Pope Francis’ Announcement on Abortion Is About Bridging the Deep Chasm Between the Church Hierarchy and the Reality of Everyday Catholics
Blogs may be filled with feminist and temporal commentators fuming but failing to understand the real intention and impact of Pope Francis’ announcement today. From now on, all priests will have the discretion to formally forgive women who have had abortions and seek absolution.
As a Catholic, I welcome today’s decision from Pope Francis, who again has taken a much more pastoral, rather than political, approach to abortion—one of the most contentious issues in the Catholic Church. He is far more interested in abortion through the lens of the sacrament of reconciliation than his predecessors, bringing us into a relationship by fixing fences and healing hearts. Pope Francis, more so than his predecessors, is attempting to bridge the deep chasm between ordinary Catholics and their clergy.
In one sense for American Catholics, the change is no change at all. Priests in this country could already reconcile with women—perhaps there is more to the symbolism of the decision than meets the eye. The decision recognizes the reality of everyday Catholics: What they practice is different from the dictates of the hierarchy. Catholic women the world over have abortions, use birth control and access assisted reproductive technologies—all of which are frowned upon by the Catholic hierarchy. In the United States, ninety-nine percent of Catholic women have used a method of birth control the bishops don’t approve of and we know that Catholic women have abortions at the same rate as those of other faiths and no faith. That is the practice of Catholics, plain and simple.
Too many people may fail to understand the real intention and impact of Pope Francis’ decision today, which extends a decision he made a year ago concerning women and abortion. That said, in the last year we have not seen Catholic women lining up at local churches to ask for forgiveness. That’s because Catholic women know that they can, in good conscience, disagree with the hierarchy and still be Catholics in good faith.
Catholic teachings on abortion have changed over time, and Catholic theology allows room for the acceptance of policies that favor access to the full range of reproductive health options, including contraception and abortion. Although the Catholic hierarchy says that the prohibition on abortion is both “unchanged” and “unchangeable,” this does not comport with the actual history of abortion teaching, and dissent, within the church. The church’s teaching authority is based not only on the hierarchy, but also on the work of theologians and the lived experience of Catholics. Leading theologians diverge from the Vatican’s teaching on abortion. Moreover, the concept of reception means that a church law must be accepted by Catholic people in order to effectively guide the community—but many of the hierarchy’s teachings on reproductive issues have not been received by the faithful. Worldwide, Catholics have soundly rejected the church’s ban on contraception. In many countries only a minority of Catholics agree with church leaders on abortion.
It is sad that Pope Francis nonetheless talks about abortion in relationship to sin. For the majority of Catholic women who choose abortion, there is absolutely no question of sin. Following your conscience, whether it leads you to birth control, in vitro fertilization or abortion, is good decision-making and morally right as a Catholic. At the heart of church teachings on moral matters is a deep regard for an individual’s conscience—and Catholic women have long understood that they can make moral and ethical decisions about their sexual and reproductive health.
But if a woman examines her conscience and believes that her decision wasn’t moral—or believes in the rightness of her decision yet finds comfort in forgiveness—it’s our obligation to respect her for wanting that forgiveness. Allowing a woman who thinks she has sinned by having an abortion to approach the institutional church makes the whole thing more about pastoral care than political point-scoring.
Importantly, Pope Francis’ real message today may not even be for women in the pew at all. Instead, he may be addressing his brother bishops and priests, who sometimes have seemed hell-bent on punishing Catholic women for their conscience-based decisions that don’t comport with the hierarchy. Ironically, while the bishops have strongly advocated for conscience rights and religious freedom for themselves, they have not extended those privileges to the women in our church. Perhaps Pope Francis is urging them to lay that inconsistency to rest and finally reconcile with women.
Jon O’Brien is the president of Catholics for Choice.
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