What a Times op-ed gets wrong about Pope Francis and abortion

Pope Francis hears confession during a penitential liturgy in early March in St. Peter's Basilica (CNS photo/Alessandro Bianchi pool via EPA).

If there has been one overarching theme of Pope Francis’s papacy it is mercy. Almost immediately, he began preaching, “that this is the Lord's most powerful message: mercy.” The boundless love of God has been his clear and constant first message. And so it is a bit shocking to see the pope accused of being unforgiving on the opinion pages of the New York Times. 

As the Jubilee Year of Mercy approaches, Pope Francis issued direction to “to enable the celebration of the Holy Year to be for all believers a true moment of encounter with the mercy of God.” In the note, he goes through a list of communities who are often excluded or find it difficult to experience forgiveness. Within this context he expresses concern for the homebound and prisoners, each experiencing barriers to experiencing forgiveness within the community. Yet, Francis is not being accused of being unforgiving towards prisoners. As one would expect in U.S. culture, it is the mention of abortion that earns Francis the disdain of Jill Filipovic in her recent op-ed. According to Filipovic, Pope Francis isn’t exhibiting mercy towards women, but cruelty.

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What did Francis do that is so awful? He removed any restrictions that may exist in some diocese in the global church on who can hear confessions and offer absolution on abortion because, “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.” Now abortion is always an attention grabber, but this doesn’t change the practice in the United States, which already allows priests to absolve the sin of abortion. While many have embraced the idea that we begin with mercy not condemnation, Filipovic is angry that the pope still insists that abortion is wrong. It is not surprising then that she does not understand the Catholic position on abortion, sin or mercy.

Complaint #1: By saying he understands the intense and difficult situations that lead women to resort to abortion, Pope Francis reduces women to victims.

When Francis states, “I am well aware of the pressure that has led them to this decision. 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. What has happened is profoundly unjust; yet only understanding the truth of it can enable one not to lose hope.” Filipovic accuses him of turning women into victims. 

Over the last four years, Pope Francis has developed a strong cultural critique of a throwaway culture that values profits and status over people and excludes those who are not considered useful. This tyranny of money, he recently said, is holding the family hostage and he has praised single mothers who bravely struggle to raise their children. The United States does not have guaranteed paid maternity leave, still has a significant problem with pregnancy discrimination, a serious lack of access to affordable childcare—it is not a society that is welcoming and supportive of women and children. I suspect if Pope Francis was showing compassion to single mothers constrained by the minimum wage, lack of paid sick leave and the inability to find affordable housing, Filipovic would be cheering his recognition of the way social structures constrain the full flourishing of women.  

Why not here? Because, Pope Francis still believes that abortion is morally wrong and Ms. Filipovic doesn’t. It is ironic that in an effort to insist that the real guilt and stigma comes because people don’t support a woman's choice to have an abortion, she minimizes the experience of women for whom abortion is experienced as tragic and complex. She falls into the trap of which she accuses Francis—reducing women’s experience to fit her ideological position.

Complaint #2: Pope Francis still insists that women who’ve had abortions are sinners.

We are all sinners. There is no human being alive who is not a sinner. This is a basic tenet of Christianity. When asked ‘Who is Jorge Mario Bergolio?,’ Francis answered, “I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.” It explains why upon walking out onto the balcony of St. Peter’s, the new Pope Francis asked the thousands of pilgrims present to pray for him before anything else.

Yes, Roman Catholicism makes a clear and unequivocal judgment that abortion is morally wrong. There is no sugar coating that for someone unapologetic in her insistence that abortion is a perfectly fine choice. Pope Francis is not going to come out and say that abortion is anything other than a grave tragedy and moral evil. But sin does not have the last word for Francis. Nothing is more powerful than the love of God and the experience of this is the clear mission of the Jubilee of Mercy. It takes some serious twisting of terms to turn that message into cruelty.

Complaint # 3: This is all a public relations cover for the church’s global anti-contraception, anti-abortion crusading.

After spending most of her op-ed arguing that abortion is another normal reproductive choice for women and against Pope Francis’s treatment of it as a sign of tragedy or moral complexity, the author uses as her example an extreme and controversial case of a child who’d been raped in Brazil. Absolutely every aspect of that case is horrifying. What I want to challenge is the claim that Pope Francis is engaging in one elaborate PR move to somehow hide the real agenda.

In "The Joy of the Gospel," after reaffirming the church’s unwavering belief in the sacredness of all life, including the unborn, Pope Francis acknowledges the failures of the church to sufficiently accompany vulnerable pregnant women. He states “it is also true that we have done little to adequately accompany women in very difficult situations, where abortion appears as a quick solution to their profound anguish, especially when the life developing within them is the result of rape or a situation of extreme poverty.” This week he stated that priest’s who do not show mercy do not belong in ministry and the confessional.

Pope Francis is not perfect. He would be the first person to insist he is not perfect and is in fact a sinner, like the rest of us. He has rightly been critiqued on some issues of women and gender. What he cannot be legitimately accused of is cruelty or of using God’s mercy as a weapon. From start to finish this op-ed twists Catholic theology to fit an ideologically based position—abortion isn’t wrong therefore it’s illegitimate to talk about mercy.

Meghan J. Clark is an assistant professor of moral theology at St. John’s University, Queens, N.Y. and the author of The Vision of Catholic Social Thought: The Virtue of Solidarity and the Praxis of Human Rights (Fortress Press).

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Crystal Watson
3 years 1 month ago
I'll try to explain what I think the Times writer is getting at. It does seem like the church portrays women who get abortions as 'second victims' of forces beyond their control and as agonized after having gotten the procedure. But this implies women aren't moral agents who can freely make such decisions, and as a recent study shows, the vast majority of women who get abortions are not anguished about their decision and don't have regrets. So, not victims, mostly. Of course there are situations where a woman or girl is at the mercy of a terrible circumstances, like the 10 year old rape victim in Paraguay, or the 9 year old rape victim from Brazil in the news a few years ago, or the Hindu woman in Ireland whose partially miscarried baby was poisoning her .... the church excommunicated the family and doctors of the 9 year old and a Catholic hospital denied the woman in Ireland an abortion - both she and her baby died as a result. Mercy is a good thing, but mercy is only extended when someone has done something for which they need to be forgiven. Not all Christian churches believe every abortion in every circumstance is a sin, and a recent Pew study shows that almost half of Catholics do not believe abortion is a sin. So while it's nice that the pope has, for only one year, allowed women who have had abortions to confess, what's not addressed is the question of whether abortion should automatically excommunicate someone in the first place (why does it have a worse penalty than murder?)
Karen Saban
3 years 1 month ago
Crystal - please provide a reference for the "recent study" that you report that demonstrates "the vast majority of women who get abortions are not anguished." I would be interested in reading the actual study as most of the research actually demonstrates the opposite. For example, a large meta-analysis of 22 studies of 163,831 women who had an abortion experienced an 81% greater risk of mental health problems compared to women who had their babies (Coleman, P. 2011. Abortion and mental health - quantitative synthesis and analysis of research published 1995-2009, Br J Psychiatry, Sept; 199 (3), 180-6). There was a study published in 2014 (Steinberg JR, McCulloch CE, Adler NE. Abortion and mental health: findings from the national comorbidity survey-replication. Obstet Gynecol 2014;123:263–70) in which the authors concluded that abortion did not influence mental health. However, Reardon (see Comments) outlined several serious flaws of this study including the fact that the researchers relied upon self-disclosure of abortion history - which is notoriously unreliable.
Crystal Watson
3 years 1 month ago
Here's an article about the study which also has a link to the study itself ... http://www.livescience.com/51559-women-abortions-dont-regret.html ... the study was of 600+ women and they were questioned every six months for three years after their abortions ... "The study found that 99 percent of the women said that they felt they made the right choice in terminating their pregnancies, up to three years afterward".
Kristen Delaney
3 years 1 month ago
I would argue that the study you cite is only interesting with respect to the selection bias that it treats (both in terms of being "early" abortions as well as the 37%, minus a third of them who did not complete the question series of the selected population that chose to be followed by the study.). Unfortunately there was no way to monitor those who went ahead and had their children and the satisfaction they derived from that decision as a control group... Might they too be satisfied with what they decided? I have never heard of the PLOS open-source journal... Not that that's a problem... As I said, there is an interesting result for the selected group. But it seems a I shame a three year study like this couldn't find a mainline journal for publication. The sponsoring institute and the benefactors of this study must have been disappointed.
Crystal Watson
3 years 1 month ago
I don't know about the journal, but the study certainly got a lot of mainline press. Here's a bit from the article in TIME magazine that mentions the study ... http://time.com/3956781/women-abortion-regret-reproductive-health/ .... "Ninety-five percent of women who have had abortions do not regret the decision to terminate their pregnancies, according to a study published last week in the multidisciplinary academic journal PLOS ONE. The study was carried out by researchers from the Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health at UC San Francisco’s School of Medicine, and from the university’s division of biostatistics." The point is that the scenario of the person who gets an abortion as being tortured by her decision is questionable if not mostly false. I think it's an idea the pro-life movement fosters in order to scare women, in the same spirit as the promotion of the false claims of abortion causing breast cancer.
Tim O'Leary
3 years 1 month ago
I am afraid that Crystal is right that sometimes the only one tortured is the baby, and that women are no less inclined than men to use violence to rid themselves of a "problem." Still, the Church believes that even murderers can be forgiven and saved. Only an unwillingness to repent closes the door to heaven.
KATHY MARTIN
3 years 1 month ago
Meghan Clark has expressed much better than I might have my sentiments upon reading Filipovic's article. I would add that no one is forced to receive the sacrament of reconciliation. A woman who has had an abortion and does not believe that her action was in any way morally wrong would not be bringing this matter to the sacrament. But no woman who is a Catholic is ignorant of the Church's clearly stated belief that the life of an unborn child is sacred and must be protected, and that to end that life is a sin. A Catholic woman who choses to participate in the sacrament of reconciliation, whatever her sins, does so out of a sense of her own need for forgiveness and healing. Precisely because some women come to believe that abortion is an "unforgivable" offense--and yes, some ministers of the Church seem to only grudgingly admit that God forgives all sins, including abortion--Pope Francis is affirming that the merciful God wants nothing more than to bring healing and peace to sinners, and that the Church's sacrament of reconciliation is not something to be feared but to be embraced.
Crystal Watson
3 years 1 month ago
I saw this article today on the kinds of practical efforts that could be made to drastically reduce abortion rates ... http://www.salon.com/2015/09/11/if_pro_lifers_wanted_to_end_abortion_rather_than_control_sex_their_tactics_would_be_radically_different/
Tim O'Leary
3 years 1 month ago
Since the NYT has long been on the side of the devil on abortion, I think it naive that any Catholic would expect them to welcome any opportunity to salvific grace. They work for the other guy. The Church should also extend this gift of the year of mercy to those who have aided and abetted abortions, by providing logistic or financial support or votes. They are probably in even more need of saving grace.
alan macdonald
3 years 1 month ago
It constantly amazes me when people write in to an obviously Roman Catholic magazine with suggestions that cannot be taken seriously. Abortion is part of a seamless life garment and cannot be tolerated. It is forbidden. Is that difficult to understand?? Apparently.
Crystal Watson
3 years 1 month ago
It's called dissent. There's a respectable history of it in the church. When the teachings on contraception are ignored by the vast majority of Catholics, and when Catholic women get abortions at about the same rate as non-Catholics, there should at least be the possibility of questioning the teachings surrounding these issues.
alan macdonald
3 years 1 month ago
@ Crystal Watson, while most in the Catholic hierarchy are polite, I will tell you that the Holy Roman Catholic Church will never approve any manner of abortion. Your continual braying in support of abortion and contraception, no matter how many others join you, put you into the drowning waters of apostasy. I pray for you and your many supporters to return to orthodoxy and put these murderous intentions behind you.

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