are going to use.”

Speaking to CWR on March 24, Father Lombardi was willing to set the record straight, and stressed that traditional Church doctrine on abortion “does not consider therapeutic abortion lawful.”

The situation regarding Archbishop Fisichella, however, remains serious and has yet to be resolved. The academy would still like to hear a clarification from him, one that condemns the practice of all abortion, including therapeutic terminations. Until that happens, pro-lifers argue, the lack of clarity will continue to be exploited by pro-abortion groups. “Right now Uruguay and Nicaragua are both trying to legalize abortion, and of course the proabortionists are now saying: ‘Well even the Church says…’”, Vollmer warned. “And as soon as they’ve got therapeutic abortion, everything goes. There’s no protection left.”

As matters stand, Archbishop Fisichella’s continued position as president of the Academy for Life is said to be hindering the institution’s work with other pro-life groups. Msgr. Barreiro said his own communications with the current president “do not seem to be fluent.”

Vollmer said she was encouraged by Archbishop Fisichella when he took over as president of the academy, and was impressed by his “energy and determination.” But she argued that if he isn’t 100 percent pro-life and is willing to excuse a double abortion, “then he should not be president.”

Another academy member, Professor Josef Seifert, praised Archbishop Fisichella’s “brilliant mind” but said his apparent position on abortion “would make it impossible to nominate him as bishop of a diocese, let alone of a diocese linked to a cardinal’s hat and rank.” He added: “If I were a bishop and had the most brilliant and knowledgeable seminarian in the world asking me to ordain him as a priest after having held similar views about abortion, I would never ordain him to be a priest and if I were to do so, would fear for my eternal salvation.”

Asked if she would request he resign, Vollmer said: “That’s not my call, that’s the Holy Father’s call, but these things just can’t be swept under carpet.” She also stressed that it would have been “absolutely irresponsible” for the academy to let this matter go unaddressed. “He has gone back and is bending the CDF documents to say that he is right,” she stressed. “That’s very grave indeed.”

Msgr. Barriero felt that unless further clarification is forthcoming, Archbishop Fisichella “runs the risk” of causing further doctrinal confusion. Such a state of affairs, he warned, “would lead to the killing of thousands upon thousands of innocent babies worldwide.”

For many pro-lifers, therefore, the ball clearly remains very much—and very urgently—in Archbishop Fisichella’s court.


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About Edward Pentin 11 Articles
Edward Pentin began reporting on the pope and the Vatican with Vatican Radio before moving on to become the Rome correspondent for EWTN's National Catholic Register. He has also reported on the Holy See and the Catholic Church for a number of other publications including Newsweek, Newsmax, Zenit, The Catholic Herald, and The Holy Land Review, a Franciscan publication specializing in the Church and the Middle East. Edward is the author of “The Next Pope: The Leading Cardinal Candidates” (Sophia Institute Press, 2020) and “The Rigging of a Vatican Synod? An Investigation into Alleged Manipulation at the Extraordinary Synod on the Family” (Ignatius Press, 2015).