Vatican Seeks to Clarify Abortion Remarks

By Victor L. Simpson
Associated Press
Friday, May 11, 2007

SAO PAULO, Brazil -- Pope Benedict XVI caused such a stir with his comments on the excommunication of lawmakers who vote in favor of legalizing abortion that the Vatican released a transcript Thursday changing what the pontiff said.

While Benedict met with Brazil's president, and thousands of Roman Catholics streamed toward a soccer stadium for an evening youth rally, the Vatican released a new transcript that seemed to roll back the pope's comments from a day earlier.

Asked during an in-flight news conference Wednesday if legislators who legalized abortion in Mexico City should rightfully be considered excommunicated, Benedict replied, "Yes."

"The excommunication was not something arbitrary. It is part of the code," the pope said, referring to canon law.

On Thursday, the Vatican issued a slightly edited transcript that dropped the word "yes" in the pope's response. Several other changes made his remarks seem a more general statement, rather than referring specifically to Mexican bishops who had said the politicians had excommunicated themselves.

Benedict's spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, told reporters that such edits are common. "Every time the pope speaks off the cuff, the Secretariat of State reviews and cleans up his remarks," he said.

Benedict's comments stoked debate among Catholics about whether politicians who act to legalize abortion -- as well as doctors and nurses who take part in the procedure -- subject themselves to automatic excommunication under church law.

Some of the Mexican legislators involved said they still considered themselves Catholic -- no matter what the pope says. And in the United States, Republican presidential candidate Rudolph W. Giuliani -- a Catholic who favors abortion rights -- avoided saying whether the pope's statement changes his relationship with the church. "I do not get into debates with the pope -- that is not a good idea," Giuliani said.

Lombardi was asked again Thursday whether the church intends to use the threat of excommunication against politicians who are thinking of legalizing abortion. "The pope has said every one of us has a Christian attitude and must have a Christian behavior, coherent with his faith and vision of life. When this is not the case, then comes the problem of the true participation in the life of the church and also in the Eucharist," he said.

The flurry of statements and revisions left many puzzled. Some newspapers in Brazil and Mexico declared that Benedict approved of excommunication for politicians who support abortion rights, while others said exactly the opposite -- that he had ruled it out.

Benedict is determined to prevent the expansion of legal abortion in Latin America. In his first speech in Brazil, he expressed confidence that Latin America's Catholic bishops would take a strong antiabortion stand at their conference next week.

Polls show that Brazilians are overwhelmingly against expanding access to abortion beyond current law, which allows it in cases of rape or when the mother's life is in danger.

Abortion did not come up in Benedict's meeting Thursday with President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Lombardi said. But one member of the president's cabinet complained beforehand that a "macho" culture in Brazil had prevented a legitimate debate about legalizing abortion in Latin America's largest nation.

"If men got pregnant, I'm sure this question would have been resolved a long time ago," said Health Minister Jose Gomes Temporao, who is pushing for a referendum on the issue.

At the evening rally at a municipal stadium, Benedict urged young Catholics to resist the temptations of wealth, power and other "snares of evil," and told them to promote life from "its beginning to natural end." About 41,000 people were invited to the rally, and at least 100,000 were expected outside.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company