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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

  • Peace and Unity in our lives

    Very encouraging and lets pray that she may become a Saint.  Yes in today’s world we do have real witnesses of God!! 

  • Richard Collins

    Inspirational and terribly humbling.

  • Stephannie

    I am also inspired by Enrico’s acceptance of his wife’s actions, for she could not have done this without the support of her husband.  As she said she is leaving behind a happy husband. He is treading a much longer path, as witness to Christ’s love to the world.  

    Chiara Petrillo pray for us.

  • Bdk

    Yes, a saint for sure. So inspiring in these dark times. I also read an article about her from LifeNews site. Only they gave her name as Chiara Corbella.

  • antonivs10

    Her last text message to her parish priest was, “we await with lamps burning, for the arrival of the Bridegroom.”  Truly a Saint in the making.

  • maryp

    Yes, a saint indeed. Deo Gratias for her brave witness.

  • JR, Sydney, Oz

    Paul, Williams, I have to disagree. This young woman’s response to a diagnosis of cancer in her third ( and ultimately successful) pregnancy is not a “stunning act of saintliness” but the response of a young woman desperate to have a living child after two previous tragedies.  I am sure (like Gianna Molla before her) that she did not realise that she would succumb to her cancer so quickly. No doubt she died happy, as she had finally managed to have  a healthy baby ( and no-one would wish such a dreadful past obstetric history on anyone).

    Rather than hold this young woman up as the poster girl for the so-called pro-life movement It would be appropriate for all posters to pray for her bereaved husband and hope that he is able to remarry soon so that his son can be mothered.

    Let all of us who have had healthy children without maternal illness count our blessings .

  • jtliuzza

     How about you do that and let others do as they wish, ok?  What if the guy doesn’t want to remarry?  What business is it of yours?

    And what good does counting a blessing do?  That is a pointless exercise.  If you are going to do anything, you thank GOD for your blessings.

    This woman’s choices were that of a Saint.  If you can’t handle that part of the equation, that’s your issue.

  • Tom Jones

    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? Paul Williams doesn’t tell us if the living child is healthy, perhaps he doesn’t know, but there is a horrible nagging doubt that her mortal disease, there a long time undetected, may have been the killer of her babies. The whole story is tragic and it would be travesty to try to turn her into some kind of plaster saint as the writer seems to want to do.


  • Parasum

    How is she a Saint ? Acting like one every so often – IOW, not just the once – is not in itself sufficient reason to think someone is a Saint.  A Saint is distinguished not by acting like a Saint every so often, let alone once, but by living a consistently holy life, even though it may be less than flawless. Self-sacrifice for others is found outside Christianity; it is admirable, but not in itself proof of super-natural holiness.

    Confusing Saints with people who are in some limited respects Saint-like, or are pious, or virtuous in other respects, or are practicing Catholics (almost universally mis-described these days as “devout”), ends by degrading the notion of Christian Holiness, of which Jesus Christ is the Pattern & Exemplar. Quite apart from the sloppiness of talk about “the sanctity of life”. That is naturalism, because there is nothing holy about human life in itself – what appears to be meant, is that life is to be regarded as inviolable – a completely different idea.  

    “This woman’s choices were that of a Saint.  If you can’t handle that part of the equation, that’s your issue.”

    ## Maybe some of us are concerned to be theologically accurate. 

  • jtliuzza

     I didn’t say she is a Saint.  Only the Church can proclaim such.  I said she made the choices of a Saint.

    There is nothing holy about human life in itself?  To a protestant perhaps.

    And remember that Saint Augustine was a womanizer, Saint Mary Magdelene was a whore, Saint Paul persecuted Christians with great zeal, Saint Peter denied Christ Himself three times, I could go on but I hope you get the point.

    Each and every Saint was a sinner.  All of them.  There is only one human without sin: Mary the Mother of God. 

  • jtliuzza

     Culture of death mentality.  Eugenics mentality.  “Life not worthy of life” mentality (that gem was coined by the nazis).  Assuming the mantle that belongs only to God mentality. 

    Paul Williams doesn’t tell us if the living child is healthy.  Are you healthy?

