Pope Francis’s hip new take on abortion is anything but

Pope Francis took another step in rebranding the Catholic Church this week when he announced that priests will be allowed to absolve women who have had abortions between December 8th, 2015 and November 20th, 2016 — the upcoming Holy Year of Mercy.

The Pope has shown a propensity for moderation on social issues, including divorceextramarital sexpriest celibacy and even homosexuality — although his congenial rhetoric isn’t always reflected in Vatican policy. So what should we make of this one year window to claim your spiritual clemency for one of the Church’s most reviled sins?

Not much. As Damon Linker pointed out this morning, Pope Francis’s stance on abortion is still a dark, dark shade of immoral:

According to the church, if I commit adultery, my priest can hear my confession and absolve my sin. If I murder my wife, my priest can hear my confession and absolve my sin. Heck, if I engage in an act of genocide, my priest can hear my confession and absolve my sin.

But if my wife procures an abortion, she incurs an automatic (latae sententiae) excommunication, meaning she instantly falls out of communion with the Catholic Church. That precludes her from partaking in the sacraments, including the sacrament of reconciliation, which is the means by which a priest can hear a confession and absolve sins.

That makes abortion worse than every other form of murder, including mass murder.

Pope Francis’s announcement, then, is effectively a declaration that abortion is only as bad as mass murder, and only for slightly less than one year. Outside of that window, women who have abortions go straight to Hell, with the Church happy to give them a push on the way down.

One might think there would be a few other Very Bad Things on the Catholic Church’s list of almost-never-forgivable sins. But while that list does have eight other items, they’re all relatively benign, ranging from apostasy (a cardinal sin in any good monotheism) to heresy to using the Eucharist for sacrilegious purposes — like if a priest were to take the crackers and wine home after Sunday mass and consume them while watching a football game. What’s more, abortion is the only sin on the list that doesn’t exist in direct reference to the Catholic Church and its dogmas. It is the only normally-unforgivable sin that non-Catholics can commit.

None of that makes any moral sense.

So Pope Francis hasn’t earned himself a liberal cookie for giving priests a year-long abortion forgiveness holiday (after all, Pope John Paul II did the same thing). The Catholic Church remains adamant that its doctrines and teachings on the matter haven’t changed.

And those doctrines and teachings are still absurd.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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34 Responses to “Pope Francis’s hip new take on abortion is anything but”

  1. Silver_Witch says:

    My sister became a nun for a brief time and told me about scrubbing the floor with a toothbrush…that is when I knew that their god was goofy as hell and into wasting people’s time so they don’t have time to think.

  2. JaneE says:

    Nope. When you start with an irrational belief, nothing needs to make sense. There are a lot of cases where catholic law is at odds with common sense. But for people who believe and want to follow the Catholic religion, this is a temporary reprieve from unconditional condemnation. That’s all.

  3. JaneE says:

    I don’t understand either, but there are some. My in-laws are RC, and if the church wants them to do something useless and foolish, they will do it. Their “crime” was having only a civil marriage ceremony. Their punishment was no confirmation and communion for their children. To me, it was a nothingburger, but they confessed and paid penance and got married by a priest after about 18 years of marriage, so their children could be members of the Church. Shakin’ my head.

  4. 2karmanot says:


  5. nicho says:

    No, you’re thinking of Papal Interdict, which affects the whole country the same way that excommunication affects an individual.

  6. nicho says:

    Can you explain why a mass murderer can receive absolution without excommunication, but a woman who had an abortion can’t?

  7. Silver_Witch says:

    Why would any woman want to join a group that considers them so evil they have to go to a special confessor. Where men can sin and any old priest can forgive him. Where they are hated and dispised. I willnnever understand.

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  9. Zorba says:

    There is that, Becca.
    I definitely agree, if there is a Hell, Dick Cheney will be going there. If he’s not already there- after all, he is not “working” with his own heart. He was kept alive with a heart pump for like, two years. until he got a heart transplant in 2012. I figure that he “died” when he got the pump in 2010.
    I just hope that the Flying Spaghetti Monster boils him in eternal, very hot, sauce. R’Amen.

  10. JaneE says:

    This is just an opportunity for Catholic women who have had an abortion to re-join the church community. If they want to. It is probably more important for women in Catholic-majority countries than those in the USA, and at least they now have the option.

