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One day this woman will be a saint

Two weeks ago a young Italian mother gave up her life for her unborn child in a stunning act of saintliness, says Paul Williams

By on Friday, 29 June 2012

An image from a YouTube tribute

An image from a YouTube tribute

Chiara Petrillo was a 28-year-old Italian mother who apparently refused life-saving cancer treatment that would have damaged or destroyed her baby. Her baby, Francesco, was born perfectly well. Chiara died.

Chiara’s funeral took place a few days ago in Rome. But Francesco was not her first baby. Her first, Maria, was found in the womb to be terribly disabled. Chiara and her husband Enrico refused repeated advice to abort Maria. The baby lived for 30 minutes, and was baptised, loved and mourned. Chiara and Enrico’s next baby, David, was found in the womb to have no legs. Further complications followed and once more he died soon after birth, cherished, loved and celebrated to the end. Then Chiara became pregnant with Francesco. Chiara was found in the fifth month to have cancer, but she would not accept any treatment that would harm her baby. Sometimes love is like that.

But in terms of Catholic moral theory Chiara was not obliged to refuse life-saving treatment.

If treatment is given with the intention of saving the life of a mother, where the completely unintended result may nevertheless be to kill her unborn baby, it is morally acceptable. This is utterly different from killing the baby in order to save the mother. In the latter case one actually intends to kill the baby in order that the mother should live. Catholic moral theory, based on Natural Law, holds that it is never, absolutely never, morally acceptable to kill an innocent person in order to help another. This is no matter who that other may be. That is non-negotiable. So if Chiara had undergone life-saving treatment and Francesco had unintentionally died in the womb, Chiara would not have been morally culpable. Of course, she would never have actually intended to kill her baby, even to save her own life. She would not have preferred that her baby die rather than she did herself, and accepted it as right under the circumstances, “the lesser of two evils”. But Chiara could have received treatment without at all intending to harm her baby. She could have done this without blame even if she knew that there was a good chance her baby would – barring a miracle – be killed as a result of the intervention.

So much for Catholic moral theory. And it seems to me in all of this it is correct and perfectly defensible. Yet it has to be admitted that other non-Catholic philosophers have found something distinctly iffy about this reasoning. And if it is felt to be iffy then perhaps the iffy-ness lies not in its logic but in its psychology. If a mother knows she is pregnant, and if she is so full of love that she loves her unborn baby to the maximum, then psychologically even though in receiving life-saving treatment she might not intend the baby’s death still, knowing that the baby may be harmed or may die as a result of that treatment, her love may not let her do it.

I stress that my point here is psychological, not philosophical. A mother may find she has so much love for her baby that although she would not be morally culpable if she underwent life-saving treatment which entailed the unintended death of her baby, nevertheless she would rather die herself than do so. That, we might say, is heroic love. It is love that goes the extra mile, love that most of us may not be up to. But some clearly are. And that makes Chiara heroic, showing forth the heroic virtue and example that we hope to find in saints.

Still, can we – I mean we in “the modern world” – really approve of what Chiara did? We might admire her. But perhaps deep down we think she was a bit unwise, maybe even foolish. Certainly it makes absolutely no sense from most secular points of view to approve of her actions. How can she kill herself to save the life of a foetus. The foetus is, after all, replaceable. Through her own survival she could have had many more babies. Francesco was not (yet) a lovable person. One cannot – or should not – love a foetus with a love that will willingly accept one’s own death in exchange for its survival. And, of course, death is the end, the final “beyond which nothing”. So it seems likely from a secular perspective that bringing about one’s own death for a replaceable “it” cannot ever be morally justified.

It seems to me that for a certain sort of Christian, too, Chiara probably made the wrong decision. She could have lived. She could have had more babies. She was clearly capable of having a healthy baby. She was also clearly a very lovely, loving and virtuous young lady. She could have remained, as the mother to her child and wife to her husband, and she could have done so many good works. For it is doing good that is the important thing for us, not dying.

