As a part of my job at the Victoria Advocate, I am on the editorial board, where I, among others, write bimonthly editorials which become the voice of the paper. This editorial originally appeared in the Sept. 9, 2015 edition of the Victoria Advocate. Photo found here.
Last Tuesday, in the spirit of the Catholic Church’s upcoming Year of Mercy, Pope Francis decided to “concede to all priests … the discretion to absolve of the sin of abortion those who have procured it and who, with contrite heart, seek forgiveness for it.”
Earlier in the same speech, he expressed sympathy for any woman who has “procured” an abortion.
“I am well aware of the pressure that has led [women] to this decision. I know that it is an existential and moral ordeal. I have met so many women who bear in their heart the scar of this agonizing and painful decision. …The forgiveness of God cannot be denied to one who has repented, especially when that person approaches the Sacrament of Confession with a sincere heart.”
This attracted media attention because the media loves to sensationalize anything Francis says (Dogs can go to heaven. Atheists, too.) and because the move allows priests the world over to hear confessions of women who have had abortions, without having to also include the bishop that would usually have to be present for those confessions.
The additional requirement of a bishop is typically used in order to lift the self-incurred excommunication that results from getting an abortion. Regular priests in most American dioceses have been able to lift this excommunication without the presence of a bishop since the 1980s. Francis’ statement applies to the global Catholic church.
Now, there are obviously some technical questions here. Is this privilege available only for women? What about men who have paid for an abortion? Or parents who deemed their children too young or too unhealthy to bear a child? What about doctors who do not agree with the procedure, but performed abortions on patients who asked for them? And what constitutes a “sincere heart” when it comes to giving a confession, anyway?
At their core, Francis’ words aren’t about those legalities, nor is he saying anything new for the Catholic Church.
Since the Church’s conception, it has defined abortion as a “moral evil,” a view that cannot change. Pope Francis’ statement does not change that fact. He isn’t even the first pope to speak about forgiveness for this moral evil.
In 1995, Blessed St. Pope John Paul II wrote these words on the subject:
“If you have not already done so, give yourselves over with humility and trust to repentance. The Father of mercies is ready to give you his forgiveness and his peace in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. You will come to understand that nothing is definitively lost and you will also be able to ask forgiveness from your child, who is now living in the Lord.”
What Francis said is in step with his (and the Church’s) agenda since his papacy began in 2013. He is building an administration based on the divine mercy and radical forgiveness that has defined Christianity since the story of Christ refusing to condemn an adulterous woman.
What Francis said is about the radical nature of forgiveness, not a political statement on abortion. Even if he wanted to change church doctrine on the matter, it wouldn’t happen soon – this is a church that didn’t allow its priests to celebrate Mass in English until 1964 and waited until 1992 to pardon Galileo for his assertion that the Earth revolved around the sun.
No, what Francis said is a command from the leader of the largest institutionalized form of Christianity instructing all of Christ’s followers to show divine mercy and radical forgiveness to others. Even to those who have committed the “moral evil” of abortion.
That type of mercy and forgiveness is polarizing.
But that’s why those words need to be said.
This opinion reflects the views of the Victoria Advocate’s editorial board.