Belgian theologian blasts 'pseudo-compassion' and Vatican official's article

Archbishop Salvatore Fisichella
Archbishop Salvatore Fisichella


The celebrated philosopher and theologian Monsignor Michel Schooyans has published his thoughts on the contemporary misuse of the concept of "compassion." According to Msgr. Schooyans, the Vatican newspaper and the president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, Archbishop Salvatore Fisichella, are complicit in promoting "pseudo-compassion."

Msgr. Schooyans, professor emeritus of theology and philosophy at the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium and an expert in bioethics and demography, outlined the "bogus" employment of the concept of compassion in contemporary society by way of his recent work "The Pitfalls of Compassion." The essay features Msgr. Schooyans' analysis of certain acts that serve to undermine the real meaning of “compassion” and its practice.

In the paper, Msgr. Schooyans defined "compassion" as "a matter of understanding (the suffering person), 'sympathizing' with him, sharing in his distress and bearing it with him." He said that it "also suggests the notion of psychologically and emotionally sharing in suffering, especially suffering beyond medical or other control."

"However," he added, "in cases of abortion, euthanasia and assisted suicide which appear in the news, compassion is frequently invoked to 'justify' the act which has been or is about to be performed."

Msgr. Schooyans pointed to the example of how aborting children with serious deformities is often viewed as an act of compassion, not only for the child, but also for the parents and society who would bear the "burden" of the child's existence.

Following that same train of thought, "compassion can also be extended to abortion doctors. To carry out an abortion is for them - it is said -a 'decision difficult to take' and an act they perform purely in obedience to their conscience,” the Belgian scholar wrote.

In these examples where “compassion” is invoked, Msgr. Schooyans noted that it has an ambiguous meaning that is “applied very differently depending on whether it creates a victim, the unborn child, or is intended to relieve the mother, justify laws or endorse medical intervention."

He went on to enumerate "true and bogus compassion in acts and standpoints observable in the world today." Among the numerous examples, he cited the existence of "pseudo-compassion" in cases of pedophilia.

Referring to "high profile cases of pedophilia" that have involved members of the clergy in legal actions, he wrote that "in the majority of these cases, the Church authorities have been accused of attempted cover-ups. For as long as they were able, these authorities pretended that nothing, or very little, had happened."

"The reason most frequently invoked is that of "compassion" for the perpetrators of acts of pedophilia.

This, he wrote, is considered as "compassion for the poor clerics, already suffering so much from their urges and whom their superiors should not condemn publicly or, still less, expose to ignominious condemnation by the proper judicial authorities."

"If abortionists deserve protection," he then proposed, "Why not pedophiles?"

In the same vein, he recalled the " flagrant example of bogus compassion" in the case of "Carmen" from Recife, Brazil.

"In brief," he wrote, "we were told to show compassion for the doctors who performed a direct double abortion."

"Carmen" is a nine-year-old Brazilian girl who was raped by her step-father and became pregnant with twins. On March 5, 2009, her children were aborted by doctors who cited the risks implied by the twins to the girl's health.

Shortly after, the doctors who ended the lives of the twins were publicly recognized by Archbishop of Recife Jose Cardoso Sobrinho as being automatically excommunicated for having taken part in such an intervention.

Msgr. Schooyans recalled that some called for the situation to be kept quiet, "however," he added in defense of the twins, "medical literature records situations similar to that experienced by 'Carmen'... where true compassion is expressed towards very young mothers and their babies," he said, citing the case of five-year-old Peruvian Lina Medina giving birth by cesarean-section to a boy.

The vocal reaction of Archbishop Cardoso caused a furor in international media which soon led to the release of an article by the president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, Archbishop Rino Fisichella, in the Vatican's L'Osservatore Romano newspaper which underlined the need for "mercy" in such cases and respect for the difficult decision and "conflict" of the doctors involved. Archbishop Fisichella also criticized the actions of members of the clergy in publicly condemning the doctors and the mother for the abortion.

"Before thinking about excommunication," he wrote, "it was necessary and urgent to save the innocent life (of the girl) and return her to a level of humanity of which we men of the Church should be experts and masters in proclaiming."

Archbishop Fisichella pointed to the very quick and very public nature of the condemnation as detrimental to the credibility of Church teaching which, as a result "appears in the eyes of many as insensitive, incomprehensible and devoid of mercy."

There is no question, he wrote, that abortion is "always condemned by moral law as an intrinsically evil act," and, he added, "technically, the Code of Canon Law uses the expression 'latae sententiae' to indicate that the excommunication is brought about exactly in the same moment in which the fact takes place."

There was no need to act with such "urgency and publicity" on something that was already automatic, he concluded.

Nevertheless, following the publication of Archbishop Fisichella's article, there was talk in the international media that the Vatican had "softened" its opposition to abortion and had allowed abortion in this circumstance. In response, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith released a statement to underscore the Church's teaching that abortion is always immoral.

According to Msgr. Schooyans' essay "The Pitfalls of Compassion" the case of “Carmen” and many others like it point to the existence of a misconceived and "ambiguous" idea of the reality of "compassion."

"Pseudo-compassion, frequently invoked in favor of the perpetrators of acts which are inherently wrong, such as abortion, hence leads to scandal; it invites others into grave sin," Msgr. Schooyans said.

By inciting believers to give up their duty to respect innocent life, which is "a non-negotiable element of the doctrine of the Church, 'pseudo-compassion' leads to heresy and division," he added. It also "reinforces the movement towards the 'tyranny of relativism,'" which extends to "some pastors and/or theologians."

"Ultimately, pseudo-compassion could lead to a situation in which the Church's doctrine and natural morality would be the outcome of a procedure of consensus based on compromise," he warned.

In response to those who might say that the Church is too strict on these matters, the Belgian priest offered the unequivocal words presented in the Code of Canon Law that "those upon whom the penalty of excommunication or interdict has been imposed or declared, and others who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to Holy Communion."

However, Msgr. Schooyans wrote, by knowing "the bogus and violent nature of pseudo-compassion," the severity of this sentence is only in appearance, "it is actually a high expression of charity."

"It is an urgent call to a change of life," he declared.

"Refusal to give Communion for the reasons we have cited... is nothing more than an expression of the love of the Church for the weakest and an invitation to repentance, addressed to those who run the risk of remaining shackled by their sins, and shackling others."

Monsignor Schooyans concluded his treatise by posing a "delicate, yet inescapable, question."

Pointing out that Communion is barred to lay people under the conditions he described in "Pitfalls," he asked, "does the Code of Canon Law impose suspension measures on the twofold grounds of scandal and heresy, on clergy who publicly express pseudo-compassion for abortionists?"

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