  11. koolaidyarn says:

    Plus if the ruler was excommunicated, his country and subjects were all excommunicated by proxy as well – or am I remembering my European history wrong?

  12. BeccaM says:

    Yeah, or simply reject the notion any human being has the spiritual authority to declare with utmost authority and certainty that your soul will burn in Hell forever after you die, even if he’s the Pope.

    Well, except for Dick Cheney. If there’s a Hell, he’s definitely going there. ;-)

  13. Zorba says:

    Well, if you are excommunicated from the Catholic Church (and if you’re a monarch), you can always get around this by starting your own church, as Henry VIII did.

  14. Bill_Perdue says:

    Or the Clintons, or the Bushes, or Colin Powell, etc. They all pardon one another and right wing scum like Jorge Bergoglio, Netanyahu, Al Sisi, Obama’s surrogate butcher in Egypt and ect.

    The world’s worst war criminals are Democrats and Republicans.

  15. BeccaM says:

    Provided you also conclude that no priest, bishop, or pope has the means or the right to consign your eternal soul to Hell forever and ever after you die.

    There are lots of ways to come at that. One would be to realize that no man — even if a Pope — has the right to judge in this way. Another would be to commit the private heresy of refusing to accept that eternal torture with no redemption ever is an appropriate and just punishment for the sins of a human lifetime. And still another would be just to reject the Catholic Church completely and any presumed authority it might have over human morality, especially given its history.

    I went with the last option, although the other two were steps along the way.

  16. 2karmanot says:

    You probably get a better taste by licking a tire.

  17. 2karmanot says:

    The muses of Sicily would prefer a Gin and tonic thank you.

  18. 2karmanot says:

    Obake and hungry ghosts, Oh My!

  19. 2karmanot says:

    One of my greatest literary joys was the discovery that Dante placed clergy in hell, particularly Popes. Levels 8 & 9 going down.

  20. 2karmanot says:

    Falling out of communication with the Catholic Church is just about the greatest blessing that could possibly happen to an individual.

  21. nicho says:

    Well, at the time excommunication came about as a widely-used punishment, it WAS a very big deal. The church and the state had become pretty intertwined and, in most cases, it was pretty hard to separate them. So, being cut off from the church and the sacraments really hampered you big time.

    As with so many other things, it was aimed at the ruling class. No one really gave a crap about peasants. But excommunicating the king or a prince or anyone in authority really put them behind the 8 ball. If you were a noble and were excommunicated, you couldn’t do a lot of things that were expected of you because they all had a religious connection. You couldn’t go to weddings or funerals. You couldn’t attend a coronation. You couldn’t be crowned. You couldn’t be buried in sacred ground. Remember that these were true believers. They really believed all the afterlife stuff.

    If you want to read the sordid history of the papacy, get your hands on “Absolute Monarchs” by John Julius Norwich. It’s a laugh-a-minute romp through 20 centuries of murder, intrigue, sexcapades, criminal enterprises, slaughter, papal children, and corruption. (OK — I lied about the laugh-a-minute — it’s pretty horrifying.) It’s very enlightening — especially if all you know of the papacy is what you learned in school.

  22. Bomer says:

    When I was still Catholic and an alter server we had one parishioner that would come back into the sacristy and have a glass of the wine (not blessed, of course) before mass. He seemed to like it. I always though it tasted terrible. And, yeah, the wafers tend to taste like stale Styrofoam.

  23. BeccaM says:

    LOL, I hear ya. I find myself constantly having to dust off the studies and rationales I bought to my mental table when I was trying to decide in my late teens and early 20s what I actually believed. And why I felt I simply had to stop being a Catholic.

    As for punishments and all that, I have to grant that objectively, being burned alive is worse than the symbolic and decidedly theoretical punishment associated with formal ecumenical severing from the Church which is Excommunication. But one needs to think about this from the inside of the Catholic system of belief.

    Being burned at the stake can result in martyrdom and the eternal bliss of going to Heaven. In fact, from another angle, this was also the standard practice during the Inquisition period: Torture someone to the point where they break and swear fealty to Catholicism and their interpretation of the Divine…and then kill them quickly so they can’t take it back. The temporary torture of being killed painfully was, by the Church itself, deemed less bad than consignment to Hell forever. Actually, they didn’t think torture was evil at all, as long as they felt their reasons were good ones.

