Recently, Pope Francis, the leader of the Catholic Church, declared that priests are now officially allowed to forgive Catholic women who have gotten abortions. This religious essay explores his declaration and its background context.
The essay will begin by discussing the declaration itself. Then, the essay will provide some background information about the Catholic Church as a whole, including how the new policy regarding the forgiveness of abortion is a deviation from the old policy. After this, it will move into a consideration of negative reactions to Pope Francis’s declaration—which, somewhat counterintuitively, have primarily emerged from the liberal end of the political spectrum. Finally, the essay will close with a critical reflection on what this move means for the papacy of Francis.
Pope Francis decrees priest can forgive abortion sins
Francis’s declaration regarding the forgiveness of abortion has emerged within the context of his previous declaration regarding an upcoming Jubilee Year, or Year of Mercy. As Francis himself (qtd. in Bacon) has written:
“I have decided, notwithstanding anything to the contrary, to concede to all priests for the Jubilee Year the discretion to absolve of the sin of abortion those who have procured it and who, with contrite heart, seek forgiveness for it” (paragraph 3).
Compromising in the abortion debate is quite a radical gesture, given that from the Catholic perspective, life begins at conception, which means that there can be no real conceptual distinction made abortion on the one hand and infanticide on the other. Traditionally, abortion has been considered a sin that results in immediate excommunication from the Catholic Church. Now, though, Francis has declared that Catholic women who have committed abortion can come forward and confess their sins, and still remain a part of the body of the Catholic Church.
Reforming the Catholic Church
Pope Francis differs from his predecessors in many ways, including on the topic of abortion. This gesture on the part of Pope Francis can be understood as part of his broader agenda of reforming his Church in the direction of mercy. This intention was indicated even by his choice of name: Saint Francis of Assisi has been universally venerated for his ethos of mercy and deep concern for the poor. This emphasis on mercy would seem to be in congruence with Jesus Christ’s own fundamental message of the forgiveness of sins, as reported in all four gospels of the Bible.
While the Pope’s efforts are nowhere near the drastic approach during the 16th-century reformation, this shift in emphasis is considered by many to be a kind of break from the policies that have characterized the Catholic Church over the course of the past several years. Technically speaking, it is perhaps possible to see continuities over time as well; but in general, the media has tended to portray Francis as a reformer who is interested in making fundamental changes in his Church within the context of the late modern world (Stille).
One crucial point to be made regarding Francis’s declaration, though, is that it affirms in no uncertain terms that abortion is a very serious sin. Indeed, this is implicit in the basic logic of the declaration itself: from the Catholic perspective, the only reason it would be necessary to forgive women who have obtained abortions in the first place is that abortion is a sin, and these women have thus sinned. There is absolutely nothing in Francis’s declaration that in any way suggests that abortion is now suddenly a more morally acceptable practice; rather, abortion is considered just as grave an offense against God as it has always been considered by the Catholic Church (Gilbert).
The real point being made by Francis is, as seen in his recent signing of the new Ecumenical Declaration, the mercy of the Church must now expand to such an extent that even a sin as grave as abortion can now be forgiven, if Catholic women want to seek such forgiveness. In the moral equation, then, it is not the case that the magnitude of the sin has been diminished. Rather, the truth of the matter is that the magnitude of mercy has been amplified.
Overview of the Catholic Church
According to Catholic belief, the Catholic Church was established by Jesus Christ himself, with his disciple Peter serving as the very first pope of the church:
“And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18).
Historically speaking, it is probably untrue that there is a single unbroken line of popes running across two millennia all the way from Peter to Francis; rather, it is likely that this was a kind of mythology constructed by the early Catholic Church in order to gain legitimacy relative to other competing churches of the time (MacCullough). Nevertheless, irrespective of what the historical record may or may not indicate, this narrative strongly informs the self-image and mission of the Catholic Church: the organization sees itself as charged with the responsibility of sustaining the original Gospel of Jesus Christ in the midst of the late modern world.
The Church and modern politics
Within the context of the contemporary political scene, the Catholic Church has become known for maintaining a set of positions that can be classified as neither conservative nor liberal in any straightforward way. For example, the Catholic Church strongly opposes abortion, which is considered a conservative or Republican position in today’s political climate; but then, the Church also opposes the death penalty, which is a position clearly associated with the left end of the political spectrum.
Conceptually, it has been stated by at least some contemporaries that the Catholic Church’s platform can be identified as a culture of life: its moral logic consistently unfolds from its premises regarding the nature of the human being and what it means to preserve the life and dignity of the human being as a creature of God.
Pope Francis receives negative responses on abortion decree
One would perhaps expect negative reactions to Pope Francis’s declaration to come from conservative quarters—Protestants, who have a rather argumentative history with the Catholic Church, for example, who believe that the declaration makes abortion seem like less serious of a sin than it actually is in their eyes. Interestingly, though, a great deal of the negative reactions against Francis’s declaration have actually emerged from the liberal-Democratic camp. As Butler has indicated, for example:
“For many American Catholics and non-Catholics, Pope Francis’s forgiveness for abortion is an antiquated ideal in the age of feminism, advances in medicine and personal autonomy” (paragraph 11).
