Pope Francis’s Abortion Pardon ‘A Great Gift’ for Catholics in Boston
Sunshine spilled through the stained-glass windows of St Mary’s chapel at Boston College, on what was a particularly warm summer’s day. It was cool and serene inside the chapel, where nearly two dozen people, including a campus security guard and a handful of students, assembled for a midday service.
The organ sounded and the parishioners rose as the priest approached the striking white marble altar. For the next 45 minutes, they recited hymns, knelt in prayer and listened to the homily, which reflected on the three theological virtues: faith, hope and love.
Just the day before, Pope Francis sent a ripple through the church with his announcement that Catholic priests will temporarily be able to absolve the sin of abortion – an act considered a grave sin by the Catholic church – without needing to obtain special permission from a bishop.
Here in Boston, and in most dioceses around the US, bishops have already extended that authority to priests, order was still celebrated as a welcoming gesture from a compassionate pope.
Kate Convoy, a 23-year-old master’s student at Boston College, who came to St Mary’s for the midday mass, said she thinks the pope’s pronouncement will help reach women who may have felt alienated from the church because of their decision to have an abortion.
“I think there is a huge fear of judgement from women who have had abortions, and from others who have done things that are not openly accepted by the church,” Convoy said. “I think that this announcement really puts that fear aside and says: ‘You won’t be judged. You will be forgiven. We’ll work through this with you and we’ll support you’.”
Under canon law, abortion is a “moral evil” and “gravely contrary to the moral law” punishable by latae sententiae excommunication, meaning “automatic”. But those those who seek forgiveness with “a contrite heart” will be absolved of their sin, the pope emphasized in his letter.
At St Anthony shrine in downtown Boston, Fe Sova, an accountant who said she regularly prays at the church during her lunch break, also commended the pope’s edict.
“I respect this move,” Sova said. “It makes the mercy of God more accessible.”
Sova added that women who have had abortions could always seek forgiveness from the church.
“As long as her heart is remorseful and she really feels sorry for what she has done,” Sova said, “it doesn’t really matter if she is confesses to a bishop or a priest.”
While the Pope’s announcement did not change official church doctrine on abortion, it brings to the fore a controversial issue that Francis has not roundly addressed so far in his papacy.
Progressives within the church are hopeful the pope’s softer approach to issues such as divorce, contraception and gay marriage will shake the church’s conservative reputation that increasingly alienates young people.
“Pope Francis is hitting a different accent, maybe not a different key, but clearly a different stress,” said the Reverend James Bretzke, a professor of moral theology at Boston College.
But in his letter, Francis expressed sympathy for the women who have had abortions. “I am well aware of the pressure that has led them to this decision,” he wrote. “I know that it is an existential and moral ordeal.”
“What has changed,” Bretzke said, is not the Church’s teaching but rather “that the pope and many others are recognizing that the decision to have an abortion is never an easy one and that it often comes in response to a lot of stresses.”
While Francis’s letter is primarily in reference to women who have “procured” abortions, the gesture could be extended to other parties, including doctors who performed the procedure, partners who helped pay for it or parents of minors who permitted it.
The ‘home of all’
The precipitous decline in Americans who identify as Catholic has made it increasingly harder for the church to ignore demands for reform, especially in the wake of sex abuse scandals that have damaged the church’s reputation.
In the traditional Catholic stronghold of Massachusetts, Catholicism remains the largest Christian denomination at 34% but the number of residents there who identify as Catholic dropped by a staggering nine percentage points since 2007, according to a Pew survey released in May.
Jon O’Brien, president of the progressive Catholics for Choice, said the pope’s gesture “evokes images of sitting down with women and listening to them”. But he added that the church’s stance on abortion is too harsh and out of touch with modern social views.
“I do not believe that Catholic women will be queuing up to ask for forgiveness,” O’Brien said. “A long time ago, Catholic women around the world worked out that they can make moral and ethical decisions about sexual and reproductive issues … The very narrowness of Francis’s statement on having a particular year of forgiveness suggests that he still has a blind spot when it comes to women and what they want.”
