On Tuesday, the Vatican released a letter from Pope Francis on the upcoming Jubilee Year of Mercy, in which the Pope gives all Catholic priests the power to grant absolution to women who repent of the sin of abortion.
Reading through mainstream media reports, however, one gets the mistaken impression that Pope Francis had somehow softened the Church’s position on the evils of abortion.
On ABC’s Good Morning America, for instance, Amy Robach declared that for Catholics, “until now, abortion was considered a grave sin,” while the AP falsely claimed that Pope Francis is “easing the Church’s stance on the ‘sin of abortion.’”
CNN breathily exclaimed that Pope Francis “has made a major change in the way the Catholic Church treats women who have had an abortion.”
Charles Pierce’s column in Esquire—a magazine that in July 2014 published a human interest story praising the work of abortionist Willie Parker—suggests that Pope Francis has done the unthinkable and adjusted the Church’s long-held teaching that abortion is a grave sin involving the killing of an innocent human being.
The column, titled “Francis Takes a Leap on Abortion,” implies that Francis thinks that abortion is not really as bad or offensive to God as people think:
If there was one issue on which I expected not the tiniest of baby steps from Papa Francesco, it was abortion,” writes Pierce. “That, I believed, was the hill on which the Church was—and is—prepared to die rather than tolerate the smallest splinter of a smidgen of an iota of change in its policies.
AFP. on the other hand, erroneously said the Pope ordered priests to extend pardon to the abortionists themselves (something Francis never said), and added the ridiculous statement that the Pope had overruled “hardline traditionalists” within the Catholic Church by giving priests the faculty of absolving women who had had abortions. In point of fact, conservative bishops throughout the Church praised Francis for this move.
The real confusion—whether intentional or merely out of ignorance—seems to stem from confusing mercy toward sinners with softening on sin. Where there is no sin, there can be no mercy, since there would be nothing requiring forgiveness.
In Tuesday’s letter, the Pope calls abortion profoundly “unjust” and a “tragedy” that causes “extreme harm” and instructs priests to include in their words of forgiveness “a reflection that explains the gravity of the sin committed.” There is clearly no change in doctrine here.
None of this, in fact, suggests that the Catholic Church regards abortion as anything other than a heinous crime of injustice against the most vulnerable and helpless members of society: the unborn. What is does suggest, and Francis has reiterated this countless times, is that there is no sinner so lost that mercy cannot penetrate and redeem him.
What the media are touting as a “major change” and a “leap” is actually common Catholic practice. In the last Jubilee Year in 2000, Pope John Paul II did exactly what Pope Francis is doing: enabling all priests to offer absolution to women who have had abortions.
It was John Paul who penned some of the most consoling words imaginable to repentant women who had an abortion and regretted it.
I would now like to say a special word to women who have had an abortion. The Church is aware of the many factors which may have influenced your decision, and she does not doubt that in many cases it was a painful and even shattering decision. The wound in your heart may not yet have healed. Certainly what happened was and remains terribly wrong. But do not give in to discouragement and do not lose hope. Try rather to understand what happened and face it honestly. If you have not already done so, give yourselves over with humility and trust to repentance. The Father of mercies is ready to give you his forgiveness and his peace in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. To the same Father and his mercy you can with sure hope entrust your child. With the friendly and expert help and advice of other people, and as a result of your own painful experience, you can be among the most eloquent defenders of everyone’s right to life. Through your commitment to life, whether by accepting the birth of other children or by welcoming and caring for those most in need of someone to be close to them, you will become promoters of a new way of looking at human life.
Pope Francis is offering the very same message that the Church has always preached. There is no sin that God cannot forgive, but forgiveness requires a willingness to admit that what we have done is wrong.
To his credit, Francis has found a way to make the Christian message sound fresh, modern and novel, despite its 2000-year history.
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome.