Earlier this year, Pope Francis announced an “extraordinary” Year of Jubilee devoted to mercy. Jubilee years, or Holy Years, have a long tradition in Christianity and Judaism and often focus on repentance and forgiveness. In Catholicism, ordinary Jubilee years happen about every 25 years, but every so often, an extraordinary year is proclaimed. A special feature of Jubilee years is the granting of perpetual indulgences in return for meeting certain requirements—mostly, confession and repentance. In return for meeting these requirements, one may bypass purgatory on death and go straight to heaven.
Why should readers of The Nation, or anyone who is not Catholic, care about Jubilee years? Because little of religious significance in Catholicism these days is free of some connection to secular life or broad ethical concerns. Conservative Catholic thought strongly influences US policy on family planning and abortion.
So, when on September 1, Pope Francis wrote to Archbishop Rino Fischella, the bishop overseeing the Jubilee year, which will begin on December 8, 2015, and run until November 20, 2016, and set out some provisions related to the “sin of abortion,” not only Catholics were interested in what he had to say.
The letter included an attempt at offering women mercy for the sin of abortion—a temporary change in church policy related to who could absolve a woman of that sin. Noting that forgiveness of sins—all sins—is available to those who are contrite and seek absolution, Francis “concede[d] to all priests for the Jubilee Year the discretion to absolve of the sin of abortion those who have procured it and who, with contrite heart, seek forgiveness for it.” He added, “May priests fulfill this great task by expressing words of genuine welcome combined with a reflection that explains the gravity of the sin committed.”
There’s been a flurry of media analysis of the letter, much of it suffering from a lack of understanding of the theology of sin as well as of church law. In the Catholic Church, is abortion always a sin—for both the woman and the doctor who performs it—and is a woman who has an abortion automatically excommunicated from the church? No—and it would be far more merciful if the pope called upon bishops and priests to make that clearer.
Theology and church law are complex. Not everyone who does something objectively considered a sin has subjectively committed a sin, including women who have abortions. Big sins, sins that might lead to excommunication, are hard to commit. Yes, abortion is one of those sins for which you might “automatically be excommunicated.” But for that to happen, you need to be an adult, you need to have known you can be excommunicated, you need to believe what you did was a sin, and you need to have said, “I don’t care, I’m doing it anyway.” Most importantly, if you were under duress, subject to pressure or coercion, you have not been automatically excommunicated and you probably did not commit a sin.
Some noted canon lawyers have gone so far as to say it is almost impossible for a woman to have automatically excommunicated herself by having an abortion because almost all abortions happen at times of great pressure. Even economic pressure, the inability to support a child, the fear of getting kicked out of the house or of being stigmatized would suffice to make excommunication impossible.
The church, at its best, is not about punishment. But unfortunately, when it comes to women and sex, the church is rarely at its best. After all, there are only seven sins for which one might be automatically excommunicated—and ordinary murder of people, and even massacres, are not among them. Only abortion and an attempt to assassinate the pope might get you automatically excommunicated.
One need not expect the church to change its position that the act of abortion—which is, in some way, the taking of human life—is objectively wrong and that alternatives to abortion should be seriously considered. (Though it should always be noted that the best way for the church to support women avoiding abortion would be for it to approve of contraception.) I’m suggesting that being a good teacher means letting women know the full story of church law on sin, abortion and excommunication. Without that, there is very little compassion in this purportedly compassionate letter.
For women who are suffering because they believe they have committed a serious sin—or actually have committed a serious sin and don’t understand that the sin can be forgiven—allowing all priests to grant absolution may be progress. But for many of us, the pope’s characterization of women who terminate pregnancies is a turnoff. He sees women as having an “insensitive mentality…to welcoming new life”; we suffer from “superficial awareness…not realizing the extreme harm that such an act entails”; we have been “pressured” and “bear in [our] heart the scar of this agonizing and painful decision.” In short, we are either uncaring or victims. Never are we acknowledged as strong, smart, making tough decisions that are in our best interests, out of concern for bringing a child into the world that will not be cared for, or in the interests of the family we now have.
In reality, the letter offers false compassion. It’s one of many missteps this pope has made in what is, I’m sure, a sincere effort to understand and honor women. For instance, he has insisted that the subject of women priests is off the table. And while he speaks of putting more women in positions of power in the church, he rejected the idea of appointing women to head Vatican agencies as tokenism. He talks about the “feminine genius” of women who are kind, conciliatory and self-sacrificing, and he says we need a new theology of women (not persons)—but he does nothing about it.
It’s notable, too, that the launch date for the Jubilee year is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, an infallible church doctrine which holds that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was conceived free of the stain of original sin, unlike the rest of us, including women. That holiday reminds women of the impossibility of meeting the saintly ideal of being both virgin and mother. Ever since Eve, the sins of the world, especially those related to sex, fall on our shoulders.
Just a few days ago the pope, claiming to be a “bit feminist” praised nuns for their courage. He noted that nuns “have this desire to always go to the front lines. Why? Because you’re mothers, you have the maternal instinct of the church, which makes you be near” to those who suffer. This inability to see women as anything other than mothers contributes to the inability to see the decision not to continue a pregnancy as a denial of womanhood, a sin against nature.
Most troubling about Francis’ letter is that at the same time as he gives all priests the power to absolve the sin of abortion, he orders them to counsel the women who confess about the grave harm they have done. No doubt some priests will be kind. But some priests are picketing in front of abortion clinics and raging against abortion on Sundays. I fear for the well-being of a woman who sincerely seeks reconciliation and ends up in the confessional of one of these priests.
Francis is trying. But his own inability to understand women as people, not mothers, will enable those priests to hear only that part of Francis’ message that tells women they did a bad thing—and not recognize why women did the best thing they could, given their circumstances.