The bottom line, here, is that the Pope’s declaration fundamentally maintains the nature of abortion as a grave sin, which is an unacceptable premise for most modern liberals. If it were a sin, then it is good that it can now be forgiven; but from the liberal point of view, it is not a sin at all. This makes Francis’s declaration appear to them as little more than a kind of sneaky political stratagem.
New York Times rubber stamps the complaints
Filipovic, writing for the New York Times, has made much the same point in this regard:
“But mercy may actually be worse. While the pope’s announcement has been hailed as evidence of the church’s new, softer approach, it’s actually the latest example of the modern anti-abortion strategy: Portray women as victims who need to be protected from themselves with laws that restrict abortion rights” (paragraph 2).
From the modern liberal perspective, abortion is seen as fundamentally a matter of the personal autonomy of women and their right to control what happens with their own bodies. In this context, the basic Catholic premise that women have done something morally wrong by getting abortions can only be read as an infringement on the autonomy of women; and moreover, the fact that the Pope is now offering forgiveness for this moral wrong can only be understood as covering up the deeper contention that women have in fact done nothing wrong at all.
Of course, criticism of Francis’s declaration has also emerged from the conservative camp as well. The argument from this angle proceeds much as one might expect. For example, Butler has pointed out that the declaration:
“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” (paragraph 7).
Moreover, from outside the Church itself, at least some conservatives may read the Pope’s declaration as implying, de facto if not de jure, that abortion is not as serious a sin as it used to be: it is as though women are being told that they can have abortions and still morally “get away with it”, where this was not an option prior to the declaration.
Understanding the Church’s stance on abortion
On the basis of the above discussion, a basic point that can be made is that there is an irreconcilable difference between the liberal and the Catholic perspectives regarding the nature of abortion. According to liberals, it is a matter of personal autonomy; according to Catholics, it is a matter of life and death. Moreover, the one position would seem to be just as logically and morally coherent as the other, insofar as the metaphysical status of a fetus is primarily a question of faith and not one that can really be answered by science in any straightforward or cut-and-dry way.
The Catholic perspective is, even though women have the right to abortions, she is an accomplice to murder, and it is a sin that requires forgiveness. Nothing could be further from the modern liberal conceptualization of the matter. It matters little that many liberals may also self-identify as Catholic: in practice, it would seem that these liberals conduct themselves as Protestants, insofar as they reject some of the most basic tenets of the Catholic faith (such as, for example, the morally binding nature of the Vatican’s positions on various issues).
Moreover, it can be suggested that the conservative argument against Francis’s declaration rests on extremely shaky grounds. The text of Francis’s actual declaration clearly reveals that there is absolutely no way to honestly imagine that it is meant to condone or encourage the practice of abortion (Gilbert). Again, the point of the declaration is not that abortion isn’t a grave sin, but only that the magnitude of God’s forgiveness is greater than the magnitude of the graveness of the sin.
The only way to get any other meaning from the declaration would be to almost willfully misunderstand it. The liberals are correct in perceiving a serious conflict between their own view of abortion and the Catholic view present in Francis’s declaration. Conservatives, however, are incorrect in perceiving a similar conflict—except in the event that they actually mean to say that God’s capacity for forgiveness has limits, and that the declaration is thus metaphysically incorrect.
Pope’s decree not end to Church debate
In summary, the present essay has consisted of a discussion of Pope Francis’s declaration that priests of the Catholic Church can now forgive Catholic women who have obtained abortions. Given the premise that abortion is a sin, this declaration can be understood as being in congruence with the more general Year of Mercy declared by Francis. On the other hand, though, insofar as one does not accept this premise, Francis’s declaration could only be seen as a kind of subtle way of furthering the anti-abortion agenda at the expense of the personal autonomy of women.
Among other things, then, Francis’s declaration sheds light on the essentially contrarian nature of the Catholic Church within the late modern world: it is neither straightforwardly liberal or conservative, but rather trying to fulfill a mission all of its own.
Bacon, John. “Pope Francis to Allow Priests to Forgive Abortion.” USA Today. 1 Sep. 2015. Web. 4 Oct. 2015. priests-forgive-abortion/71502832/>.
The Bible, King James Version.
Butler, Anthea. “The Pope’s Abortion ‘Forgiveness Is Good Politics, but Changes Nothing for Women.” Guardian. 2 Sep. 2015. Web. 4 Oct. 2015. nothing-for-women>.
Filipovic, Jill. “The Pope’s Unforgiving Message of Forgiving Abortion.” New York Times. 10 Sep. 2015. Web. 4 Oct. 2015. unforgiving-message-of-forgiveness-on-abortion.html?_r=0>>.
Gilbert, Hugh. “Abortion and Forgiveness: What Is the Pope Really Saying?” Catholic Herald. 21 Sep. 2015. Web. 4 Oct. 2015. .
MacCulloch, Diarmaid. Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years. New York: Penguin, 2011. Print.
Stille, Alexander. “Holy Orders.” New Yorker. 14 Sep. 2015. .