KANPUR, (chhotebhai*) — The deaths of Savita and Kasab have raised many issues of mortality and morality. In the calm after the storm it is time for some enlightened debate, devoid of passion and rhetoric. Both deaths brought into sharp focus the Catholic Church’s position on both mortality and its morality. Most of the views expressed, especially in TV debates, were heavily opinionated, prejudiced one way or the other, and terribly subjective. Savita’s death due to the alleged denial of a medical termination of pregnancy (why call it abortion?), and the death penalty to Kasab, have had their share of the self-righteous indignant brigade.

 Since the Catholic Church in India, particularly its hierarchy, fights shy of public debate and discourse, its views have not been adequately presented. Some of our Catholic “representatives” on TV, barring John Dayal, were so desperate to project Catholic “doctrine” that they ended up doing more harm than good; though they may have scored some brownie points with their mentors. In the absence of informed debate the field was wide open to critics from the ultra-right BJP, and the ultra-left pseudo-atheists.

Everything was painted in black and white, missing the nuances of grey expressed in the Latin saying “Veritas stat in medio” (truth lies in the middle). It is therefore imperative that the Catholic community be informed about authentic Catholic teaching pertaining to the taking of human life. The Holy Bible is ofcourse our perennial source of enlightenment. Its teachings have been updated through the theology of the Second Vatican Council’s documents (1962-65), particularly “The Dogmatic Constitution of the Church” (LG) and the “Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World” (GS). The legal aspects are in the New Code of Canon Law of1983, and the moral aspects in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) of 1990.

Before going into specifics on abortion or the death sentence I will first touch upon the Church’s changed self-understanding (Vat II ecclesiology) with reference to the modern world and the natural sciences. The pre-Vat II ecclesiology was best expressed in the words “Roma locuta est, causa finita est” (Rome has spoken, the chapter is closed). Post Vat-II this once professedly omniscient Church now humbly admits that it is only “the initial budding forth of the kingdom” (LG 5), that it comprises of a “human and divine element” (LG 8), and “truth can be found outside of its visible structure” (ibid). It is a pilgrim that “embraces sinners in its bosom” (ibid). So the Catholic Church is no longer the sole arbiter of truth, nor is it without its faults and limitations.

The Church respects other forms of knowledge, including that of the natural and behavioural sciences. It admits that there are “two orders of knowledge which are distinct, faith and reason” (GS 59). It says that when “sciences are practiced they use their own principles and their proper domain” (ibid). It “acknowledges this just liberty, especially of the sciences” (ibid). If “methodical investigation is carried out in a genuinely scientific manner and in accord with moral norms, it never truly conflicts with faith” (GS 36). It says that “in pastoral care appropriate use must be made  … of secular sciences, especially of psychology and sociology” (GS 62). This is true even for “moral theology and its scientific exposition” (OT 16). Nevertheless, as with itself, the Church also points out the limitations of science. “The methods of investigation which these sciences use can be wrongly considered as the supreme rule for discovering the whole truth” (GS 57).

This interface between faith, reason and science, including their respective limitations, need to be borne in mind when determining moral issues of life and death. For example, if a fertilised ovum (embryo, that the Church considers a distinct being) can split into what will later be identical twins, then where is the question of one being? It is difficult to exactly pinpoint the beginning of human life. It is equally difficult to determine the point of death. Earlier we declared a person dead when he stopped breathing. Then we talked of the heart stopping. Now we talk of brain signals. But bodies can be kept “alive” on life support machines. So when do we pull the plug? It is a humbling area of grey.

From the theological perspective we move to the moral angle expressed in the CCC. Regarding abortion, it says, “Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. From the first moment of its existence, a human being must be recognised as having the rights of a person” (CCC 2270). “Abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law” (CCC 2271). “A person who procures a completed abortion incurs excommunication latae sententiae” (CCC 2272). This is mandated in Canon No 1398. It is a sentence “that is automatically incurred on committing an offence, without the intervention of a judge” (Glossary to Canon Law).

So a woman is guilty without any opportunity to explain or defend herself! The implications of such an arbitrary law need drastic re-consideration. The CCC only condescendingly admits that in such cases it does not “intend to restrict the scope of mercy” (CCC 2272). Are women to beg for mercy, or fight for justice?

