Once again, Pope Francis tries to practice what he preaches in his statement about women and abortion. In a letter published by the Vatican on Tuesday, Francis has announced that priests have the discretion to formally forgive women who have had abortions and seek absolution during the Roman Catholic church's upcoming Holy Year.
For Catholics who think they have sinned because they had an abortion, allowing them to approach a priest, rather than having to find a bishop, de-emphasises how the hierarchy has talked about this issue in the past. Francis has a far more pastoral, not political, approach to abortion, one of the most contentious issues in the Catholic church today. Pope Francis—unlike his two predecessors, Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI—is trying to bridge the gulf between what the hierarchy says and what ordinary Catholics really do in their lives.
It’s abundantly clear and the statistics are stark: what Catholics practice is different to the dictates of the bishops. Ninety-nine percent of US Catholic women have used a method of birth control the bishops don’t like, and we know that Catholic women have abortions at the same rate as those of other faiths and no faith.
However, despite what Pope Francis has said, I do not believe that Catholic women will be queuing up to ask for forgiveness. A long time ago, Catholic women around the world worked out that they can make moral and ethical decisions about sexual and reproductive issues on their own. Catholic women know that they can disagree with the church hierarchy and still be Catholics in good faith and good conscience. The very narrowness of Francis’ idea of a particular “year of mercy” suggests that he still has a blind spot when it comes to women and what they need or want. In all the talk about abortion and women, Francis also fails to mention men—a sin of omission I have no doubt—considering that men are just as involved in the baby-making process, as well as often part of family planning decisions.
Nevertheless, as an overall gesture that evokes images of sitting down with women and listening to them, this is a symbol that could be considered a very good one. As Pope Francis prepares to visit the United States, this is a warning shot fired across the bow to the bishops who have waged culture wars over the bodies and lives of women.
This is a pope who is not stuck in the pelvic zone, and perhaps his message on how he thinks about abortion is more for his brother bishops than Catholics in the pew.
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