Documentary spotlights Catholic denial of paraplegic weddings

Documentary spotlights Catholic denial of paraplegic weddings
Associated Press Writer

NEW YORK - Flavia Fontes was talking on the phone when a headline in a small Brazilian newspaper caught her eye: A paraplegic man was forbidden to get married by the Roman Catholic Church because he was impotent.

"I just had such a gut reaction," Fontes says. "I could not believe that the church would do this to somebody who probably had many obstacles in his life."

Even though Fontes, a Brazilian filmmaker living in New York, was already immersed in another project, she decided she needed to capture Hedir Antonio de Brito's story. The result is "Forbidden Wedding," which premieres on the Sundance Channel at 9 p.m. EST Monday.

It is the third documentary Fontes has directed, filmed and produced, and it has appeared in almost 20 film festivals, capturing three awards.

De Brito was two weeks away from marrying Elzimar de Lourdes Serafim, a widow, in August 1996, when he received a shocking letter from the local bishop denying their application for a marriage certificate. According to canon law, any man or woman who is impotent and unable to have intercourse cannot get married.

De Brito wrote a letter to Pope John Paul II to appeal the bishop's decision, but didn't get a response.

The invitations had already been mailed and the couple were determined to get married, even if it meant going against the church.

De Brito, a leading disability advocate in Brazil, felt the church was discriminating against him, so he wrote to a local radio station. His letter was read on the air, awakening the town of Patrocinio to the couple's plight, and support for them spread across Brazil, eventually catching the attention of international media.

After de Brito agreed to share his story with Fontes, she spent the next two weeks in Patrocinio talking with the couple, their families, townspeople and local priests. Although many were sympathetic, few were willing to talk to Fontes on camera for fear of retaliation from the church.

About 73 percent of Brazil's 183 million people are Catholic, making it the world's most populous Catholic country.

"It's very unusual for somebody of that social class to stand up against the church," the 44-year-old filmmaker said.

De Brito came from a religious family, and his mother initially opposed his marriage. Over time, she accepted her son's relationship with Serafim but, in turn, was ostracized by her friends because he was speaking out against the church.

Fontes herself was raised Catholic but said her views had grown distant from the church's over the years.

"With all the problems in Brazil - the poverty, the lack of education - I couldn't believe the church would get involved in someone's sex life," she said in an interview. "It was appalling to me."

Over the next four years, Fontes researched canon law back in New York. She eventually flew to Rome in hopes of interviewing some cardinals, but was told they were on vacation. She returned to Brazil two more times to finish the film.

De Brito became a paraplegic at 15 when he was shot on the way home from the movies. The bullet tore his lung and hit his spinal cord, and doctors only expected to him to live a year and a half.

While his friends were out dating and having fun, he was in and out of the hospital, undergoing 25 operations.

But de Brito didn't give up hope of finding love. "All humans long for companionship and I am no exception," he says at the beginning of the documentary.

He met Serafim two months after her husband died; she was looking for work to support her two children and he was looking for a caretaker.

Their friendship and mutual acceptance - she had no education, he was in a wheelchair - soon developed into romance and they decided to marry. Wedding plans were well underway when a local priest asked de Brito during premarital counseling if he was impotent and de Brito answered him honestly. The priest told de Brito he couldn't marry the couple, which the bishop's letter confirmed.

"If (de Brito) had left the issue in doubt, it wouldn't have been a problem," said the Rev. Dr. Bernard Olszewski, a canon law expert and vice president for academic affairs at Hilbert University in Hamburg, N.Y. "Unfortunately, he gave full disclosure. In a pastoral sense, it would have been better for the priest to have a 'don't ask, don't tell' policy."

The couple argue in the documentary that de Brito's impotence didn't prevent them from being intimate, and that they enjoyed a sex life outside the church's traditional definition.

"Sexuality is the whole body. It is your smile, your hands, the way you look at one another," he says.

Serafim sweetly describes her first kiss with de Brito, which she initiated. She had planned to do it on Christmas but couldn't wait that long. She stole a kiss from him, and, shocked by her own boldness, did it again to make sure it had really happened. The next day he bought her flowers and a present and told her he didn't want to see other women.

"This relationship is real," she says. "Our love is sincere."

One priest Fontes interviewed in the documentary agreed, making an emotional appeal that the law is merely piece of paper that hurts people and that sex doesn't affect the essence of the relationship. Another argues from a practical standpoint the church cannot enforce the law without having inspectors all over the world.

A third priest defends the bishop for upholding the church's principles, noting the law is not a secret and all priests are obligated to follow it.

The bishop who enforced the law would not speak to Fontes, and Vatican officials declined comment when reached by The Associated Press.

Fontes meticulously presents both sides in the documentary, but it's clear she finds the canon law antiquated.

"When I think about this story, I think it's a metaphor for how much the church has stopped in time and has not modernized itself," she said in an interview.

But at its core, she said, it remains a love story about human sexuality, the rights of the disabled and faith in Brazil.

"I wanted to take the small story and show that it was something that came from a bigger power," she said, "that even though it had taken place in Brazil, it could have happened anywhere. It just happened that this man made it public."

(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)