The Pope hearing a confession in St Peter’s Basilica
What magic does Pope Francis have that he can put the age-old practice of Confession in the headlines? The last time that the American press made such a fuss over it was probably the 1830s with the publication of the Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, a lurid best-seller memoir about lechery and murder in dark convent confessionals.
Times have changed. Media the world over are reporting that the Pope has declared next year a “year of mercy” in which it will be easier for Catholics to obtain forgiveness for the sin of abortion.
I have decided … to concede 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.
What this means requires a bit of unpacking. But even those who know nothing about Catholic theology are drawing two conclusions from this news. First, abortion must be serious. Second, even if it is, you can be forgiven.
Abortion is always an incendiary topic in the United States but particularly now, after the release of nine videos alleging that Planned Parenthood is profiting from the sale of foetal tissue from abortions. Nonetheless, American media treated the Pope’s message with surprising respect and even attempted to explain some of the finer points of theology and canon law, the regulations by which the Catholic Church governs itself.
In one sense nothing in this announcement is new. The Church has always taught that God is ready to forgive all sins in confession, no matter how horrendous, provided that a person is repentant.
Precision is important here. Strictly speaking, priests do not forgive sins; only God can do that. Priests merely open a door to allow God’s forgiveness to act. For some sins, a priest needs the permission of a bishop or even the Pope to open that door. Procuring an abortion is one, but there are others, such as ordaining a bishop without the Pope’s permission or violating the secrecy of confession.
Bishops can authorise priests to absolve penitents from the sin of abortion. Many, or most, already do in the US and Australia, perhaps because abortion is so widespread. So, for most Catholics, the Pope’s initiative changes nothing.
Perhaps the novelty for journalists is the joy of seeking forgiveness and of finding understanding and pardon in a confessional, even for something as wrenching as abortion. It is the genius of Pope Francis to realise that this commonplace of Catholic life can make headlines.
Jon O’Brien, president of the pro-abortion group Catholics for Choice, told the ThinkProgress website that “Catholics … have stopped looking for forgiveness a long time ago. They recognize the reality of their lives is one they can embrace … They don’t need to be forgiven or look for forgiveness.”
The Pope knows better. He realises that many women (and the men who helped them) involved in an abortion regret it bitterly, perhaps many years later. But the way ahead is not to deny its seriousness but to ask for mercy.
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. 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. The forgiveness of God cannot be denied to one who has repented.
The special provisions for absolution from abortion are another strand in the picture painted by this Pope of a joyful and liberating Christianity. God’s mercy is at the heart of the Christian message – and Pope Francis is brilliant at publicising it.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.