e-mail us


Vatican official misses moral mark in rape crisis

Images and stories from the Balkans are like our worst nightmares. Waves of grief-stricken people driven from their homes, often at gunpoint, into camps where the most fundamental needs cannot be met. Mass murders. Shallow graves. More recently, reports of systematic rape of Albanian women -- gang rape, rape camps -- as key components of a campaign of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo.

We would expect church leaders to have something to say about this. Pope John Paul II and other Catholic officials have made urgent, compelling pleas for an end to the human suffering.

A senior Vatican official, though, vice president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, has made another sort of moral pronouncement, one that strikes exactly the wrong note. The official, Msgr. Elio Sgreccia, recently penned a protest against distribution of emergency reproductive kits for rape victims by the U.N. Population Fund.

The kits contain a powerful contraceptive known as the “morning-after pill.” To offer this pill to Kosovar women who have been raped, according to the monsignor, is tantamount to abortion.

The monsignor’s ill-timed statement, published in an Italian Catholic newspaper, is highly unfortunate on at least two counts.

First, it misrepresents church teaching and may wrongly inhibit Catholic relief organizations from distributing contraceptive pills to women who have been raped. Where that happens, they will have been cruelly denied a treatment that is routinely given to rape victims in many U.S. Catholic hospitals.

Second, the monsignor’s statement is sure to long overshadow in the public mind the positive role of the church in these sad times. Never mind that Catholic relief organizations are tirelessly carrying on their humanitarian efforts. Never mind church leaders’ pleas for an end to ethnic cleansing and bombing. Once again, the church’s public image of moral rigidity, the pathological fixation on sexual matters, steals the show from its authentic, compassionate face.

The Vatican has made no definitive ruling against the “morning-after pill” which, if administered within 72 hours after a woman is raped, can prevent ovulation or fertilization of an egg. Under certain conditions, the treatment is authorized by the ethical directives of U.S. bishops for Catholic hospitals. The conditions are that sex was not consensual and that conception has not already occurred.

Determining conclusively that conception has not occurred is nearly impossible within 72 hours, so many Catholic hospitals, showing considerably more compassion than the monsignor, choose to err on the side of relief for rape victims by administering the pill. Such judgment calls, rooted in reasoning that rape is an act of agression from which a woman has a right to protection, represent the best of Catholic moral teaching, as hard and fast absolutes independent of context and persons do not.

Surely the people in Kosovo have suffered enough. The sins against life, which the monsignor allegedly speaks for, are many and grave.

Catholic relief organizations should be encouraged to administer the “morning-after” pill to rape victims, at least under the same conditions as allowed by U.S. bishops. And a church official who speaks with such lack of nuance and compassion in such grievous circumstances should be replaced.

National Catholic Reporter, April 23, 1999