Pope Francis has announced a sweeping expansion for how women who have abortions can be forgiven, a step towards creating a more welcoming church — that still condemns abortion.
On Tuesday, the Vatican issued a letter in seven languages detailing instructions for how the Catholic Church will engage in the Year of Jubilee, a celebration of forgiveness based on a biblical ritual of debt forgiveness. In Catholicism, a jubilee year traditionally occurs every 25 to 30 years, or whenever a pope calls for one. Next year’s jubilee celebration was announced in March, when Francis unveiled a coming “Holy Year of Mercy” that lasts from this December to November 2016.
But hidden within today’s letter — which offers various particulars for the coming celebration — is a discussion of abortion, something Francis describes as a “tragedy” but which he insists can be forgiven. Francis then declares a new church policy: During the jubilee year, women who have abortions will be able to receive forgiveness from a priest, an action that has historically required a bishop.
“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 in order to obtain reconciliation with the Father,” Francis writes.
In a theological sense, the letter doesn’t alter the Church’s understanding of abortion, which it has condemned for centuries as “gravely contrary to the moral law” — a teaching the Church’s catechism calls “unchangeable.” Rather, Francis’ expansion of forgiveness is an attempt to counter what he describes as a “superficial” culture he argues leads women to have abortions — an action that makes them automatically excommunicated by the Catholic Church.
“A widespread and insensitive mentality has led to the loss of the proper personal and social sensitivity to welcome new life,” Francis writes. “The tragedy of abortion is experienced by some with a superficial awareness, as if not realizing the extreme harm that such an act entails. Many others, on the other hand, although experiencing this moment as a defeat, believe that they have no other option. I think in particular of all the women who have resorted to abortion. I am well aware of the pressure that has led them to this decision. I know that it is an existential and moral ordeal. … What has happened is profoundly unjust; yet only understanding the truth of it can enable one not to lose hope.”
As Joshua McElwee explains at the National Catholic Reporter, the letter is remarkable not for how it approaches abortion itself, but for its unusually welcoming tone towards women. By blaming culture at large — not women themselves — for abortions, the Church potentially allows a number of people to reenter parishes. This is consistent with Francis’ famously hospitable approach to the papacy, where he has repeatedly tried to strike a balance between upholding Church teaching while appearing less judgmental to those who violate spiritual rules. Francis has not, for instance, altered the Church’s opposition to abortion or homosexual relationships, but has called for Catholics to be less “obsessed” with the issues, and answered a question about gay priests in 2013 by saying “who am I to judge?”
But while the new letter is conciliatory, it’s unclear how the news will be received among the global Catholic population, which — unlike the Church hierarchy — is generally supportive of reproductive rights. A 2014 poll found that the majority of the world’s Catholics support access to abortion, with 65 percent of respondents saying it should be legal in some cases. A similar trend exists in the United States, where an August Public Religion Research Institute survey reported that 51 percent of American Catholics agree that abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Meanwhile, Catholic organizations such as Catholics for Choice already promote “equal access to the full range of reproductive healthcare services—including access to safe and legal abortion services and affordable and reliable forms of contraception.”
Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, told ThinkProgress that he found the pope’s words “refreshing,” but still flawed for many Catholics.
“The letter really tells us about the approach Francis is taking generally to his papacy, being more pastoral and less political than his predecessors,” he said. “However, Francis gets it wrong, because Catholics who have abortions at the same rate as other women have stopped looking for forgiveness a long time ago. They recognize the reality of their lives is one they can embrace, and they recognize as good Catholics they can make decision about contraception and abortion in good conscience. They don’t need to be forgiven or look forgiveness.”
“It is refreshing that he appears to have some empathy and understanding, and that women should not be condemned,” he added. “And [his letter] sends a warning shot to the bishops in the United States, who always want to wage a culture war … But Francis still has a blind spot when it comes to what women really want.”
It remains to be seen how many Catholic women will seek the forgiveness option outlined in Francis’ letter.
This post was updated to include a statement from Catholics for Choice.