As for the death penalty, here is what the CCC says. While on the one hand asserting the sanctity of the Fifth Commandment “You shall not kill” (Ex 20:13), it nevertheless makes qualifying statements for exceptional circumstances. It talks of self-defence and the principle of “double effect”; where a good effect may also encompass an evil one. It says, “The act of self-defence can have a double effect in the preservation of one’s own life; and the killing of the aggressor. The one is intended, the other is not” (CCC 2263). Then again, “Someone who defends his life is not guilty of murder, even if he is forced to deal his aggressor a lethal blow” (CCC 2264). “Legitimate defence can be not only a right, but a grave duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others” (CCC 2265).  Those who hold “legitimate public authority have the right and the duty to inflict punishment proportionate to the gravity of the offence” (CCC 2266). Again, “Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor” (CCC 2267). However, it qualifies that “the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity are very rare, if not practically non-existent” (ibid).

This conforms to the Supreme Court’s directive that the death penalty should be awarded only in the rarest of rare cases. In that sense Kasab was not an ordinary criminal, but an unjust and dangerous aggressor for whom the principle of “double effect” comes into play, with the greater good prevailing over the lesser evil. So the Catholic teaching on the death penalty (where one is constrained to take human life) is both just and equitable. I rest my case on the same.

But why these double standards? There is flexibility in taking life in self-defence, and for the greater good; but there is a rigid, inflexible stance when it comes to abortion. Is this because in an abortion it is the woman who suffers, and women don’t have a voice in the theologising and moralising echelons of the Catholic Church? I strongly suspect so.

Comparisons are odious, but sometimes necessary. I now make a comparison with another sex related issue – masturbation. Till not so long ago we were taught that this was a mortal sin. Hence men came to Mass on Sundays (for fear of not committing a mortal sin), but did not receive Communion, for fear of inviting a double whammy of divine wrath. Catholic men lived in a shadow of guilt. Here again the CCC is rather magnanimous. It asserts, “masturbation is an intrinsically and gravely disordered action” (CCC 2352), as it is a form of sex divorced from true love and procreation (ibid). This is the same line of argument used for the Church’s objection to any form of artificial contraception, let alone abortion. Yet it goes on to say, “To form an equitable judgement about the subject’s moral responsibility and to guide pastoral action, one must take into account the affective immaturity, force of acquired habit, conditions of anxiety, or other psychological or social factors that can lessen, if not even reduce to a minimum, moral culpability” (ibid). Even in the matter of homosexuality, the Church treats such persons with “respect, compassion and sensitivity” (CCC 2358). The question that now goes a begging is, “Why minimum culpability, situational ethics, sensitivity, compassion etc for masturbation and homosexuality; but absolute latae sententiae for abortion?” Is this again because the lawmakers are celibate men, who are protecting themselves against their own proclivity? If so, it is the height of moral hypocrisy.

 There is an equal, if not greater, need for the same sensitivity and compassion in dealing with abortion cases as well. There cannot be a blanket ban or automatic excommunication.  One must apply the same principle of “double effect” here too. I recall a young girl who was raped and impregnated. She was sent to one of Mother Teresa’s homes, where she had a caesarean delivery of a premature child that did not survive. That innocent girl was physically and emotionally scarred for life. How just was this act?

There was another young rape victim somewhere in Africa or South America who had an abortion and was excommunicated latae sententiae. The resident Cardinal and even the Pope justified the excommunication, again creating a media furore. When asked why the rapist was also not excommunicated, the prelates replied that his offence was not as grave! A gross miscarriage of justice, and one more instance of convoluted logic and sickening male dominance. This is the theatre of the absurd. Such moral absolutism must be tempered with situational relativism. Nobody, neither Church nor science, has a monopoly over truth, a question that Jesus himself left unanswered (cf Jn 18:38).

I wonder why the Catholic hierarchy, including the present Pope, has been soft on clerical paedophilia? Did the clerical “aggressors” merit “sensitivity and compassion” in total disregard to the anguish of the victims? This 4th November, a Catholic bishop consecrated a non-Catholic as a bishop of an independent church. This mandates that “Both the bishop who, without a pontifical mandate, consecrates a person a bishop, and the one who receives the consecration from him, incur a latae sententiae excommunication reserved to the Holy See” (Can 1382). Also, “One who is guilty of prohibited participation in religious rites is to be punished with a just penalty” (Can 1365). I am given to understand that the papal Nuncio is seized of the matter and an enquiry has been initiated. It remains to be seen if the alleged offender, a celibate male lawmaker, is treated with latae sententiae or with “sensitivity and compassion”.

I do not wish to condemn the said bishop. Nor do I think that we have the right to condemn women who have had medical termination of their pregnancies in adverse circumstances. Morality must be tempered with sensitivity and compassion, lest we deliver a lethal (mortal) blow to some hapless women like Savita. R.I.P.

* The writer has always championed the cause of women’s rights, especially in the Catholic Church. He has no theological training.


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