Pope Francis, Abortion, and the Complicated Relationship Between Contrition and Mercy

Pope Francis visits America, Pope Francis and abortion

It’s that running theme in his tenure that Pope Francis looks for ways to allow for mercy. And it’s not that women need to be any more contrite about abortion than they do about lying to their brother. It’s that Pope Francis wants women in this instance to know that mercy will be there if they need it. In many cases, this will be very welcome news.

We are approaching what the Catholic Church calls a Jubilee Year during which is when the Church cuts sinners some slack. There are some events, some opportunities for group prayer and meetings, and now, according to a new statement from Pope Francis, women who have had abortions may be absolved of their sin by any parish priest, rather than solely by bishops. As in any confession, where a penitent would receive the Sacrament of Penance, the requirement is simply a profession of remorse or contrition, and the acceptance of the actual penance, most often the recitation of a certain prayer or set of prayers. “I lied to my brother” could result in a penance of saying a half dozen Lord’s Prayers.

But abortion. That’s a sticky one. Many American Catholics don’t believe having one is even a sin. Others fall more in line with traditional church teaching, of course. What would be the appropriate penance for willfully terminating a pregnancy which should be viewed as a gift from God? Speaking in church terms, during this upcoming Jubilee Year, it would be at the discretion of the priest, and at the end of the exercise, upon receipt of the sacrament, your act would be absolved and you would be once again whole in the eyes of the Church.

I applaud this effort to allow women a second chance to participate fully in the life of their church. Of course, on Facebook at least, there is opposition to the Church’s view that women who have had abortions would need to present themselves as contrite. It’s a group of ordained men addressing a sin that can only be committed by a woman, and yet it’s a man who has impregnated the woman who now sins. And it’s a tangle. The Catholic Church has always been a group of men establishing the roles of both women and men in the church. Nothing new here and certainly not even remarkable, given this is an antique church with much of it still happily working in the rules and regulations laid down somewhere in the Middle Ages.

But it’s that opening statement in the text of the Pope’s message that bothers me. The text of his pronouncement begins with a statement about our time – and not the Middle Ages:

One of the serious problems of our time is clearly the changed relationship with respect to life. A widespread and insensitive mentality has led to the loss of the proper personal and social sensitivity to welcome new life.

Is that true? Have we really lost a sensitivity to welcome new life? I think most definitely not.

I certainly believe that if you were to ask a room full of women whether they ever had or knew a woman who had an abortion, the majority – if not all – of the women in the room would raise a hand. But if you were to ask the same room, how many of you – or those you know – live with some level of regret or distress for this episode in your life? My guess is you would witness the same result. The majority – if not all – of the women in the room would raise a hand.

And this is the key element to recognize in the Pope’s pronouncement relative to the start of this Jubilee Year. It’s not the act of abortion itself that he is addressing, it’s the chance to show mercy to the women who have experienced it. It’s that running theme in his tenure as Pope – he looks for ways, within the medieval church over which he presides, to allow for mercy. And it’s not that women need to be any more contrite about this than they do about lying to their brother. It’s that Pope Francis wants women in this instance to know that mercy will be there if they need it. In many cases, this will be very welcome news. His message implies that he is acting within the restrictions and complex history of the Church to find ways through to mercy. Mercy for sinners and mercy for the tormented.

But I keep coming back to the suggestion that we have somehow lost sight of the sanctity of life just because abortions exist. Women have terminated pregnancies in every generation – it’s not new. Women who find themselves with any sort of unwanted pregnancy have faced this decision, in many cases, completely alone – and the impact can be very much as the Pope describes: “it is an existential and moral ordeal.”

No one champions abortion. To be pro-choice does not mean that abortion is anything to be “pro.” Remarkably, the Pope understands that abortion means that a lone woman will face a terrible ordeal without much support at a time in her life when she probably would need it most. He understands as well that mercy can be in short supply then for a large number of women – the collective of Catholic women who at some time in their lives chose an abortion and now live with regret, or shame, or just the after effects of a “moral ordeal.” And I acknowledge there is likely another side of this discussion who would argue that abortion is nothing more than a a casual or whimsical, self-serving response to an inconvenient pregnancy, and that the sin, if that is the case, should never be absolved.

Now, let’s go back in that room filled with women – the one with the hands raised – and ask them if anything they had experienced either with their own lives or the lives of their friends and family led them to believe that the fateful decision to abort was anything less than life-saving. Then, please let them know that the Bishop of Rome, this Argentinian pope, is extending to them all a bit of mercy. Not to say that abortion is less a sin now within the confines of the Church, but for one Jubilee Year, that the sinner might find a bit of mercy:

May priests fulfill this great task by expressing words of genuine welcome combined with a reflection that explains the gravity of the sin committed, besides indicating a path of authentic conversion by which to obtain the true and generous forgiveness of the Father who renews all with his presence.

This is certainly extraordinary. Imagine if it could last more than a year.

Anne Born is a New York-based writer who has been writing stories and poetry since childhood.  She blogs on The Backpack Press and Tumbleweed Pilgrim and her writing focuses on family and life in a big city after growing up in a small one.  She is the author of “A Marshmallow on the Bus” and “Prayer Beads on the Train” and a photographer who specializes in photos of churches, cemeteries, and the Way of St. James in Spain.  Most of her writing is done on the bus.  www.about.me/anneborn. You can follow Anne on Wattpad, Instagram, and Twitter at @nilesite and listen to Born in the Bronx on Our Salon Radio.

Photo credit: the author

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