Heidi Schlumpf: Pope Francis' recent gesture on abortion won't change doctrine
In context with his emphasis on plight of poor, letter may indicate a different set of priorities
Editor’s Note: Heidi Schlumpf is a columnist for the National Catholic Reporter and teaches communication at Aurora University. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Pope Francis’ decision to extend priests’ ability to forgive abortion in the confessional will have virtually no effect on American Catholics. Yet, given that Catholics still delivered for the Republican Party in the recent presidential election, this gesture from a Pope who has urged mercy for refugees and the poor could be interpreted as saying that abortion – while still a serious and grave matter – is not the only issue Catholics should be caring about.
The move does not change doctrine about the sinfulness of abortion; it only alters pastoral practice in some parts of the world about how it can be forgiven. Initially intended to apply only during the special “Year of Mercy,” which ended Sunday, the practice is being extended indefinitely.
The truth is that nearly all priests in the United States and Canada already had the authority to lift the automatic excommunication that comes with procuring an abortion, according to a spokeperson for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, who clarified the policy when the Pope first announced it last September.
Priests will be able to “absolve those who have committed the sin of procured abortion,” Pope Francis writes in an apostolic letter released by the Vatican on Monday, called “Misericordia et Misera.” “The provision I had made in this regard, limited to the duration of the Extraordinary Holy Year, is hereby extended, notwithstanding anything to the contrary.”
In keeping with the Pope’s emphasis on the church as an institution of mercy, this extension to priests worldwide may certainly affect some Catholics’ ability to receive the sacraments and be reconciled to the church. It may also result in the church being viewed as more open and accepting, especially in cultures where the church faces “competition” from other churches that may be perceived as more welcoming.
This move also could be related to the possibility of divorced and remarried Catholics being reconciled to the church through the “internal forum” in confession, as opposed to the longer annulment process.
But I think the announcement, while certainly timed to the close of the jubilee year and not to the US presidential election, when combined with other statements by Pope Francis, could be read as the pontiff reflecting on some Catholics’ decision to vote for Donald Trump. While US Catholics who vote Republican tend to cite anti-abortion beliefs, it’s interesting that this Pope seems to talk less about abortion than about poverty.
Before the election, on a plane trip home from a visit to Mexico in February, the Pope answered a question about Trump’s allegation that the Pope’s choice to celebrate Mass in Ciudad Juarez near the border made him “a political pawn of the Mexican state,” by saying, “… a person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not in the gospel.”
At the time, the Pope noted that he would not get involved in telling US Catholics for whom to vote, adding, “I’ll leave the judgment to you, to the people.”
Throughout the campaign, as he has throughout his pontificate, Pope Francis has emphasized the need to respond to the poor and refugees. Just three days before the US election, the Pope urged social justice activists not to give in to the politics of fear. On the eve of the election, he told a journalist he does not “judge people or politicians,” but only “wanted to understand what suffering their behavior causes to the poor and the excluded.”
Last week, after exit polls showed 52% of Catholic voters chose Trump over 45% for Hillary Clinton, Pope Francis seemed to warn against the rise of populist nationalism around the world, noting the danger of an “epidemic of animosity” against people of other races or religions.
My hunch is that the Pope is concerned about a lack of mercy toward marginalized people all over the world, not just in the United States. “This is the time of mercy,” he writes. “…It is the time of mercy for each and all, since no one can think that he or she is cut off from God’s closeness and the power of his tender love. It is the time of mercy because those who are weak and vulnerable, distant and alone, ought to feel the presence of brothers and sisters who can help them in their need. It is the time of mercy because the poor should feel that they are regarded with respect and concern by others who have overcome indifference and discovered what is essential in life. …”
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Of course, the pope’s letter on mercy was surely prepared long before the results of the US election. It also should be noted that it also extends the power to forgive in the confessional to the traditionalist and schismatic group, the Society of St. Pius X, so it cannot be read as any sort of advance of “liberalism” in the church. Yet, taken together, the Pope’s words and actions certainly can give US Catholics much to think about.