No, it is only for a particular type of Christian that Chiara’s story is one of supremely inspiring triumph. That Christian is the one who has a non-negotiable trust in God and who has complete moral certainty, a Christian who knows what they need to do and who submits themselves to it. Such a Christian sees nothing intrinsically frightening in death. And it is the Christian who really accepts holiness as our calling, who needs and welcomes the heroic example that saints give us, and who recognises the actions of God in bringing forth saints for His Church, who will celebrate the story of Chiara, Enrico, Maria, David and Francesco.

We are almost overwhelmed in this story not by death but by life. When we watch Chiara talking about her decisions on YouTube what we see is bubbling joy. Of course, she would rather none of this had happened to her and her family. But in following the heroic way, the way of the saint, we can see in Chiara’s face and her smile (she was a Franciscan, incidentally) the presence of the Holy Spirit. We see the Spirit that with all the pain of our human situation also gives life, and gives joy, and brings abundant life and joy out of suffering.

Shortly before her death Chiara is reported to have said: “Perhaps deep down I don’t want healing; a happy husband and a peaceful child without his mother are a greater witness than a woman who has overcome an illness. A testimony that could save so many persons …” And she was buried in her wedding gown, on her way to her Divine Spouse but also, she said, on her way to her two lovely and so much loved earlier babies.

At a time when the Church is constantly under scrutiny and attack by its enemies and all too often by its friends as well, urging that the Church’s very survival depends on following some latest fad or fashion, Chiara Petrillo shows too that (in Tertullian’s famous saying) the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Christians. For she is a saint and a martyr, a witness. The survival of the Church lies not in fashionable accommodation. It lies in God.

Chiara Petrillo shows wonderfully well the way God brings forth for us the saints and martyrs that we need in our day. When young girls, often very young girls, use abortion as “emergency contraception” and when young women have been known to get pregnant and then abort the baby just to “check that everything is working properly”, Chiara Petrillo, who would literally die rather than hurt her baby-foetus, is a saint for our times.

Carissima Chiara, prega per noi.

Paul Williams is Emeritus Professor of Indian and Tibetan Philosophy at the University of Bristol and a lay member of the Dominican Order

  • paulsays

    The point of a hypothetical is to test the bounds of an idea – to prove its flaws. It is not to be realistic.

  • Absequami17

    God bless her family! She is now in Heaven, feeling His peace and love for eternity with her two, very loved children. Thank you for setting such a great example!

  • Fides_et_Ratio

    God bless her. I wanted to be as brave as her.

  • Fides_et_Ratio

     > “If her eggs, her husband’s sperm or the mechanisms of her womb were so
    defective in the first two births then weren’t the risks to the third
    child too high for her in all good conscience to get pregnant again”

    No, because life is better than death. Existing is better than not existing.

  • Fides_et_Ratio

    Killing innocent civilians is not part of war per se. It is not part of war qua war.
    It is one possible, unintentional, indirect consequence. And this makes a difference in moral philosophy.

    For example, if you pave a dirt road, you most likely will cause deaths. Because the road is now paved, people will run much faster, so, when something goes awry (for example, the driver sleeps), the chance of death is much bigger.

    Yet we don’t say that paving a road is equivalent to murder. It isn’t.

  • Fides_et_Ratio

    > “Let’s suppose that a baby is found to be born with a virus that will wipe out the population of the earth, do we not kill it?”
      No we don’t.

    “The end justifies the means” has caused immense suffering and misery. Just look at Nazi and Communism. Both had good ends; yet because they thought “the ends justify the means”, they caused evil in an astronomical scale.

  • Fides_et_Ratio

    You are confused. It was morally _acceptable_ for her to accept treatment that killed her child, yes. Still, giving her life for the child was _heroic_.

    For example: suppose I am captured by Chinese agents, and they want me to hand them the names of my fellow Christians. The government brutally tortures me. Under pain of torture, I could give the names without sin (If I interpreted moral philosophy correctly). Yet, if I accept the torture and keep the names to myself, I have been _heroic_. I have walked the extra mile. This makes a saint.

