Praise for Pope Francis Is Premature: Vatican’s Official Stance on Abortion Hasn’t Shifted

ROME, ITALY - APRIL 18, 2014: Pope Francis celebrates the 'Via Crucis' procession at Colosseum in Rome on April 18, 2014. (Photo: Giulio Napolitano / Shutterstock)Pope Francis celebrates the “Via Crucis” procession at Colosseum in Rome on April 18, 2014. (Photo: giulio napolitano / Francis made a temporary, absolution-only offering to Catholics “who bear in their heart the scar” of abortion and repent during the upcoming 355-day “Jubilee,” or Holy Year, in a letter published Tuesday by the Vatican.

Despite 95 percent of those who have abortions reporting no struggle with regret, the Pope explains his decision to temporarily open the power of absolution to all clergy by calling the choice to terminate a pregnancy “an existential and moral ordeal.”

“A widespread and insensitive mentality has led to the loss of the proper personal and social sensitivity to welcome new life. The tragedy of abortion is experienced by some with a superficial awareness, as if not realizing the extreme harm that such an act entails,” wrote Francis. “I have decided … 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.”

Deputy Vatican spokesman Father Ciro Benedettini quickly clarified that the change was seasonal-only. Further clarification from Vatican chief spokesman Father Federico Lombardi offered little space to hope for an end to the automatic excommunication of any Catholic known to have had or performed an abortion.

“This is by no means an attempt to minimize the gravity of this sin, but to widen the possibility of showing mercy,” Lombardi told reporters. Catholics may now go to their parish priest rather than specially designated upper echelon officials within the church – a change that doesn’t offer solace to those who would likely be expelled from their faith community upon confession.

Pope Francis’s decision to refocus the church’s energy towards mercy starts as a nice thought grounded in compassion, but quickly turns to more shame for women.

Rev. Harry Knox, president and CEO of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, expressed tempered appreciation for the Pope’s use of empathetic words before pivoting to an approach that fully realizes an individual Catholic’s humanity.

“Pope Francis’s decision to refocus the church’s energy towards mercy starts as a nice thought grounded in compassion, but quickly turns to more shame for women,” Knox said in a statement. “The compassionate, pastoral approach is to recognize that women have abortions for many reasons. … What a woman really needs from her clergy is someone ready and able to have deep pastoral conversations about her decision.”

Knox emphasized that clergy are called to engage with the faithful where they are, in life and as complete and complicated people: “The Pope should equip his priests with the tools to listen to a woman’s story instead of offering occasional absolution.”

US Catholics oppose criminalizing abortion by a margin of two to one.

“I grew up Catholic, and I attended a Jesuit university,” Erin Matson, co-director of the new reproductive justice organization ReproAction, told Truthout. “The official teachings of the Catholic Church on sexuality – including, but not limited to abortion – harm people around the world and are deeply out of step with the views of Catholic people.”

Catholics for Choice president Jon O’Brien issued a more complimentary statement, saying, “this is a pope who is not stuck in the pelvic zone, and perhaps his message on how he thinks about abortion is more for his brother bishops than Catholics in the pew.”

Matson had a very different initial reaction to the pope’s Jubilee Letter.

“Women who have abortions have done nothing wrong, and they have nothing to apologize for,” said Matson, who didn’t hear any fundamental policy change in the expanded pool of priests who will be able to dispense absolution.”We can’t lose sight of the fact that Pope Francis is not changing any doctrine on abortion, which remains an excommunicable offense – this is a temporary change.”

Jessica González-Rojas, executive director of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health (NLIRH) also pushed back on language she feels “contributes to culturally pervasive and deeply harmful abortion stigma.”

“As an organization committed to Latina health and reproductive justice, we reject any attempt to impose judgment or shame on someone based on deeply personal decisions about health, pregnancy and whether to become a parent,” González-Rojas said in a statement.

While appreciating Pope Francis addressing abortion directly, González-Rojas described Vatican doctrine as out of step – a potential barrier to accessing care for those in her community.

“What is significant here is that the Pope, as a faith leader for millions, recognizes the need to talk about abortion, which one in three women will experience in her lifetime. Yet these comments fall short in reflecting the realities of women’s lives, and the viewpoints of many Catholics,” she said. “Despite ongoing prohibition by church doctrine, Catholic Latinas support access to reproductive health care, with 90 percent of married Catholic Latinas using a modern form of contraception and a majority of Latino/a voters – including many Catholics, supporting access to safe and legal abortion services.”

Polling confirms González-Rojas’s analysis. Only 28 percent of Catholics overall wanted to see President Obama make abortion a priority during his presidency and US Catholics oppose criminalizing abortion by a margin of two to one.

Despite empirical polling data in support of abortion and testimony from affected communities – disproportionately rural resident, the poor and people of color – during campaigns like the one to pass the EACH Woman Act, conservative legislators in Washington continue to take their cues from Vatican doctrine. From 2010-2014 231 abortion-restricting laws were enacted with no slow-down in 2015; 332 anti-abortion provisions were introduced in 43 states just in the first quarter of this year.

The 30 percent of the GOP-led Congress that identifies as Catholic is considerably more conservative than the average Catholic voter, continuing to prioritize decreased abortion access through legislation. Senators Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and James Lankford (R- OK) are among those threatening – again – to shut down the government over non-existent federal abortion dollars going to Planned Parenthood. That Planned Parenthood would still get the majority of its funding during a shutdown through Medicaid preventative care insurance hasn’t toned down the rhetorically contentious climate into which Pope Francis issued Tuesday’s letter.

While that climate feels like “the same old politics of shame and stigma” to González-Rojas, she tempers her call for culture change with optimism. “We’re glad to see a conversation about abortion happening within faith communities,” she said, “but the focus should be on respect and support for those who end a pregnancy, not the same old politics of shame and stigma.”

Despite her criticisms, Matson also remains hopeful, citing the way this pope engages with the faithful.

“The responses to our #HeyPopeFrancis campaign have been incredible,” she said, referencing ReproAction’s call for individuals to speak directly to Francis about their needs and concerns. “People connect with this Pope and they believe he should listen to them and respect them. The ball is in his court to do the right thing, and listen.”