German bishops act slowly on Pope abortion decree

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German bishops yesterday agreed to stop issuing certificates licensing abortion. But while the Pope may be happy, he may have to wait for an eternity before anything changes. Imre Karacs reports from Bonn.

Theologians say an "urgent Papal request" of the kind that landed in the bishops' letterbox this week carries the force of a church dogma. Under the circumstances, the leaders of 40 million German Catholics had little choice in the matter of abortion counselling.

"The fate of the church must not depend on the offer of certificates," the Pope had written. The documents in question are handed out by abortion advice centres in Germany, some of which are run by the Catholics. By law, a woman is only allowed to have an abortion if she can prove that she has sought the advice of such a counsellor. In 1996, more than 20,000 pregnant women obtained their "licences to kill" from Catholic centres.

For years, the Pope had tried to talk his German brethren out of this practice. Now the talking was over:

"I would like to urgently request that you, dear brothers, find ways so that a certificate of this nature is no longer issued in church advice centres or in centres which are affiliated to the church," he wrote in a letter addressed to the bishops.

"We will meet the Pope's request," pledged Bishop Karl Lehman, the President of the German Bishops' Conference after meeting his colleagues. But not immediately. A commission would be established to study the matter in detail.

To comply with the Pontiff's wishes, the certificates will be abolished. But pieces of paper of a different design might still be handed out to clients even after that. What pregnant women do with those will be a matter for their conscience.

Under the law, which the bishops are now secretly trying to stretch, no counsellor is obliged to issue any document. Often the Catholic charities running abortion centres refuse, forcing the mother to run to the Protestants or a non-Church outfit. Implicit in this arrangement is the danger that an organisation which constantly says "no" will have no appeal among women seeking help.