  • paulsays

    Just because some ends don’t justify the means, doesn’t mean that ALL ends don’t justify the means. And my example is a case in point.
    You scaremonger with incorrect comparisons to dictatorships, but you don’t address the hypothetical example that I give.
    As I see it that is because in terms of my specific example to kill the baby is in fact correct, and even you likely see that. You say that communist and Nazi dictatorships caused ‘immense suffering and misery’, surely then the death of the world’s entire population would cause ‘immense suffering and misery’? But for some reason you avoid addressing this problem.
    Your pointing to brutal dictatorships to prove your point is both dishonest and incorrect. Incorrect because dictators are power mad and usually care nothing for there people. Therefore BOTH their means and ends are immoral, whereas in the case of killing the baby – the means is evil, but the ends are not evil – and killing the baby is done to avoid the very worst evil – that of the worl’d population being killed by a virus.
     It is dishonest arguing because it smears the other arguer with being on the side of those who were totally evil. I can find people who are moral absolutists like yourself who have committed terrible acts – but I hardly want to associate them with you to ‘win’ an arguement, as it is cheap and meaningless.
    In order to win the argument you must take on my core point – my hypothetical example, which you have not done – rather than supplying false equivalent examples like you have.

  • Fides_et_Ratio

    > ” Incorrect because dictators are power mad and usually care nothing for there people.”

    I see no evidence for that.

    Second, about ends justifying means – that is the difference between a Christian and an atheist. And atheist can more easily fall into despair. If he finds a situation like you described, he is more likely to take the root you advocate.

    A Christian, however, knows that the world is in God’s control. We don’t have to try to “control the world” with evil means, we only have to do our local part and God does the rest. So no, we must never do evil things with good ends.

    And history shows what the atheist despair causes – Nazism and Marxism.

  • Karen Rodgers

    the baby is done to avoid the very worst evil – that of the worl’d population
    being killed by a virus.

    is not the very worst evil; much, much worse than death is committing an evil
    act; deliberately killing a child is one such act.

    warmest wishes,

    , Cambridge UK

  • Rpaw68

    To kill the child would be an act void of Faith because we have Faith in the teaching that it would be evil
    to kill the child. It’s that simple. What happens with the spread of virus after that is up to Him. This hypothetical challenges reason and goes beyond reason thus necessitating the light of
    Faith to guide the way for us to do His will.

  • francis

     i think she may have been afraid of bringing another less than physically fit child into the world; her choice – dying is easier living is harder; im not sure that is heroism;after you lose one child and have a second one die as well – i think the will to live is not always there – so rather than facing potentially something else may happen; it may have been easier to let go; · LikeUnlike

  • Jacqueline

    My condolences to her family.  What she has done is absolutely immaculate.  She wanted a child that would live to see the world.  Rarely do I see people these days come forward with such joy and presence amidst the pain the have to suffer.  I am guilty.  But this lady teaches me great faith of love and joy.  May you reach the realms of heaven and be in the arms of HIS Holy Angels and Saints.  Rest in peace Carissima and suffer no more. 

  • Liz Ruizhu

    Sometimes the end CAN justify the means. Bringing up the Nazis and Communism is irrelevant – both ideologies are more complicated than you make it out to be. 

    If a baby is found to be born with a virus that will kill everyone else and you refuse to kill it based on values that YOU have but not everyone else shares, even though these values benefit only you (and the people who have the same) and likely not the majority of the world’s population, then you are only doing it to stay on the moral high ground – an utterly selfish decision. 

  • Liz Ruizhu

    Might interest you to know that Hitler was raised a Christian and at one point, had considered becoming a priest. 

    I guess God didn’t guide him enough to stop him from going mad and murdering Jews? 

  • Fides_et_Ratio

    Hitler later denounced Christianity, which he denounced as a “religion of the weak”.

  • Fides_et_Ratio

    > “If a baby is found to be born with a virus that will kill everyone else and you refuse to kill it based on values that YOU have but not everyone else shares,”
    It looks like you are a moral relativist (“my morals are not your morals”). If that is the case, then why are you even debating? Debate is meaningless if there is no Truth.

    > “even though these values benefit only you”

    No, they do not benefit me.

  • Sue Clark

    Be careful how you word this, there were numerous saints that did not live a completely holy life, yet they are “saints” today.  You cannot argue that this woman was a living witness-or a martyr-for all of us to emulate. I pray that you rethink that human life is in fact holy, as scripture states that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit! {1 Cor 6:19-20}.