Catholics are against abortion, so it stands to reason that Catholic Charities, an official service agency of the Church, would never encourage one of its clients to have an abortion. However, in January 2008, employees of the Richmond, Virginia branch of Catholic Charities signed the adult authorization for an abortion and actually took a 16 year-old woman to the clinic.
Although Bishop Francis DiLorenzo was informed of the pending abortion that had been arranged by Catholic Charities’ staff, he said he had been advised that he could not legally interfere with the abortion.
In June, the U.S. Department of Human Services announced its investigation the incident. Since Catholic Charities receives most of its funds from government sources, at issue is whether the agency violated the federal ban against taxpayer funds paying for an abortion. Although this is a regulation that the Catholic Church fought hard to write into law, it might be used now to defund Catholic Charities in Virginia. This would probably delight Evangelical groups looking for the money that was going to the Catholic operation. Moreover, it will likely please critics with a blood lust against anything connected to Catholicism.
Predictably, Bishop DiLorenzo fired the staff members who signed the paper for the underage woman and drove her to the clinic. The Bishop’s public apology did not give all the details, citing the need for discretion since the matter involves litigation. But that has not assuaged the demand from righteous-sounding Catholics for the bishop to be relieved from his duties.
I will leave others to pronounce on the Bishop, Richmond’s Catholic Charities and its staff. But I ask out-loud, “What circumstances would lead four Catholic Charities’ employees to arrange an abortion, when they must have known the Church’s opposition?” The 16 year-old is a Guatemalan undocumented immigrant and ward of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement. Assigned to foster care under Catholic Charities, she already has another child, which means that she conceived when she was about 14 and again at 16. What if her pregnancies are the result of rapes? What if the rapist is her father? What if the fetus is deformed, making adoption improbable? What if the mental state of the woman (I’m tempted to say “girl” here) has made her suicidal?
Now while it is unlikely that each hypothetical of this long list of applies, it is not impossible that some of them do. The recent movie, “Juno,” represented to the public just how difficult pregnancy is for unwed teenage mothers. And in the picture, Juno was a strong and emotionally supported mother-to-be. It would appear that this Guatemalan immigrant has few such qualities. In fact, she insisted she wanted the abortion, even after Catholic Charities advised her about alternatives. Another near-documentary film, “Gone Baby, Gone” presented the moral dilemma of keeping a child with its birth mother, condemned to a home dominated by promiscuity, addictions and drug-dealing. Without prejudging the mother-to-be, there is an underside to life beyond the margins and she may not have felt strong enough to meet challenges.
I am not justifying abortion, but I want to stress that Catholic teaching makes no exceptions, even for rape, incest or the grave mental health of the mother. Following the Catholic ban against abortion may demand heroic virtue. But, unfortunately, not all believers rise to the practice of heroic virtue. Rather than look to catechism for the solution, I prefer to ask, “What would Jesus do?” It seems to me that love rather than law should be the place where we begin to make judgments.
In the deepest quagmire of human suffering and moral conflicts, Catholics do not resort to “shunning,” as in practiced in some sects. Neither do we brand the sinner with a salvation-denying scarlet letter. We are Catholics: we have confession.