The papal directive comes as the result of a controversy that began last August, when a new German law required women who sought abortions to obtain counseling, and present a certificate indicating that they had received that counseling before scheduling the abortion. Some German Catholics argued that they should make every effort to counsel women who are contemplating abortion, in an effort to dissuade them; others countered that it would be intrinsically immoral to furnish the certificate the women would use to obtain the abortion.
In his letter to the German bishops-- dated January 11, but made public in Rome only Tuesday, January 27-- the Holy Father said that counselors in Church-related facilities should not provide such a certificate. Pope John Paul made it clear that no one serving the Catholic Church should sign a certificate which could be used to procure an abortion. He asked that any policy allowing the issuance of such certificates be stopped "instantly."
The German bishops, who met this past weekend to consider the issue, today said they will follow the Pope's directives. However, Bishop Karl Lehmann, the president of the German bishops' conference, said that they would not follow the Pope's request to stop issuing certificates "instantly." Instead, he told reporters at a press conference in Mainz: "We will not issue this certificates any longer than necessary."
Bishop Lehmann said that the Church in Germany would not withdraw from the system of counseling for pregnant women, but "we will fully use the room we have for maneuver."
The Pope had called on the German bishops to find ways to "remain present in an effective way in consulting women who are looking for help." He also asked the bishops to work for a change in the new German law, which allows abortion at any time during pregnancy if their is any "medical indication" to justify the procedure.
In an effort to resolve the "dilemma" about counseling for pregnant women, the German bishops had held several consultations among themselves, and sent delegations to the Vatican on three occasions to meet with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Pope John Paul, in his letter, remarked that this "dialogue" had now continued for two years. He himself had indicated, in a September 1995 letter to the German hierarchy, that it was clear, "according to our faith, that Catholic institutions cannot do anything that might serve as justification for abortion in one way or another."
Acknowledging that the German bishops had been split on the issue, the Holy Father cautioned that this difference should not break the "unanimity" of the Church in their defense of human life, or in their communion with the Holy See. He asked all German Catholics to unite in the search for a more acceptable way of serving the needs of women facing problem pregnancies.
Even under the existing law, however, the Pope noted that there remain "numerous possibilities to remain present in the work of counseling; the involvement of the Church need not ultimately depend on the delivery of this certificate." He urged counselors to provide genuine help to women through their "professional competence," their "human attention," and their readiness to provide concrete help.
However, because the Church must remain free to provide a clear and forceful witness in defense of every human life, it is not possible to tolerate the "ambiguity" that arises when Church employees furnish the certificate that makes an abortion legally possible, the Pope said. By doing so, the Church was helping to fulfill "a necessary condition for the legalized execution that is abortion-- even if, in a certain way, it is not the decisive cause."
He called upon the German bishops to help the people of their country understand the Church's position, as a means of educating the public and arousing the nation's conscience.