Pope Francis wants to promote mercy, but the media's reporting on mercy initiative muddies the waters
If you’re a Catholic who’s been involved in one way or another in the act of abortion—undergoing the procedure or performing one or encouraging someone to get one—and you happened to pick up the New York Post last week, you might have discovered some surprising ideas.
You might have finished reading a story and thought that no one in history has ever been forgiven for having an abortion and that Pope Francis is sending out a small army of Knights in Shining Armor who will convince everyone that the Church has been mean to everyone until now.
The very headline, “The Catholic Church will forgive your abortion now,” certainly met the Post’s criteria for eye-grabbing titles, but it must have caused a lot of Catholics who know better to cringe.
You also might have come away from the story thinking that no one will be forgiven until next year:
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.
The story was the New York tabloid’s attempt to cover a May 5 Vatican press conference in which Archbishop Salvatore (Rino) Fisichella, the head of the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization, unveiled details of the main events taking place during the Year of Mercy. Archbishop Fisichella referred to the papal bull Pope Francis wrote last month announcing the jubilee year, in which he wrote that “Missionaries of Mercy” will serve as “a sign of the Church’s maternal solicitude for the People of God, enabling them to enter the profound richness of this mystery so fundamental to the faith.
“There will be priests to whom I will grant the authority to pardon even those sins reserved to the Holy See, so that the breadth of their mandate as confessors will be even clearer,” the Pope wrote.
Abortion was never mentioned in either the papal bull or Archbishop Fisichella’s press conference. But the archbishop told a reporter from the Italian news outlet ANSA, “Of course, among faculties of forgiveness that will be given to the missionaries of mercy there will also be abortion.”
The Pope’s reference to “sins reserved to the Holy See” and the archbishop’s mention of abortion as, apparently, sins only the missionaries of mercy can forgive, also may have caused some confusion. But abortion is not a sin reserved to the Holy See. While it is true that having or cooperating in an abortion incurs an automatic excommunication, one need not go to Rome to have that lifted.
“There are a number of clergy with the ability to pardon abortions already,” Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, said, as quoted by the Post. “It is not that rare.”
The penalty of excommunication can be lifted by the diocesan bishop, said canon lawyer Father Gerald Murray. In many cases, the bishop delegates that authority to the priests of the diocese.
So no one who wants to repent of involvement in an abortion should hesitate to go to a priest, thinking that she or he might have to go through some lengthy canonical process to be forgiven and readmitted to the sacramental life of the Church.
In spite of the confusion, Father Murray agreed that the exposure in the secular media can at least help more people understand that the Church wants its wayward children to come back. As did another priest, who is involved in promoting a culture of life worldwide.
“It is great news that the message is getting out through secular media that there is mercy and forgiveness available to women who have had an abortion,” said Father Shenan J. Boquet, president of Human Life International. “This great gift, of course, has been available all along through the many thousands of priests and bishops whose vocation includes the ability to give absolution to the repentant sinner.”
But Father Boquet, who read a report on the Missionaries of Mercy from UPI, took note of the confusion surrounding the announcement. “Like many of the reports,” he said, “the UPI article is replete with errors, including the claim that this effort on the part of Pope Francis is the first in history.”
It is also very important to get this right: God’s infinite divine mercy is available to every repentant sinner, and despite how this story is being reported, abortion remains a very grave sin that requires repentance. This cannot and will not change, no matter how this story is reported. The fact that God’s mercy is greater than any sin also will not change.
UPI attempted to link the papal initiative to a 2009 incident in which a nine-year-old Brazilian girl underwent an abortion after becoming pregnant through rape. It was widely reported at the time that the girl was excommunicated, and the Church was criticized for treating the youngster mercilessly.
“The girl was never excommunicated,” Father Boquet said. “Indeed, the adults who facilitated or performed the abortion are at fault, and were warned of the fact that they would excommunicate themselves by their actions if they proceeded. This was also a merciful act of the local priests who, on behalf of Archbishop [Jose] Cardoso-Sobrino [of the Archdiocese of Olinda e Recife], warned of the spiritual consequences of killing a human being out of misguided mercy. That the young girl was used by those who would legalize abortion is also a crime at the political level that should not be overlooked.”
Theresa Bonopartis, who for many years has been involved in a ministry to bring healing to women who regret their abortions, had mixed feelings about the initial reporting on the missionaries of mercy.
“I am afraid it is going to cause many women who have been to confession to wonder if they in fact have been forgiven because it was not by a bishop or the pope,” said Bonopartis, who directs Lumina/Hope and Healing After Abortion. “Also, in some ways I feel like it singles them out and may make them more weary that their sin is ‘unforgivable’ until this happens.”
She said that already, many women confess over and over because they do not feel forgiven.
But, all in all, Jeanne Mancini, president of the March for Life Education and Defense Fund, in Washington, D.C., was happy to hear about the papal initiative.
“It has been said that the Holy Spirit gives to the Church whatever she needs for a particular time,” Mancini said. “In a world where so many women and families suffer the wounds of abortion, the message of hope and healing is invaluable.”