In the US, Catholics are divided on the whether abortion should be legal. According to a 2013 Pew Research Center poll, 53% of white Catholics say it should be legal in all or most cases, while 41% say it should be illegal in all or most cases. There is also an ethnic divide among Catholics, with Hispanic Catholics less likely to say abortion should be legal.
In one of his earliest interviews as pope, Francis shocked conservatives and traditionalist when he accused the church of being “obsessed” with waging culture wars over issues such as abortion and gay marriage. Rather than be divisive, he said, the church should seek to be a “home of all”.
But on the issue of abortion, he has been clear.
“I want to be completely honest in this regard,” Francis wrote in his apostolic exhortation two years ago. “This is not something subject to alleged reforms or ‘modernizations’. It is not ‘progressive’ to try to resolve problems by eliminating a human life.”
Despite concern that some traditionalists would disapprove of his most recent gesture, many appeared to have embraced the announcement as affirmation of the church’s unwavering opposition to abortion, and their efforts to advance the fight against it.
“Abortion is a bigger issue than ever and the pope’s move to cover this with more mercy is an indication precisely of the urgency of the issue,” said the Reverend Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life, which oversees the abortion recovery project, Silent No More.
The fight against abortion has reached new heights in the US in response to a series of undercover videos that falsely claimed to show Planned Parenthood unlawfully profited from the sale of fetal tissue. Pavone, who has been an outspoken voice against the group, is hopeful the pope’s edict will add weight to the fight.
In his letter, Francis noted “the tragedy of abortion” and said some people do not realize the “extreme harm” an abortion entails.
Pavone said it is not possible to interpret the pope’s act of compassion as anything more.
“If it were a softening of the church’s stance, there would be less of a need for forgiveness, not more,” Pavone said.
It’s conceivable that there could be opposition from conservatives when the jubilee year begins, Bretzke said, but noted that it was unlikely because the pope’s order is already the status quo in the US.
“From a political standpoint, this was a masterstroke,” Bretzke said. “He gave things that pleased virtually everyone no matter where you point on the theology spectrum.”
He added that the ever-savvy pope may have forestalled resistance from ultra-conservative Catholics with his second order, delivered in the same letter, granting special forgiveness to priests of the Society of St Pius X, a traditionalist breakaway group not sanctioned by the Vatican.
The Francis effect
Call it the Francis Effect – ever since the pontiff extended an olive branch to women who have had abortions, the phone at Project Rachel in Boston hasn’t stopped ringing with women interested in reconciling with the church.
“The past two days I have been on the phone non-stop with women,” said Marianne Luthin, who leads the abortion healing ministry, Project Rachel, at the archdiocese of Boston. “They heard the mercy of the pope … There’s just no other explanation,” she said.
For years women in Boston could confess their sin of abortion to a priest, but Luthin believes the pope may have clarified some misconceptions about the church’s willingness to forgive.
“For some women [reconciliation] is something they’ve thought about for a long time, but hearing it directly from the pope, yes, I believe that the pope’s words and encouragement can only be positive,” Luthin said.
Cardinal Sean O’Malley, head of the archdiocese of Boston, described the pope’s action “a great gift” to the church and to the world.
“My hope and prayer is that all those carrying the burden of an experience of abortion would turn to the Church and her sacraments and experience the Lord’s mercy and love,” O’Malley said.
It is estimated that one in three American women will have an abortion in their lifetime, a rate that remains the same when adjusted to include only women who self-identify as Catholic, Luthin said.
“So we know that there are a lot of Catholic women in the pews as well as those who are not in the pews who are suffering from abortions,” she said, underscoring the importance of her ministry’s work. “There’s a dynamic between guilt and grief, and sometimes it can be hard to understand that yes, you did lose a child and that’s a source of grief.”
This article originally appeared in the Guardian (UK).