  • David Kehoe

    Perhaps it was unfortunate of Professor Williams to
    raise the question of psychological factors as a driving force behind a mother’s
    choice to risk death so her baby might live, as there is no evidence that this
    was a factor in Chiara Corbella Petrillo’s choice. Then, Prof Williams perhaps
    was raising it as a factor in the decisions of other women rather than those of
    Chiara. From what has been reported of Chiara’s sayings, and those of her
    husband, it was matters of truth, not motherly emotion, that informed her
    action and her husband’s support. That is what is truly, and thus most,
    inspiring. Chiara  did not see herself as
    doing something extra – her choice was according to the true and the good  of her job description as a human person who
    happened to be a mother, and a wonderful job description it is. She did  what all human beings – Christians and
    non-Christians – are called to do as their true self: to die to self for the
    good of others in hidden or public ways as Jesus showed in His life and death
    on the Cross. Love is dying for others and anything less than that is not love.
    Sacrificial love is the only way marriage and family life can succeed in all its
    natural and Christian glory. Rational and willed-chosen love is not an emotion
    or properly done for psychological reasons. Love that is according to the true
    and the good is an action that every human being – with the help of God’s grace
    - can perform, and not just exceptional persons. Chiara and her husband have
    shown that the Sermon on the Mount and Our Lord’s life and death are to be
    lived as ordinary, not extra-ordinary, and not due to psychological influence.

  • Tom Jones

    Women are not *just* baby-making machines. The Catholic Church does not teach that; if it did there would be no room for nuns (or monks or celibacy for priests).Neither are married people obliged to be endless breeders – I hope you don’t think that because that is the ethics of the nazis just as much as eugenics and the other accusations you carelessly scatter around.

  • Edward

    Parasum, it seems to me your view of holiness is inhuman and impossible.  The process of sanctification occurs when one lives an ordinary human life extraordinarily well and facing the difficulties of life with holy courage.  While we await the judgement of the Church, it seems that this woman did that. 

    Sacrifice of others can be seen in many, but in some it emerges from a heroic life.  You cannot judge that this young woman did not live that heroic life before she had to make a choice, perhaps her choice emerged from a holy life as it did in the case of St Gianna Beretta Molla: her life will have to be examined. 

    You strike me as not being theologically accurate, but rather making holiness out to be an almost unreachable ideal – a very high pedestal.  Blessed John Paul II teaches us otherwise.

  • daclamat

    I find this kind of article frankly disgusting, and the knee-jerk reaction of the usual crowd of posters scarcely less so.

  • Nat_ons

    She is – like many untold souls among us sinners – a saint; please God her heroic virtue will be recognised one day on all the altars of the church catholic in canonical recollection as a Saint. The simple fact – as you rightly point out – that she need not have refused due medical treatment to help preserve her life while, with a double affect, threatening the welfare of her beloved yet unborn child is heroism. Not only of a mild charity and an abounding piety but of an utter devotion .. a signal virtue all but obliterated in modern ideas of ‘spiritual’ life; not rigid church attendance nor cheap lecturing of another’s failures let alone a gleeful dedication to expressions of self-love .. but complete self-giving; so if ever one wants to see Christ, there he is – in her and in many like her, Love in all of its glorious divine Way, Truth and Life.

    “He was in the world - and the world came into being through him – yet the world did not know him. ” Jhn 1 : 10.

  • Disqus

    What a beautiful story for these times in which the unborn life is regarded as something ‘cheap’ and ‘dispensable’. God Bless her!

  • M Lepine

    I have a little bit of a problem with the title of this otherwise admirable article. In my opinion, a much clearer title would say something like this: “One day the Church will officially recognize this woman to be a saint”, and will show her as a model of the love that fits the definition of “there is no better love than to give one’s life for someone”. And also, to answer “Parasum”, as far as I can see, her other previous choices of refusing to abort two handicapped babies can be seen as a very good sign of consistently acting as a saint would… Even if we don’t know much about the rest of her life. As we are all sinners, no doubt she was not consistently perfect in all respects, but it certainly does not cast a shadow over the exemplary choices we know she did make.

  • Gog

    I quote:

    “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.”

    That means we can never, ever support any war, because in all wars the innocent are killed ‘to help another’.

  • JMJwcindy

    How beautiful. What witness to Life in our culture of death. Yes, may the Church raise her to the altars soon!

  • Lourdes S

    Pray to our good Lord to forgive the cynical people in this comment thread, for they are only after their pride and glorifying themselves in their argument. They don’t understand hope as God teaches us…hope in that there is goodness in every person, who we can never deny has the potential to be a saint. May God send graces to you, Parasum and daclamat, for you are quick to see the dark first before the light. God bless!

  • Ronk

     I find your knee-jerk comment frankly disgusting.

    “Woe to you that call evil good, and good evil: that put darkness for
    light, and light for darkness: that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for
    bitter.” Isaiah 5:20

  • Ronk

     Come on, headlines have to be short and snappy. Everybody knows that it really means “One day the Church will officially recognize this woman to be a saint”.

    Just like Cardinal Moran said in 1909 of Mother Mary of the Cross MacKillop, “I believe I have today attended the death of a Saint.” It took 101 years for his words to be proven true.

