Those of us who aren’t Catholic or haven’t had abortions -- or both -- may not be familiar with the intricacies of how the Catholic Church forgives women who have had them. A woman is automatically excommunicated if she has an abortion, but if the sin is confessed and she repents, the normal policy has been that a bishop must be involved in restoring her to the church. The same policy has applied to men and women directly involved in performing abortions.
Most bishops in the United States have delegated such power of absolution to their priests, so it’s not huge news that Catholic clergy have the power to forgive abortions during confessions.
But apparently not all priests around the world have that latitude. Thus, Pope Francis, who has an amazing ability to gauge what the public wants together with what his church's doctrines will allow, announced Tuesday morning that:
I have decided, notwithstanding anything to the contrary, 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.
The press coverage of this act has been interesting to say the least -- as you can see in the art at the top of this post. Our own Bobby Ross, Jr., dove into the topic early yesterday and here is your update on what happened later.
First, there’s the New York Post, which ran a story under this headline: “The Catholic Church will now forgive your abortion.” Well … not quite. The church has been forgiving abortions for quite some time, so that snark was undeserved. The text of the article was a bit more precise but still carried a few digs:
Pope Francis will send an army of globe-trotting priests -- his “missionaries of mercy” -- to absolve women who’ve had abortions, in the latest Vatican bid to catch up with modern times.
The effort, which includes reaching out to doctors and nurses who’ve performed abortions, will commence in the Holy Year of Mercy, which Francis has declared will be celebrated between Dec. 8, 2015, and Nov. 20, 2016.
Archbishop Rino Fisichella, the head of the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization, announced the bold initiative and said the church should always be in the absolution business.
So there’s two things going on here. First was the pope’s original statement and next was a press conference spelling out more details including the sending out of the priestly missionaries. Sometimes it’s difficult to sniff out the small details, which is why CNN said earlier today (via its wire service):
Before the Pope’s change in policy, women who’d had an abortion were automatically excommunicated by the Catholic Church and needed the permission of a bishop in order to lift that ban.
Rocco Palmo, probably America’s best-informed Catholic blogger, blasted CNN in a tweet for implying the Vatican had done away with excommunication as a punishment for abortion. Rocco later posted a longer essay on what the Vatican did and did not do. It's must reading.
In defense of the American journalists working on the story, Rome tends to post news releases at noon its time, which is 6 a.m. Eastern time. Meaning that most religion reporters still in bed when someone on the early morning copy desk has texted them to get on this story about the pope forgiving abortion. I’m guessing most of them hadn’t even had coffee before they quickly Googled the topic, then pounded out a quickie to post on the web.
When I’m in this situation, best thing I’ve discovered is to turn to the Catholic media, such as Catholic News Service, who already have folks on the story who get the small details. Also, the New York Times got the details right on how this pronouncement is more news for women outside the United States:
Though most bishops in the United States have already empowered their priests on the issue, many in other countries have not -- meaning women seeking absolution can face delays, obstacles or rejection. Francis’s edict effectively streamlines the process for a single year.
“All priests will be ready to absolve women who have had an abortion and have repented — all over the world, for a whole year,” said the Rev. Federico Lombardi the Vatican’s chief spokesman. “It’s a widening of the church’s mercy on what is such a dramatic and widespread issue.”
The Washington Post tried to dispel some of the confusion among observers as to what Francis actually meant by his pronouncement:
Pope Francis announced Tuesday he was opening a special, temporary “mercy” window to make it easier for women who have abortions and confess to get back into the full good graces of the Roman Catholic Church. The move set off immediate debate over whether Francis had actually changed church practice or had said something symbolic — and what that symbolism might be.
But the prize for the Best Misleading Headline goes to MSNBC that earlier ran this headline: "Pope says priests can allow this catholic sin."
Yeah, right. Cooler minds must have prevailed, because the network retooled to a less edgier banner: "Pope Francis: Priests can forgive abortion if women are ‘contrite.' "
Earth to TV networks: Please hire some decent religion reporters. Now.
Later in the day, the folks at Crux presented us with a balanced and much saner explanation of what the pope is trying to say. It included this interesting tidbit:
In the case of abortion, Francis’ concession is not unprecedented.
During the 2011 edition of “World Youth Day,” a Vatican-sponsored youth festival that takes place in a different city every two or three years, priests were granted the power by Pope Benedict XVI to forgive the sin of abortion without needing their bishop’s approval.
So there is another pope who had taken a step similar to this one. And the New York Times piece I mentioned earlier noted:
Francis’ offer is not without precedent -- Pope John Paul II enabled priests to offer the same absolution during the last Holy Year, in 2000 -- yet it shows his broader push to make Catholicism more merciful and welcoming.
So the two previous popes had taken similar actions. That's crucial information.
So what is the news story here? Remember, we're talking about some overseas clergy here who don't have the latitude that American priests have had. The pope's missive was not a concession on doctrine; it was a way of allowing -- at least for a year -- greater access to an official forgiveness.
Once again, it's crucial to note that many American priests have already been granted by their own bishops the ability to handle confessions of this kind. While the press hailed the pope's action as another piece in his efforts to present a more moderate, compassionate church, Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput -- consistently portrayed in media reports as an arch conservative -- released a statement noting:
Pope Francis' recent remarks on absolution for the sin of abortion demonstrate his commitment to all those in need of healing. With a special "Jubilee Year of Mercy" set to begin in December, the timing is very welcome.
For many years now, parish priests have been given permission to absolve the sin of abortion here in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
The best stories filed near the beginning of the day had multiple bylines; that is, American reporters working together with the help of a Rome correspondent. For journalists without such resources, get a Catholic academic or a knowledgeable priest on the line and read aloud the doctrinal portions of the story to him or her until you get it right.