I write today as a priest who was guilty of an abortion decades ago. No sooner had I heard about Pope Francis’ letter giving universal faculties to priests to absolve the sin of abortion and lift any excommunication, did I find myself being interviewed on the radio and being asked curious questions about the Pope’s letter.
Is this a new teaching? Is the Church finally forgiving people who have been guilty of an abortion? Later in the day, I was able to read some of the media headlines and I understood why these questions were being asked. A Yahoo headline, “Pope tells priests to pardon women who have had abortions.” MSNBC reported, “Pope says priests can allow this Catholic sin.” The general comments I heard from people on and off social media could be summed up with, “How could the Church be so against abortion that it would refuse mercy to people for this sin.” It is almost as if in one single day we entered an abyss in which the Church was void of mercy when, in reality, the Church is all about mercy…and I am a living example of how the Church, continuing the work of Christ on earth, extends God’s mercy to all who seek His mercy.
In the 1970s, long before I became a priest, I encouraged my girlfriend to have an abortion. Guilt followed almost immediately as did the confession of our sin to a priest. Our healing came much more slowly and we eventually parted ways. Thirty years later, in the seminary, while counseling a young man about his complicity in his girlfriend’s abortion, I realized I was “that man.” Prudently, I was able to seek out my girlfriend and apologize for hurting her and not being a real man decades before. It was only then that I found out the abortion involved twins. She had held that secret until the day I apologized to her, opening up a flood of grace in her healing process and mine.
You may ask, “How does a man guilty of such a sin become a priest?” Well, it is because the Church is, as it should be and as Jesus is, merciful. Yes, the Church wanted to be sure that my former girlfriend and I were sufficiently healed and that she was aware and approved of my becoming a priest. And yes, such a sin is an “impediment” to ordination as a priest, but, as with many circumstances within the Church, after due investigation, a dispensation can be obtained. I was a recipient of such a dispensation. Likewise, a woman desiring to enter religious life as a nun could also receive similar mercy. This is only right and just. The Church is called to be merciful as Christ is merciful. These acts of great mercy in no way diminish the Church’s correct and moral teaching that abortion is a very grievous sin. As the Church teaches and has always been the case, all sins are forgivable if one seeks forgiveness and is truly repentant. Pope Francis says as much in his letter allowing all priests to forgive abortions in confession and giving them the faculties to lift any excommunication to “those who have procured [abortion] and who, with a contrite heart, seek forgiveness for it.”
Of course, people do need to understand that in the United States, priests have already had this merciful power from the Church for a long time. The Pope’s letter is just reinforcing what I and many other Catholics already know: The Catholic Church is all about forgiveness, all about mercy. It is in this mercy, that people find their way to true healing and peace.
Fr. Stephen Imbarrato is a Roman Catholic Priest of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe. He serves full-time as a priest-associate of Priests for Life, the Catholic Church’s largest pro-life ministry. For more information on Fr. Stephen and Priests for Life, visit www.PriestsForLife.org. For more commentary from Priests for Life about the Pope’s action, see www.JubileeOfMercy.net.