SO, IS Pope Francis’s initiative on abortion (News, 4 September) as radical as some liberals have suggested — or does it change nothing, as some secular feminists say? Or is it something at which to look askance, as some troubled conser-vatives have hinted uneasily?
The facts are these. Roman Catholic women who have abortions are automatically excommunicated by the Catholic Church — if, that is, they are aware of the penalty, and commit the sin anyway. Traditionally, only bishops had the power to forgive this sin, give absolution, and lift the excommunication. In some countries, such as England and Wales, bishops have delegated this power to all priests; but this does not apply, for example, in Italy. The Pope has decreed that in the Year of Mercy in 2016, all priests will have the power to hear such confessions.
In one sense, this is nothing new. St John Paul II did something similar in the Holy Year that he declared to mark the Millennium in 2000. And Benedict XVI did the same during World Youth Day in 2011. But these moves did not cause the same stir. Pope Francis is seen differently because liberals and conservatives alike expect him to undertake unexpected or unnerving initiatives. Doctrinally orthodox, he can be revolutionary in his pastoral application of that teaching, because he sees it through the lens of a gospel whose primary virtue is mercy.
His response to gays in the Church, "Who am I to judge?", fell into the same category. So did his declining to lift the ban on contraception, while insisting that there was no need for people to breed "like rabbits" to be good Catholics.
Liberal critics see dishonesty in this. Francis is boosting his radical image, without making any change in antiquated doctrine. Conservatives sniff doctrinal slackness, and complain that the Pope is minimising the seriousness of abortion. Francis insists that it remains a grave sin, but says he is merely widening the possibility of mercy.
What is new is that Francis is seeing many women who have had abortions as victims. Abortion is often for women "an existential and moral ordeal", the Pope writes, recalling that he had "met so many women who bear in their heart the scar of this agonising and painful decision". Such women "believe that they have no other option". It is a decision that can hold them hostage for years.
Some women keep coming back, confessing the same sin over and over again, says Vicki Thorn, who runs Project Rachel, a ministry that promotes healing and forgiveness for women who regret their abortion. They know that they have committed a sin, she says; the hard part is to convince them of God’s mercy. The Pope’s new initiative will help with this.
For Francis, mercy is the gospel value which surpasses all others — and the Church has, in recent years, forgotten that. "Let’s be the Church of Yes, not No," is how he summarises the revolution that he wants to usher in.
It may not be as much as secular liberals want, and it may be too much for the conservatives; but, for the rest of us, it feels like a distinct step forward.
Paul Vallely’s book, Pope Francis: The struggle for the soul of Catholicism, is published by Bloomsbury.