On Abortion, Pope Francis Undertakes a Revolutionary Act of Compassion

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Pope Francis Holds an Audience For Ministrantes
Pope Francis arrives in St. Peter's Square on August 4, 2015 in Vatican City.Photo: Franco Origlia/2015 Franco Origlia

The incredible Pope Francis has done it again. Over the last year, he has performed like a rhetorical superhero for liberal admirers and all those Catholics hoping for a more inclusive, more forward-thinking church. He’s extended a warm embrace, one by one, to all those groups who have felt, over the past decades, that their loving church was somehow not loving enough to include the likes of them: gay people (“Who am I to judge?”), American nuns with feminist leanings, liberation theologians, the victims of sex abuse, environmentalists, socialists — even the living, breathing Earth itself. All of these gestures have had the effect of remaking an institution defined for so long by its hostility to change and insistence on the eternal rectitude of its God-given orthodoxies into what has begun to seem like a far more fluid, forgiving, understanding, and ultimately modern church — or at least one led by a politically brilliant rhetorical visionary. And then Tuesday morning, from his high throne, Francis extended his vision of mercy to another group of Catholics who have felt most shunned and shamed by their religious leaders: women who have had abortions. 

In a letter to the president of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, the pope announced that Catholic women who have had abortions might go to any priest at all and, without any rigamarole or hierarchical approval, confess and receive forgiveness for what the church considers one of its gravest sins. This is, truly, nothing short of extraordinary — though, to be sure, it is an announcement that comes with some provisos. This broadening of the machinery of forgiveness doesn’t start until the beginning of the Jubilee year, which begins on December 8. And the women who seek forgiveness for their sin must have real contrition in their hearts. (Previously, priests who wanted to hear these confessions had to get special permission from a bishop, but no one knows, of course, how many priests followed this protocol.)

The pope says his motivation in acting was simple: compassion. In his letter, he expresses remarkable familiarity with the difficult or unmanageable real-life circumstances in which many pregnant women find themselves. “I am well aware of the pressure that has led them to this decision,” he wrote. “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.” 

This perspective may be familiar, even reflexive, to many of us in the real world. But it is astonishing to hear it from a pope. Francis is speaking on behalf of actual women, and shows, like many of his earlier stunning declarations, an unprecedented interest in connecting the church to the earthly circumstances and needs of parishioners — and prospective parishioners, whether his predecessors deemed them worthy of inclusion or not. The catechism teaches that abortion is “gravely contrary to the moral law,” but, in fact, Catholic women (in America, at least) have abortions “at the same rate as those of other faiths and no faiths,” according to a statement by Catholics for Choice. Francis’s outreach to these women is thus exactly in keeping with every one of his previous public gestures. He is, in essence, rebuking the zealots and the guardians of orthodoxies if their positions result in the repudiation or alienation of their fellow living, breathing Catholics. Christian mercy, in Francis’s view, is everything and extends to everybody. Drawing lines that separate “good” Catholics from “bad” ones has resulted in a broken church.

But what’s breathtaking about this move is that Francis has chosen abortion, of all things, as the issue on which to stake this vision of mercy. He might have made a similar, welcoming gesture to divorcées, or to couples who use contraception, or masturbators — all of whom run afoul of Catholic teaching in one way or another. But he didn’t. He singled out abortion, which just so happens to be the most divisive culture-war issue of the past half-century — the issue around which the politically powerful religious right coalesced, the issue that spawned the terms “moral majority” and “right to life” and “social conservative,” the issue that has won and lost innumerable elections and pitted whole American tribes against one another in red-faced screaming battles of “values.” He is making a bet that his vision of a compassionate church can overcome all of that.

Of course, Francis knows that Catholics have hardly been bystanders in this culture war, but active participants — that is another reason his choice of cause is so stunning. The National Right to Life Committee, one of the biggest and most prominent pro-life groups, started out, in 1968, as a subsidiary of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. The Moral Majority, which helped to elect Ronald Reagan in 1980, was the result of a political alliance between conservative evangelical Christians and conservative Catholics who agreed on the need to roll back Roe v. Wade. Today, many of the most prominent, and successful, anti-abortion activist groups are run by Catholics — notably the Susan B. Anthony List headed by Marjorie Dannenfelser. And since the 1980s, conservative American bishops appointed by the previous two popes have helped to fuel this culture war, continuing with their rhetoric to divide, to shame, and to rebuke the very women who make up the vast majority of Sunday Mass–goers. “On a spectrum of bad things to do, theft is bad, assault is worse and murder is worst," wrote Philadelphia’s archbishop Charles Chaput in reaction to the recent controversy over Planned Parenthood providing fetal tissue for science research. “There’s a similar texture of ill will connecting all three crimes, but only a very confused conscience would equate thieving and homicide," he wrote. “Both are serious matters. But there is no equivalence. The deliberate killing of innocent life is a uniquely wicked act.” Pope Francis knows that the diminishment of the hold of Catholicism over Western churchgoers is intrinsically connected to the fact that women are sick and tired of being called things like “confused” and “wicked” by their bishops, who show no compassion for the personal choices they feel, for whatever reason, compelled to make. 

Make no mistake. Francis is not changing doctrine. He has not condoned abortion; he has not even taken a tiny little step in that direction. This astonishing statement does nothing to contradict the ancient teaching, just as his off-the-cuff-remark about gay people — “Who am I to judge?” — does not reverse centuries of tradition that hold homosexuality to be “intrinsically disordered.” But to invite Catholic women — all of them, no matter what they may have done in violation of the rule book — back to the church is a political gesture of inclusiveness so weighted with compassion, public humility, and goodwill, it is impossible to regard this pope, this politician, with anything but awe.