Bishops between a rock and a hard place

 — Aug. 21, 199921 aoüt 1999

Catholics are permitted to support attempts to limit the evil aspects of an abortion law, says Pope John Paul in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae. In Germany, however, the moral complexities have made the Church draw back, which threatens to reduce its influence in society. A journalist on the weekly Rheinischer Merkur highlights the German bishops’ dilemma.

It has been a long hot summer for the Catholic Church in Germany. The situation is tense. Hardly any bishop of the 29 dioceses is willing to give an interview. They are worrying about their policy on abortion counselling, and preparing to debate the issue again at their autumn meeting in Fulda.

Till now, the Catholic Church and the Protestant Churches have accepted a unique partnership with the state counselling system. Abortion, according to current German law, is illegal. It goes unpunished in the first three months of pregnancy, however, if a woman first seeks counselling at one of the 1,700 centres licensed by the government, which include 270 run by the Catholic Church. Having attended, the woman obtains a certificate proving she has done so, which opens the way for a legal abortion. Only licensed gynaecologists are authorised to carry out terminations. The counselling offered by the centres, according to paragraph 219 of the penal code, “is aimed at encouraging the woman to accept the unborn child.”

But there have been critical voices from the very beginning about the participation of the Catholic Church. If the certificate can be used to obtain an abortion, does that not mean that the Church is giving tacit permission? Is there not a risk of compromising the Church’s witness in this way? The German bishops, however – particularly Pital from Trier and ICamphaus from Limburg – refused to end their participation. Their reasons were logical. It is beyond doubt that with the help of Catholic counselling centres, a large number of unborn children have been saved. According to the Second Vatican Council, the Church is a pilgrim in this world and bound up with it. This does not obscure the Church’s witness, which shines more brightly than ever when the Church does not desert women in distress.

In January last year, however, the Pope sent a letter to the German bishops asking them to work out a new policy. They should seek a way to continue advising needy women and even to increase counselling work, while no longer issuing these certificates which made it possible for a woman to procure an abortion.

The task the Pope set was not easy to fulfil, and for about a year a special committee set up by the German bishops tried to reach a solution that would square the circle. Their proposal was presented at the meeting of the Bishops’ Conference at Lingen this spring. They suggested adapting the certificate of abortion counselling so that it would become more advisory, not only showing that the pregnant woman had undergone counselling but offering her detailed information about possible help if she decided to have her child. This, according to the bishops, would make a qualitative difference. They announced that they would be presenting this solution to the Pope for his final decision before publishing it officially.

Even in Rome, opinion was divided. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger pleaded vehemently for the legal counselling practice to end, but the Secretary of State, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, held a different view. He feared above all that the relationship between Church and State in Germany would be damaged if the German Catholic Church withdrew its consent to the counselling scheme. It was after all mostly pressure by the Catholic Church that produced the scheme in the first place, through a compromise hammered out by the political parties in a long–lasting heated debate in Parliament after German reunification. Rejecting the practice of abortion on demand within the first three months of pregnancy, as had been sanctioned in the former East Germany, the parties agreed the current national abortion law and instituted the official counselling scheme. In that case, however, what could now justify the Catholic Church in withdrawing? Such a decision would create particular difficulties for the southern German Lander (counties), seeing that most of the counselling centres in the south had been provided by the Catholic Church.

The answer from Rome came on 3 June and went into details. There was not a word about banning counselling, but the Pope required a statement to be added to the certificates so that the legal and moral status of these documents should be clear, to the effect that “this certificate cannot be used by women for the provision of legal abortion.”

The German bishops complied. According to Cardinal Friedrich Wetter, Archbishop of Munich, “this additional statement shows the clear desire of the Church to say ‘no’ to abortion, and to protect the unborn child.” It was, he said, a moral exhortation not only to pregnant women, but also to the fathers of their children, as well as to society at large.

The reaction of the public, the media and the politicians alike was harsh. The bishops, especially their chairman, Karl Lehmann of Mainz, had not expected such a row, considering how strongly the Church was being urged until recently not to ban the counselling practice. Yet the solution reached is almost universally being criticised as hypocritical. For the additional clause allows the Catholic Church to solve its own inner conflicts at the expense of the women, particularly those in a serious situation, who would be left alone and completely insecure. The bishops would wash their hands and let women and the State bear all the responsibility.

Now it is the State which is in trouble. Can it accept as legal a certificate which shows that counselling has been provided but forbids abortion? Under the law, the certificate must contain three components: the name of the woman and the counselling centre, and the date of counselling. These components will be retained. The law, however, requires counselling to be provided on a neutral basis, leaving the final decision to the woman. Can counselling practice be considered neutral, if it results in a certificate that stipulates it cannot be used for legal abortion?

There is a further disadvantage. Till now, the national abortion law was approved by all the Lander equally. But from this point there are likely to be differences between them, for it is the responsibility of the Lander themselves to decide how abortion counselling is provided. They are therefore just as able to reject the new certificate as to accept it. The southern Lander which have a conservative government have already indicated that they are not going to exclude the Catholic Church from legal counselling despite the new certificate, and some of the other Lander which have social democratic governments have said the same. But in eastern Germany the new certificate proposed by the Catholic Church is no longer considered to be neutral, as the law requires. So it looks as though what will be possible in Bavaria will be forbidden in Sachsen-Anhalt.

Such a development helps those who have been waiting for a chance to restrict the influence of the Catholic Church on society. Critics of the Church at last see their chance to push it out of state affairs altogether. A debate on this controversial issue in the German Bundestag showed that only the PDS (Social Democrats), the successors of the former East German Communist Party, and many of the Greens welcomed the bishops’ decision.

The conservative pro-life organisations, on the other hand, accuse the bishops of evading the intention of the Pope’s order. They have not concealed their anger. So the bishops find themselves between two fires.

For their part, they see no hypocrisy in their new stance. The Catholic Church has always clearly pointed out that its participation in the legal counselling service does not mean approval of abortion in any way. The counselling institutions run by the Church support the aim of Germany’s abortion law, which is to encourage women to accept their unborn children, as well as the law’s basis that abortion is illegal. From this point of view, the new certificate can be seen as merely an unrestricted statement of the ethical principle that abortion and the killing of the innocent cannot be tolerated. The bishops’ intention is to offer all the support they can to needy women in order to encourage them to say “yes” to their unborn children. Such counselling does not force any woman to a decision. In the end it is her choice.

The abortion debate has been going on for years in Germany, and the harsh reactions of the public to the latest development give little hope that it will end now. That is why the bishops’ meeting in the autumn is awaited with apprehension. For there is only one alternative to what the bishops have done — to stop issuing these certificates altogether, leaving women alone in their anguish. Then there would be another huge public outcry — understandably.

Posted: Aug. 21, 1999 • Permanent link:
Categories: TabletIn this article: abortion, Catholic, ethics, social policy, theology
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Catégorie : TabletDans cet article : abortion, Catholic, ethics, social policy, theology

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