Why Did Catholic Portugal Legalize Abortion?

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It is almost certain that Portugal will join the list of Catholic countries that have legalized abortion. After an inexpressive referendum, the socialist government presented a projected bill that was approved by the Portuguese Parliament on March 8. Only an unlikely veto by President Cavaco Silva, regarded as a conservative, can prevent the bill from becoming law.

The sad part is that the Portuguese Catholic bishops avoided throwing the full weight of their prestige onto the scale in a country with an absolute Catholic majority. During the abortion referendum, the bishops took a non-confrontational attitude. They simply recalled documents and articles published in the Catholic press about the so-called voluntary interruption of pregnancy, but avoided taking a position regarding the referendum.

Even worse, the bishops recommended that parish priests take the same attitude: They could recall Catholic doctrine on abortion but could not argue or take a position on the referendum itself.

In addition, the episcopate voluntarily refrained from struggling for a “No” vote in the referendum, which would have defeated abortion. It left the decision entirely in the hands of the laity, who acted on their own initiative and responsibility.In video footage and photographs of the lay-sponsored pro-life demonstrations, no bishop, priest or nun is to be seen. News items about these events make no mention of the presence of clergy and men or women religious.

Furthermore, the Cardinal Patriarch of Lisbon, His Eminence José Policarpo da Silva, made a number of surprisingly ambiguous statements, giving to understand that abortion was not a religious topic. And although he later denied having made such statements, he repeated the same affirmations in a recent interview after the referendum.1

However, there was no ambivalence or hesitation on the left. The socialist government, leftist parties, pro-abortion organizations and the liberal media set in motion a huge propaganda machine to favor liberalizing abortion laws.

It was as if two armies were about to engage in battle: The first is much more numerous. It has more effective weapons but its generals stay in the rearguard and recommend extreme prudence, caution and meekness to their troops. On the other hand, the enemy army, though smaller and not as well armed, has feisty generals who rally their troops and foster their enthusiasm and combativeness. The result of such a battle would be inevitable: certain defeat for the fearful, and victory for those enthused and resolved to fight.

That is what happened in the Portuguese referendum: In spite of the fact that abstention was great, the pro-abortion “Yes” vote ended up by winning. And although the referendum was not binding because less than half of the voters showed up, the socialist government immediately decided to present a pro-abortion bill, which was approved.

After the defeat of the “No” vote in the referendum, the attitude of the Portuguese bishops was again extremely moderate.2 They lamented the victory of abortion and recalled that its practice clashes with Catholic doctrine, but avoided to note that all those who do practice abortion (such as the mother and the doctors and nurses that carry it out) incur automatic excommunication; and that other necessary accomplices are also subject to canonical penalties.3

Though affirming that abortion, even when legal, remains a grave sin, the bishops failed to warn pro-abortion Catholics that defending abortion is a negation of the first principle of natural and revealed morals4 and therefore that they are unfit to receive Holy Communion.5

After the unfavorable result of the referendum, the Cardinal Patriarch of Lisbon gave an interview to the magazine Visão, appearing completely relaxed and unconcerned with the huge sin about to be committed in Portugal with the establishment of abortion. His moderation was so extreme that, were it not for the contradiction in terms, it could be called “radical.”

Asked whether the result of the referendum was not a defeat for the Church, he answered:

“Right in the beginning of the public discussion, I launched the idea that abortion is not, fundamentally, a religious question. It is a human and cultural question. [A question] of civilization. The defenders of the “No” may not coincide with the practicing Catholic Church…”
It was precisely this kind of statement that caused immense perplexity in the Catholic ranks of abortion opponents, as well as jubilee among pro-abortion forces.

The journalist asked the Cardinal: “The pastoral note published after the referendum invites those ‘who stayed away from this debate’ to an ‘interior reflection’ … why does it not speak of excommunication?”
In answering the question, the Cardinal, first criticized a Portuguese priest favorable to excommunication, and then added:

“Canonical sanctions apply to persons who have an abortion or contribute directly to it. It is certain that, above all in the USA, there was a current to which some bishops were linked, that broadened that censure to people who publicly defended abortion. I think this is too broad an interpretation of Canon Law. At this moment, it is not good to create stigmas…”

In fact, St. Louis’Archbishop Raymond Burke has made clear, that neither he nor the other bishops who agree with denying Holy Communion to pro-abortion politicians are doing so on the basis of the canon on abortion (Canon 1398). Their argumentation is based on the public and notorious dissidence of these politicians with an infallible doctrine of the Church – that is to say, the intrinsic evil of procured abortion. This dissidence constitutes a manifest public sin (Canon 915).6

The essence of the Fatima message, whose 90th anniversary is commemorated this year (along with the centennial of Sister Lucy’s birth) is that a punishment will come if men do not convert. The legalization of abortion is a public sin that cannot but attract Divine wrath. And the earthquake that was felt in Portugal the day following the victory of the “Yes” seems like a warning of what may happen.


  1. Cfr. http://visaoonline.clix.pt/default.asp?CpContentId=332921;
  2. Cf. http://www.agencia.ecclesia.pt/noticia.asp?noticiaid=42930.
  3. About automatic excommunication, see Canon 1398 (for the person that procures a completed abortion) and Canon 1329 (for the necessary accomplices).
  4. Pope John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae, clearly states: “Therefore, by the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors, and in communion with the Bishops of the Catholic Church, I confirm that the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being is always gravely immoral. This doctrine, based upon that unwritten law which man, in the light of reason, finds in his own heart (cf. Rom 2:14-15), is reaffirmed by Sacred Scripture, transmitted by the Tradition of the Church and taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium.” (n. 57, http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/encyclicals/
  5. Catechism of the Catholic Church n. 1395. Cf. CIC Canons 915, 751 and 1364.
  6. Cf. Raymond L. Burke, Prophecy for Justice Catholic politicians and bishops, http://www.americamagazine.org/gettext.cfm?articleTypeID=

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