    I’ve long been fascinated by the concept of Excommunication and why it worked as it did. Plainly, it depends on faith, and the belief that if you are cut off from a certain relationship to the Church and denied access to certain sacraments said to be essential to go to Heaven after one dies, you are guaranteed a one-way ticket to Hell when you die. If you believe Hell exists and in the form as taught by the Catholic Church, we’re talking ETERNAL torture.

    But yeah… you make a number of good points, too, and while I’d love to converse further, I need to get back to work myself.

  24. Indigo says:

    Of course. I’m scratching my head wondering how I became an apologist for the Roman Church in this conversation. I’m really not. But as death penalties go, excommunication is a far, far better thing than being burned alive at the stake. Critiques of Romanism tend to repeat the same criticisms that have been alive since Voltaire and before. It’s a political construct cobbled together at the time of the transition of the ancient Empire into that strange, two-headed version of the empire that the Emperor Constantine put together out of a few elements of slave-religion cooperation with military Mithraism and remnants of Olympian thought along with random superstitions from all over the ancient Mediterranean world. That it has survived intact to such a remarkable degree, draped in Renaissance robes and patriarchal arrogance is a tribute to the fundamental inertia of the system. That’s not a good thing, but there it is. Might as well try reasoning with Donald Trump. It doesn’t work. But there it is, a colossus in our culture so infuriating in its intransigence that here we are, pouring another afternoon into discussing it.

    Paulo maiora canamus! -Virgil

  25. BeccaM says:

    Perhaps, but I still can’t quite get past the fact that in the Catholic Church, Excommunication is the ultimate infinite Big Stick to compel unquestioning obedience — and even if one posits that purely elective abortion is morally wrong, Excommunication continues to be applied to a ‘sin’ that ought not be any kind of moral transgression under certain circumstances, such as the removal of a dead fetus from inside a woman’s body or an ectopic pregnancy or other similar situation.

    Even a small child knows that personally killing dozens, hundreds, or thousands of live, sentient humans ought to be considered a worse crime — yet Excommunication has never been assigned to those who committed mass murder or genocide.

    While I’ve appreciated Francis’ gestures towards compassion, forgiveness, and leniency, I’ve lived through enough Popes to know this is just him. The next Pope could reverse everything at whim. The problem with the Catholic Church is institutional and shows the inertia of an organization that has been around since 300 AD — and which never really admits fully to its mistakes.

  26. Indigo says:

    Which is more likely, the arrest of Bergoglio or Cheney?

  27. Indigo says:

    Mizuko kuyo is a nice touch, reassuring for parents who have had to make a difficult decision. It probably does not come up to the artificial standards of American theologians attempting to tell Buddhists how to be Buddhists, but it’s one of those very typical Buddhist practices that address the immediacy of personal issues. And that’s really the point. The fancy Jizo statue is not necessary, a small one on the altar at home is more than sufficient. Settling accounts with the spirit world and feeding the Hungry Ghosts are pious practices that help the living individuals deal with issues that are bothering them. If, in fact, there are spirits beyond who can help, so much the better. I wouldn’t bet on it, though.

  28. Indigo says:

    It’s a Catch-22 situation that has nothing to do with medieval Catholic practices and everything to do with 19-20th Vatican century anger over the dissolution of the Papal States and the abolition of the remnant of the Holy Roman Emperor with the forced abdication of the Kaiser. With an imperial system, the average layman had a lay spokesperson who did not always kowtow to Vatican posturing. With the imperial system entirely dissolved, none of that tempering influence remains. The Vatican has been running wild with clericalism every since. It’s politics, raw and angry and vindictive. I grant you that.

    I have no idea how Rome is going to untangle itself from that mistake, given the penchant to wrap it up in infallibility, but eventually, it has to be set aside. The Jubilee Year is a gesture, that’s true, and also, possibly, a testing of the water. The current pope might live another decade or so and then what? a return to the anger of the vindictive patriarchy that you describe so vividly? Probably, yes. But possibly a sense of temperate kindliness will take root.