  • Ronk

     No, it just means that the fact that we are at war does not give us carte blanche to deliberately kill innocents. We can support the launching of a war without giving a blank cheque of approval to any and every action which those fighting on our side of the war might do in the course of the war.

  • Gog

    Can you name any war in which the innocent were not killed, especially in modern times? It seems to me that to support the launching of a war is to accept that the innocent will be killed.

  • Karen Rodgers

    >the response of a young woman desperate to have a living child after two previous tragedies. 
    I  don’t read it that way at all. She did not want any child; or indeed to “have” the child at all; she loved that particular child with such a passion that she could not contemplate doing anything which might harm him and was prepared to give him up (through her death) and also her own life if necessary to save his.

    God bless her; what an amazing  testimony to the unconditional love of a mother and to faith,

    I think there can be be no doubt about where she is now. 
    With confidence and courage she laid down her life for a friend.

    Chiara pray for the rest of us that we too have your joy, courage and faith.warmest wishes,Karen RodgersCambridge UK

  • Peter

    The point is not whether any innocents have been killed in previous wars, the point is that we must not deliberately kill innocents or condone others doing so.
    Yes indeed leaders of nations are under a grave obligation, before embarking upon a war, to consider the fact that almost certainly innocent people will be killed. The principle of proportionality is important here. The higher the likelihood that a larger number of people, especially the innocent, will be (unintentionally) killed in the course of the war, must be weighed against the magnitude of the good which is to achieved or the evil which is to be averted by winning the war. For example millions of innocents were killed as a result of the Allies’ decision to wage World War Two, but few would dispute that the decision was the morally right one to take. This does not excuse the deliberate or reckless or indiscriminate killing of innocents by some forces of the Allies such as the atomic bombing of entire cities.
    And of course there are many more factors concerning the morality of launching and waging wars.

  • Georgiana

    I am thoroughly inspired! What an ANZAC spirit (I’m Australian)! Great self sacrifice, even when she didn’t have to morally!

  • asqueakyman

     If we are to claim continuity with the New Testament we have to regard every member of the Church as a saint. A saint is a sinner being sanctified. The saint/sinner dichotomy is nonsense.

  • Mbkell

    As the author points out, completely orthodox catholic moral teaching fully allows the choice to accept treatment in a case such as this. It is perfectly possible that this woman could have chosen treatment for love of her husband and any future children they
    have, commended her unborn child to the love of God, and still been a saint. The article presumes that her actual choice is somehow the genuinely loving and saintly choice – somehow higher in moral value and heroic love than accepting treatment. But Catholic teaching does not say this. This is an opinion of the author and he needs to argue it theologically and with reference to this actual person – by this I mean she could have made her choice for various reasons – some of which might have been psychologically unhealthy and theologicallly distorted. Let’s be clear. A saint could have made the choice to accept treatment – to suggest otherwise is to reject the clear teaching of the church that such a decision is completely morally acceptable.

  • JemmaLawrence

    We are all valuable to our Creator.. I just wish that we would all know this!

  • Bridget

    Excellent post, the suggestion that the guy should remarry is revolting, part of the disposable culture, don’t want this fetus now, so abort it, do want it now, its a baby, wife dies, replace her

  • Ella

    I knew Chiara personally and I can only say that she walked in holiness before all this even started… When I met her she was only 18 years old (Enrico happens to be one of my dearest friends) and she immediately struck me for her humility, pureness of heart and faithfulness to the Lord. She was stunningly beautiful (pictures do not really capture her) but it was almost like she did not know it or care for it. She and Enrico have always been faithful to the Lord, even in those teenager years in which is easy to get lost in a world that only offer a plastic happiness and morally relative ideals. She possessed a radiating joy and childlike spirit but, at the same time, she was extremely serious and rooted in her faith. Jesus meant everything to her.

     I never got to tell her but she inspired me to have a family in a moment in which I was very hardened and disillusioned. I thought to myself “if this is the type of children given to the Lord to a family that prays… then I want to have a family like that!”

     She and Enrico have always been faithful to the Lord, even in those teenager years in which is easy to get lost in a world that only offer a plastic happiness and morally relative ideals. Since they met in Medjugorje during a Youth Festival, they desired to be “children of God”… this was their path of holiness.  We are all called to holiness, simply by accepting God’s will in our life. Chiara will be a saint because, through prayer and her deep devotion to Mary, she arrived to embrace God’s plan with joy.

