The headlines are everywhere—Pope Francis says priests can forgive women who’ve abortions—and the implications are unmistakable: cool Francis is once again breaking with tradition on hot button issues of sexuality and taking the church in a more progressive direction. But Francis’ move raises questions that reflect on both his popular image and the battle over abortion within the church.
The first is whether, when you dig below the surface, Francis has done anything new or whether the media is once again being overly generous in its reading of the pope’s progressivism. Because despite the headlines suggesting a major change in how the church handles abortion by giving priests during the jubilee “Year of Mercy” the “authority” to forgive women who’ve had abortions, the change is more a matter of PR than church policy.
The Catholic Church considers abortion a grave moral sin and under Canon Law, “a person who procures a successful abortion incurs an automatic (latae sententiae) excommunication.” (According to the Vatican, other sins that carry a similar sentence include apostasy and heresy, physical violence against the pope, profanation of the Eucharist, violating the secrecy of the confessional, and attempted ordination of women; no mention of the murder of a living person or the sexual abuse of a child.)
Technically, only bishops or priests who are given permission by a bishop can forgive the sin of abortion and restore a woman who has had one to good standing in the church. But many bishops already give priests in their diocese blanket permission to do so and priests may petition the local bishop for such authority. For the Jubilee Year, Francis is granting all priests universal permission “to absolve of the sin of abortion those who have procured it and who, with contrite heart, seek forgiveness for it.”
It does serve as a kind of information alert for a group of disenfranchised women who have felt unwelcome by the Church. Even though John Paul II used much the same language and forgiveness has always been available — albeit through more formal channels — that message wasn’t out there because the rhetoric that accompanies abortion is so elevated that it eclipses the Church’s teaching on forgiveness and mercy.
Just as it’s unclear how many priests would actually be newly empowered to forgive the sin of abortion, it’s unclear how many women would seek such forgiveness. Many women who’ve had an abortion may not even be excommunicated because under church law a woman needs to know that she was undertaking an excommunicable offense at the time of the abortion. A woman is also not excommunicated if there are certain mitigating circumstances, like “grave fear.”
And many women may not believe that they need to be forgiven for a decision they don’t believe is a sin in the first place. A sizeable percentage of Catholics don’t consider abortion morally wrong. According to a 2013 Pew Poll, 53% of white Catholics and 64% of Hispanic Catholics consider abortion “morally wrong.” These means that as a whole, just over 40% of Catholics don’t consider abortion a sin, although that number falls to 25% among Catholics who say they go to Mass weekly. And only about 20% of US Catholics consider the pope and the bishops the final moral authority on abortion according to a major poll of American Catholics.
And while Francis spoke movingly of encountering women who were racked by guilt for having an abortion, noting, “I have met so many women who bear in their heart the scar of this agonizing and painful decision,” a recent study found very low levels of guilt or regret post-abortion. The three-year study of 670 women who had an abortion found that 95% didn’t regret their decision and after three years most women “rarely” thought about it.
So with the exception of regular church-going Catholic women racked with guilt over an abortion they had despite knowing it was morally wrong who didn’t realize they could ask for forgiveness, the pope’s announcement may have little impact on actual women. “I don’t think Catholic women will be queuing up next year to ask for forgiveness,” said Jon O’Brien of Catholics for Choice, who suspects the real audience for Francis’ message is the U.S. Catholic bishops, who have railed against abortion for decades in the political arena.
“Conservatives want the statement to be political, not pastoral,” said O’Brien, “but it’s clear that Francis is really struggling to understand women who’ve had abortions. It’s all about the symbolism of a woman sitting down to talk to a priest about abortion and not having to seek out a special bishop. He’s trying to show the bishops a different way of doing something.”
It appears that Francis is trying to execute a perfect two-step on abortion in advance of his visit to the U.S.: on the one hand, broadcasting the church’s extension of mercy, a key theme of his papacy, to even what it considers the most serious of sins, while on the other hand reinforcing to Catholics, about half of whom support legal abortion, that abortion is a heinous moral crime that technically can be forgiven only by appealing to the highest authority.