Pope defeats his abortion rebels

THE POPE finally prevailed yesterday over his rebellious German flock, forcing Catholic bishops to stop issuing bits of paper which amount to passports to abortion.

The outcome of the five-year battle pitting the Vatican against most of the German Church leaves only the lawyers happy, however. Catholic counsellors will continue to hand out slips to pregnant women, required by law before a pregnancy can be terminated. But the new documents will conclude with the sentence: "This certificate cannot be used for the carrying out of a legal abortion."

What it can be used for, was not immediately clear. Under a law enacted five years ago, women seeking an abortion must discuss their decision first with a counsellor. All the main churches as well as the state provide such service, and Catholics are not obliged to go to a Catholic counsellor.

But more than 20,000 Catholic women visit such centres run by their own church every year, expecting to be told that they were about to commit mortal sin. Some 5,000 change their minds and decide to have their child. The rest head for the nearest abortion clinic, armed with the certificate described by one hardline bishop as a "licence to kill".

What is the sum total of this terrible transaction - the saving of 5,000 lives and salvation for their mothers' souls, or complicity in the murder of 15,000? The German church has been seeking an answer to that question ever since the law was passed by a Christian Democrat government in 1994.

Before that, abortion was illegal, but the authorities had tried to turn a blind eye to the practice. While it is still not recognised as a constitutional right, the counselling loophole now lets law-abiding gynaecologists off the hook.

A deplorable state of affairs for all Catholics, but most clerics have argued that the church had a duty to stand by its brethren in their time of need. And that meant maintaining a nationwide network of 270 counselling offices. Withdrawal from the system, it was felt, would sever an important link to the faithful and alienate German believers, most of whom do not subscribe to the papal dogma on abortion.

This is where the matter had stood, until the conservative faction, led by Johannes Dyba, the Archbishop of Fulda, turned to the Vatican for extra muscle.

In January last year, the Pope obliged, instructing the German church to stop issuing the morally dubious documents. "The fate of the church must not hang on the offer of certificates," he said in a letter, acknowledging that German Catholicism would be damaged by his edict. The bishops met and gave in to the order, but set no time limit. Last week, the Pope ran out of patience. Another letter arrived, this time leaving no room for prevarication. "Here the church must be in one word and deed and must speak with the same voice," the pontiff declared. He made it clear the word was to be his; the last one on the subject.

The bishops gathered again this week, at a convent in Wurzburg. As Archbishop Dyba, the Pope's most loyal servant in Germany, rose to speak, lightning struck, felling a tree outside the window, knocking out the electricity supplies and plunging the room into darkness. Lay organisations had urged them to resist what, in the words of Walter Remmers, of the Central Committee of German Catholics, was "clearly the wrong decision". But after the bolt from above, Bishop Karl Lehmann, the liberal head of the German church, had no desire to fight.

Yesterday, he waved the flag of surrender, announcing that the church would remain in the state-funded system of counselling, and continue to issue certificates of a sort. "At the end of the day, the women will still have the freedom to do what they intended with this and other certificates," Bishop Lehmann said.

That, however, is not clear. "The solution dictated by the Pope to the bishops cannot meet the legal requirements for a gynaecologist," said Gunter Kidman, president of an association of gynaecologists. Christine Bergmann, the Family Minister, said: "This has created a legally ambiguous situation, and moreover adds to the psychological burden to women who are already facing a difficult decision."

The papers handed out by the Catholic counsellors bear the inscription: "The issuing of this certificate does not in any way mean that the termination of this pregnancy is accepted." This remains in force until October. After that, the task to interpret the church's new wording will probably fall to the courts. It is one domain where the Vatican has no obvious influence.