Pope Francis has extended mercy to those who have had abortions in the Holy Year of Mercy, which begins in December. For a year, priests will be given the authority, by the Pope (really the Holy Spirit) to absolve the grave sin of abortion for that year. Usually only a bishop may absolve a woman (or someone who has participated) of the sin of abortion. Pope Francis has extended this absolution for all priests to perform. What does this mean? Has the Roman Catholic church never extended mercy to those who have committed this sin? Has Pope Francis changed church doctrine? Is this another “liberal” move on Pope Francis’s part?
All life is sacred. God is the God of life. God is the God of mercy. God is also the God of justice. And God is the God who extends mercy and forgiveness to those who repent. Repentance is a turning away from the direction a person was going.
Abortion is a controversial subject in Western Civilization. Unfortunately, it is a controversial topic in the church as well. Yet, in the early church, the culture surrounding the Christians of that time would expose their unwanted children in the wilderness or on a mountain side and let nature take its course. Many Christians would take these children out of harm’s way and take them as their own.
When the fourteen thousand children were slaughtered by the jealous king Herod, John Chrysostom writes, “The mothers pleaded with the murderers, ‘Why do you butcher our children? What offenses have they committed against you or your king?’ But the soldiers were too busy in their work to reply. Nothing could calm the women, who were in a frenzy and cried out with ever-increasing desperation, ‘Mercy! Mercy! Have you no mothers? Do you not have wives? What if these were your children? Have compassion on us; slay us rather than our little babies. We cannot bear to see them destroyed! Take our lives first! Wet your swords with our blood! If these children have committed some wrong, put us to death with them.'
This is the self-sacrificial love of the gospel.
What happened to the mad, unjust king Herod? He died of dropsy in which his skin sloughed off and worms slowly devoured his rotting, stinking flesh. This was a man who did not repent, although, did he repent at his last breath?
The Book of Genesis tells the tale of the creation of all things, including life, (animals, plants, man and woman and all things in between visible and invisible). God created life. It is Roman Catholic doctrine that life begins at conception. Some scientists see this as truth as well, but others will argue other points where life begins, parsing the word itself.
When Mary visited Elizabeth, the baby inside Elizabeth leapt.
All of these images and sentences above point toward the loving God of life who is merciful and just. Again, all human life is sacred. “Human life must be respected and protected from the moment of conception. …A human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person—among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life. Before I formed you in the womb I knew you…Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable” (Catechism 606). The Didache also known as the Teaching of the Apostles, a trusted first century Church source says, “You shall not kill the embryo by abortion and shall not cause the newborn to perish.”
The Catechism goes on to uphold the inalienable right to life of every human individual from conception; it must be treated as a person and defended in its integrity, cared for, and healed, as far as possible, like any other human being (Catechism 607).
Pope Francis, as the Vicar of Christ—in church doctrine, he is a symbol of Christ—is doing exactly what the church has always taught. He is extending the mercy and forgiveness of Jesus Christ to a population of sinners who need healing and wholeness—forgiveness of sin and new life.
Pope Francis is not denying the fact that abortion is a mortal sin. He is reminding the world that those who repent, no matter what the sin is, that Jesus Christ is full of mercy and forgives sin, including the sin of abortion. Francis is “instructing priests to both welcome women who seek forgiveness for terminating a pregnancy and reflect with them on ‘the gravity of the sin committed.’"
Being made and conceived in the image of God, as the Scripture says, means that a person is someone, not something (see the Catechism of the Catholic Church). The Catechism goes on to say that “the human body shares in the dignity of ‘the image of God.’” The unity of the soul and body is not insignificant: “Man, though made of body and soul, is a unity. Through his very bodily condition he sums up in himself the elements of the material world. For this reason, man may not despise his bodily life. Rather he is obliged to regard his body as good and hold it in honor since God has created it and will raise if up on the last day.” This goes for one’s own body, but also the body of another, our neighbor. And who is our neighbor? Our friend, our enemy, just a random person we see, the poor, and yes, the child and the child in the womb. Does not this teaching extend to all human life? The imago dei (image of God) explains why it is morally evil to murder and why some call abortion the murder of a child.