  29. Bill_Perdue says:

    When Jorge Bergoglio sets foot on US soil he should be arrested for crimes against humanity, and deported to face charges before the appropriate international courts. “The main charge against Bergoglio involves the kidnapping of two Jesuit priests, Orland Yorio and Francisco Jalics, who were taken by Navy officers in May 1976 and held under inhumane conditions for the missionary work they conducted in the country’s slums, a politically risky activity at the time.

    His chief accuser is journalist Horacio Verbitsky, the author of a book on the church called “El Silencio” (“The Silence”), which claims that Bergoglio withdrew his order’s protection from the two priests, effectively giving the military a green light for their abduction.http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/mar/14/pope-francis-argentina-military-junta

    He ‘should be’ but Obama won’t lift a finger to bring him to justice.

  30. nicho says:

    Well, I think the fact that some women may seek absolution seriously undercuts the argument by the pro-birth gang that women seek abortion as some sort of lark. “Gee, I couldn’t get an appointment at the nail salon today. So I think I’ll have an abortion.” In reality, it is a serious issue that women very often agonize over and, while some may feel guilt after, they also feel they had no other realistic choice.

    Interestingly, in Japan, where abortion is legal, there is a formal ceremony of remembrance for the aborted fetuses, as well as stillbirths and miscarriages.


  31. BeccaM says:

    Sorry, but I can’t go there. It’s like saying that finally relenting and giving a torture prisoner a cup of water today is a ‘liberal move,’ when in fact the torture will resume fill-tilt tomorrow.

    A year from now, when the Pope-declared ‘Jubilee Year’ is over, abortion goes back to being an automatic and permanent ticket to Hell, in Catholic doctrine. Excommunication in the Catholic Church is considered to be a fate worse than death itself. It’s them saying you are so irreparably broken, so evil, they want nothing to do with you and if one believes in the RCC’s rules, it means when you die, you go to Hell to be tortured horrifically forever and ever.

    Meanwhile, as Jon points out, you can commit literal genocide and still obtain the forgiveness of the Confessional.

    True, Dante doesn’t mention abortion in the Inferno, but the current-day Catholic Church has made its position clear: A single act of abortion, no matter the reason — even if a woman’s life is at risk, even if the fetus inside her is already dead due to fatal abnormalities — is worse than mass murder. That’s really fucked up and the opposite of liberal.

    But more importantly, a major problem here is any woman who has obtained an abortion and is considered to be currently Excommunicated from the Catholic Church has to repent of that abortion — again, even if that abortion was necessary to save her own life. And in 2017, any act of abortion for any reason goes back to being an Excommunication-level offense. Therefore, participating in this Jubilee Year papal indulgence basically means one is okay with the idea of any single abortion, for any reason, being a sin worthy of eternal damnation.

    I just can’t get behind the gross injustice of a woman today being able to avail herself of that indulgence, but if another woman died a year ago, she’ll (theoretically) suffer for ALL of eternity because she missed the fickle window.

  32. Indigo says:

    Opening absolution for abortion to all priests in the confessional is actually a fairly liberal move. It doesn’t change anything but it does at least ease the guilt burden somewhat over getting the absolution. Why someone would seek out absolution in the first place is something I can’t explain but I assume it has to do with the superstitions the church encourages. Sex issues strike a deep note so they’re a convenient tool for inducing obedience through guilt. That’s easy enough to understand. Why educated people go along with it is not so easily explained.

    But on the root matter, I don’t understand why you would expect the church to reverse itself on the one issue that seems designed to hold it together as an archaic fertility cult? That anti-abortion stance, embedded in Romanism not all that far back, is not up for discussion as far as the administrators are concerned. And like every corporation, what the administrators will not discuss is closed. And that’s period. Think of it as HP with Carly Fiorina in charge.

    In fact, the anti-abortion stance is not primordial, Dante doesn’t even mention in in the Inferno. Go figure.On the other hand, HH Francis crippled his own pro-environment teaching by linking the moral issues of ecological responsibility to the vast evil of abortion. Pffft!

    Moving on . . .

  33. Jon Green says:

    Yep, speaking purely in hypotheticals there.

  34. nicho says:

    if a priest were to take the crackers and wine home after Sunday mass and consume them while watching a football game.

    I’m guessing you’ve never tasted those particular “crackers” and wine. One does not consume them for pleasure. You can get better-tasting things in the vending machine at the muffler shop.

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