  • JemmaLawrence

    Lourdes S, I tend to agree with your insight, as your prayer seems good and fitting to this thread’s participants. When I was a little girl I said to God ” i want to be a saint (when I grow up/ to be ending my life as such)! I need all the help (graces) and encouragement I can get to attain this goal! Sure, anyone I know would laugh at such a story; but there is hope for me yet! Never deny God’s love in all it’s shapes and forms.. but it is His Love none-the-less.

  • paulsays

    ‘absolutely never, morally acceptable to kill an innocent person in order to help another’
    A very nice sentiment of course, but this kind of absolutists ethics just doesn’t hold water when you really test it. (As neither does many other absolute moral frameworks)

    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?
    It is now moral to let all of the world’s population die in order not to kill an innocent child?
    Even though that the child will die anyway as it will kill everyone that might be able to look after it?

    We have to be careful to thing is absolutes, because they can be flawed. 

  • Anp

    Already a saint in Heaven.

  • Captainc_29601

    Faith–for a Perfect Child…………..

  • chiaramonti

    Someone once said that to be a saint you have to be (1) dead; and (2) a good catholic. This is not entirely correct. It refers to a canoniozed saint. I suspect all of us meet more saints than we know as we go through life. Chiara Petrillo is certainly one of them.

  • Aunt Raven

    I think we need to remember that any good Catholic can be a saint, small “s” by living by cultivating ordinary virtue through the sacraments.  To be a Saint, capital “S”, means that one is canonized officially by the church as an exemplar of Heroic virtue.  This means venerated and celebrated  for extraordinary, not merely ordinary virtue–which means willingly uniting oneself with some aspect of the sufferings of Christ. 

    Canonized saints are exemplars of heroic, and therefore uncommon, virtue in witness to the Catholic faith.  It means not merely choosing good over evil, but of choosing the perfect over the good. That’s why we are all called to be saints, canonized saints are far and few between.   

  • Aunt Raven

    I read the other day that the US Military in its officers’ training courses no longer uses the “reasons for just war” as propounded by the church for centuries.  
    This appears to be a deliberate effort on the part of the current Administration to erode ethical considerations to promote blind obedience to orders — which the Nurnburg trials explicitly rejected as a defense against “crimes against humanity” by Nazi officers.  .  

  • Praxising

    “How can she kill herself to save the life of a foetus?”
    She didn’t kill herself, as she is alive and well and with God.  I don’t think, as much as we must all admire her greatly and be inspired by her, that is is so unusual.  I think many women have made similar choices. It’s not about whether it’s moral or not: you just love your child.  

  • Ronk

     This one is not. In the situation you describe, it would be absolutely wrong to deliberately kill the innocent child.

    And please don’t call a human being “it”/

  • paulsays

    Well I wasn’t specifying the gender of the child in question, as its an hypothetical question. So there’s no other pronoun left but ‘it’. I used it out of necessity - not to devalue human life.

    I also find it hard to believe that you must value 1 innocent child over the billions of innocent children and adults that would die in my thought-experiment. I hope you think it over again.

  • Gianniantoniograzioli

    Chiara’s already saint, in to the hearts of most of us

  • Alan

    Double effect is not merely about intention construed as a “proposal” but also concerns the nature of the act deliberately chosen.  It is not merely whether the end sought is a killing, but also whether the action chosen is of such a nature as to constitute wrongful deprivation of life.  Some acts that sustain the mother may predictably bring about death to the child while nonetheless not being through themselves ordered to killing the child; whereas other acts do terminate in the child in such a way as directly to kill and so are morally wrongful acts. All of which being said, the author’s point–that even if the therapy she refused were morally acceptable Chiara Petrillo’s decision nonetheless was a grace-filled witness to the truth–is instructive.  Her sublime confidence and joy in the Divine Providence is humbling and profoundly instructive.

  • Pompous Ass

     Ah – so innocence is a question of numbers? One innocent is clearly not so innocent as billions of innocents?

    Whatever your example holds – it certainly isn’t water.

  • paulsays

    No, all are equally innocent.

    Just there are more innocents who will die, if the decision is not taken to kill one innocent, and therefore – in my example, it is most moral to kill one innocent child, in order to save billions of other innocents.

    All equally innocent, just a greater number of equally innocent’s lives saved.

    My example most certainly holds water – it is moral absolutism that does not.

  • Jeannette

    First, the child would be quarantined, but people would already be infected by the time it was discovered that he had a virus so this is a rather flawed hypothetical situation.  Second, the world will end when it’s time; the Creator has had that timeline when He first said “Let there be light” several billion years ago and caused the Big Bang.  Your disapproval of said timeline would be given the weight it deserves.

  • charles

    “There is no greater love than this: that a person would lay down his life for the sake of his friends.” – John 15:13.