Last year, Pope Francis issued a directive, seen by many within the Catholic Church as groundbreaking. He declared that during a special “holy year of mercy” — December 8, 2015, to November 20, 2016 — priests had been given the temporary ability to absolve women who have had abortions, which has long been considered a sin in the church.
Now that the holy year has ended, Pope Francis issued another letter Monday indefinitely enabling priests and bishops to forgive women who have had abortions.
“I wish to restate as firmly as I can that abortion is a grave sin, since it puts an end to an innocent life,” Francis wrote. “In the same way, however, I can and must state that there is no sin that God’s mercy cannot reach and wipe away when it finds a repentant heart seeking to be reconciled with the Father. May every priest, therefore, be a guide, support and comfort to penitents on this journey of special reconciliation.”
It was your typical Pope Francis move: a kinder, gentler pope, who leans less on guilt and the threat of hellfire and more on building unity and forgiveness. In his three years as the head of the Roman Catholic Church, Francis has urged church leaders to be accepting of divorced and LGBTQ followers, pushing for a more welcoming church than his predecessors. And while he has been more lenient with abortion, it remains a complex issue for the church.
Among pro-choice Catholics, the announcement has been welcome, but the letter doesn’t change the church’s official stance on abortion. As Jon O’Brien, the president of the group Catholics for Choice, told Vox, “Abortion has been considered sinful in the church for a long time,” and Francis’s announcement does not mean this stance will be abandoned anytime soon.
Even though the church has specifically called on leaders and members to focus on mercy for a broad group of people this year, O’Brien says, “It’s important to recognize that over the last year, women haven’t been queuing up around the corner at their local church to seek forgiveness from their priests” for having an abortion. And that may signal the importance of this letter in the US.
With a Catholic population that has remained sizable in the US largely attributable to the influx of Catholic immigrants, the church is facing a demographic shift and a drop-off of many followers in the US. Like with many similar statements Pope Francis has made, O’Brien says, the move might be a way to keep more people in the pews.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What does Pope Francis’s letter mean for everyday Catholics?
I really wonder whether Pope Francis’s real message, and real intent, is not so much directed at Catholic women, but if this message is really directed at the bishops and fellow priests, who more often than not have been too ready for condemnation that really hurts people when they do disagree with the hierarchy and do, in good conscience, go against the direction of the hierarchy of the church.
So it’s about sending a message that even an issue as contentious and contested as abortion is not an issue we shouldn’t be talking about. And I think that’s a very good thing. There are some people that just want to throw down condemnation on you, if you have a different view.
Some people pretend that there is a monolithic Catholic view, but the reality is that it’s a very contested view, and Francis is saying that there’s no reason we can’t come together and reconcile with one another. I think that’s an important message to send.
Here in the US, our Congress, the state governments, and in parliaments around the world, there are Catholic politicians who make the decision to support freedom of conscience in the laws and governance.
A theologian would say, Catholicism is defined by unity and its diversity, and I think when you go to church on Sunday, there’s no doubt [of] that when you look around and see the LGBT couple, or the couple who’s been divorced and remarried, [and you know that] everyone’s using contraception. And statistically, a lot of us have been in relationships where abortions have taken place.
So the reality is that the pope is looking at the church in a more holistic way. He still doesn’t agree with abortion, and I think he’s wrong, but I think he’s saying that even abortion is something we can talk about. And I think if you start talking about things, and listening about it, we’ll have a stronger Catholic community, and that’s what we all want.
Many heavily Catholic countries still ban abortion outright. Might the pope’s statement have any policy impact there? Or at least some social impact?
Yeah, I hope and pray that it does. Because if you take, for example, the church hierarchy, [it] has a huge sway over political opinion in some countries more than others. They certainly have lobbies behind the scenes to pressure politicians. If you look at somewhere like El Salvador, there are women in prison serving long sentences for being suspected of having abortions. Women just thrown in jail — women with families, with children — because of a very draconian view toward abortion.
When I’m in Uganda and Kenya and I go to a maternity hospital, there’s always a part of a the maternity hospital that’s separate, where women are lying there dying after trying to procure an abortion or severely injured as a result of it. When you see these desperate situations and you know that the Catholic hierarchy is lobbying to keep it illegal, and keep it dangerous, I hope that Pope Francis’s talking about reconciliation about abortion sends a gentle message that this is something we should be reconciling on. We need fewer cultural warriors and more pastoral carers in the Catholic hierarchy.
I think that Pope Francis is not making an informed feminist statement about the reality of women’s health care — he hasn’t got there yet. But I think he is trying to make a pastoral, loving, caring gesture, and some people in the community [need to hear that message]. And so I think getting a pastoral hug will do more than getting a political rebuke.
There are still some issues related to gender that Pope Francis has not let up on, such as allowing women to become priests. Does this signal that there may be other changes in similar areas?
I think, you know, we Catholics believe in miracles, so we believe anything’s possible! The sadness of Pope Francis is that there’s no doubt that he brings a breath of fresh air into my church. And the air was incredibly stale with John Paul II, Benedict XVI, the sex abuse scandals, the corruption of the Vatican bank — I could go on. We needed a window opened, and that’s what Pope Francis has done. And on a lot of issues he’s displayed a great sensitivity, and a great deal of love and care for individuals, and you can’t ignore that.
I think, though, he still suffers, from a clerical system that famously excludes women. So Pope Francis has shown a blind spot when it comes to women. It’s not as though he’s among women in the same way as someone who has a more regular, normal lifestyle of someone who would be among women and know women and understand their realities.
But I’m optimistic that the same type of care and concern he’s shown on poverty and the environment — that one day, he’ll sit down and not talk but listen to the lives of women lived, especially in developing countries, and see the link between women’s health being denied and poverty. And I hope that women have the opportunity to tell him that one day, because if he does, his statements on women and their health will be very, very different.
This is a pope who, for example, when talking about men and women who take the same theological exams, described the women as the “strawberries on the cake.”
As far as equality in the church? I’d say he’s like a benign grandfather — he’s still said many things about women that are, at their most innocent, dated; at their most dangerous, insensitive. My hope is that one day he gets to talk to women, and gets to listen to them.
The reality is we’re already changing the church. We already live our lives without the hierarchy making decisions, and it doesn’t make us bad Catholics. It would be nice to have the leader of our church be aware, and be sensitive to the decisions that we make and ultimately respecting out conscience.