The Pope’s Abortion ‘Forgiveness’ is Good Politics, but Changes Nothing for Women
Pope Francis’s pastoral letter for the Year of Mercy, indicating that priestsmay absolve those who procure abortions, does nothing to change Catholic church policy with regards to how abortion is viewed. Current canonical law states that abortion is a grave sin, resulting in “automatic” excommunication.
It also doesn’t change very much when it comes to the mechanics of sin and forgiveness in the Catholic Church. Current teachings state that bishops could give priests the right to forgive a woman for having an an abortion if she was truly penitent; for this year, priests do not specifically have to ask a bishop for the right to absolve anyone seeking forgiveness for assisting an abortion or having one. (And Pope John Paul II gave priests the same term-limited right in the year 2000.)
What the Pope did was make a deft statement on the eve of his first visit to Cuba and the United States – a very Jesuitical move from the Jesuit pontiff. It presents to the public and press a more forgiving, more open church, which needs all the good PR feelings it can muster.
In a letter outlining the preparations for the Year of Mercy beginning on 8 December 2015, the pope stated he is “conceding to all priests for the Jubilee year the discretion to absolve the sin of abortion to those who have procured it”.
While the edict is not a change in canon law, it does give a pathway to forgiveness for what the church terms “a grave sin”. Once a person is absolved, then they are back in “good standing’ with the Catholic church, and are able to partake of the sacrament of the Eucharist and be accepted into heaven.
The move to offer absolution to women who had abortions is likely to rankle conservatives who have found themselves embattled with this pope, who hews closely to Catholic church teachings but still makes comments like “who am I to judge” with regards to homosexuality and calls upon Church leaders to get active on climate change.
The letter particularly puts the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops once again in the interesting position of having to support the pope, even though many of them are staunch anti-abortion advocates who may not have wished to extend – or even forbidden the extension of – forgiveness to those women who have sought it regarding abortions. Many of those bishops have been eager to fight the culture wars surrounding abortion rights in the United States; this announcement reduces their bluster substantively.
Pope Francis has also put conservative clergy off balance, forcing them to try to find ways to sustain their cultural rigidity while respecting the office of the Papacy. Father Frank Pavone, from Priests for Life, has issued a press release stating that he “welcomes the church’s eagerness to reconcile those who have had abortions”. But there’s no telling whether the letter will encourage them to change their beliefs and state that abortion is a grave sin, but that forgiveness for that sin is not automatically precluded.
Perhaps surprisingly, progressives and liberal Catholics are also reacting poorly to the pope’s pronouncement. Catholics for Choice’s response to Pope Francis letter states that while Pope Francis has a “pastoral, not political approach to abortion”, their president, Jon O’Brien, added that “I do not believe that Catholic women will be queuing up to ask for forgiveness”.
And while, for liberal Catholics, the pope’s shift from political stances on church doctrine to pastoral ones is a victory, it’s far from a substantial doctrinal change on the role of women. The Chicago Declaration on Women in the Catholic Church, drafted in July of 2015 by Catholics for Choice, stated that it imagined a church where “women are respected for their choices about their health, welfare and lives.” Extending forgiveness for having an abortion by a local priest does not meet that standard of respect.
For many American Catholics and non-Catholics, Pope Francis’s extension of forgiveness for abortion is an antiquated ideal in the age of feminism, advances in medicine and personal autonomy. But for Catholic women outside the west, it will give them hope, and a pathway to forgiveness in countries where abortion is outlawed.
And in places like Latin American and Africa where the Catholic Church is competing with evangelicals for members, the church cannot afford to lose disaffected Catholic women. Evangelical and Pentecostal churches are more likely to extend forgiveness to those who have had abortions. The pope’s instruction for priests to forgive may mean, in some cases, the difference between a woman staying in the Catholic Church or leaving for a more understanding and empowering church nearby.
By extending forgiveness for abortion in his pastoral letter, Pope Francis has once again confounded his detractors and given hope to those who view his papacy as a sign of change in the Catholic Church. It also places another wrench in how the Catholic Bishops in the United States wield their traditional weapons in the culture war. Pope Francis continues to disarm them in untraditional ways using nothing less than the traditions of the church, all while moving the goalposts ever so slightly towards change.
This article was originally published in the Guardian (UK).