Pope Francis ended his Holy Year Of Mercy by permanently giving all Catholic priests the ability to grant forgiveness for abortion ― a power that, in most parts of the world, has been restricted to bishops or specially-appointed confessors.
In an apostolic letter, Francis made it clear that he still thinks of abortion as a “grave sin.” According to church teaching, abortion results in the automatic excommunication of the woman and all those involved in the procedure. But as he has often done during his papacy, Francis is placing an emphasis on mercy.
While this could be a significant boon in some parts of the world, it’s possible that for many American Catholic women, not much will change in practice. Many American bishops have already given the priests in their dioceses the ability to forgive abortion.
Despite the church’s stringent teaching on the subject, research indicates that Catholic women get abortions at about the same rate as all American women. According to a Guttmacher Institute survey conducted between April 2014 and June 2015, about 24 percent of abortion patients identified as Catholic.
HuffPost reached out to a broad range of Catholic women for their reactions to Pope Francis’ announcement. Some praised it wholeheartedly, while others questioned whether women who have had abortions would even feel comfortable seeking counsel from a priest. Nearly all agreed on one thing: This announcement from Francis is a change in tone that could heal Catholic women who are struggling with feelings of guilt after an abortion, and are looking for transcendent meaning and forgiveness.
Below, nine Catholic women speak up.
Jenny Uebbing, Catholic Blogger
“My initial thoughts were of women in my life who have suffered the pain of an abortion. I have several friends from childhood and college who distanced themselves from their Catholic faith after committing what they determined to be the unforgivable sin of having an abortion. Pope Francis loudly affirms what the Church has always and will always teach: for the penitent soul, there is always hope. And none of us are beyond hope, not ever. ‘Neither do I condemn you. Your sins have been forgiven, go and sin no more.’ It’s beautiful to see the Gospel being made fresh in a culture that is weary and longing for hope.”
Lisa Sowle Cahill, Theological Ethicist, J. Donald Monan Professor at Boston College
“I doubt that many US women who have abortions turn to a confessor for absolution. But many probably do struggle with guilt and some regret. I am also not certain how many realize that a confessor technically is supposed to turn them away or how many pastors would do that. The bigger picture here is that [abortion] has been assigned a disproportionate gravity and approached with a punitiveness not extended to sins committed by men such as human rights abuses in war or rape and murder of women. Plus it’s an example of disproportionate focus on sex and gender in general. Pope [Francis] has said his priorities are a ‘church of the poor’ and mercy. He specifically said abortion and related issues are not the only or most important concerns on which Catholic leaders should be focusing. I see this change as reinforcing these trajectories.”
Sheila S. Hopkins, President, National Council of Catholic Women
“Pope Francis clearly speaks the truth with love. I think women will feel more comfortable confessing their abortion to a priest because of the mercy Pope Francis has extended to them ... With the ability to confess to a priest, to me this would make a woman feel like she does not have a red letter on her chest so to speak. It does not require any extraordinary action on her part so she would feel in a safe place in the ordinary practice of going to confession.”
“Personally, I think it’s a nice gesture, but my instinct is that many women who have abortions never tell a priest about them because the church is so stridently anti-abortion that women would rather keep that to themselves than run the risk of being judged or condemned ...
Confession may seem like a safe space, but personally, I’ve heard anecdotes from women who confessed abortions to priests and were denied absolution or given a tongue lashing. Many of these women quit the church; others left that parish in order to avoid that priest. It’s a similar dilemma to the idea that women should confess using birth control. We know the vast majority of Catholic women use it, but how many bother to tell a priest? Very few, I suspect. We also know that fewer and fewer Catholics go to confession at all — only 1/4 of Catholics go to confession more than once a year, if that often. Perhaps this fear of judgement and condemnation is enough to keep people away. And perhaps it’s also a sense that if we believe in a forgiving God, many of us ultimately believe we should be able to forgive one another, and ourselves.”
Karen Schultz, Postpartum Doula
“It seems to me to be a beautiful and wise gift of Pope Francis to extend this act of mercy to women and men who have participated in acts of abortion. God’s mercy is without end and forgiveness knows no bounds for those who are truly and honestly seeking it. As a Catholic and as a woman, I’m proud of and grateful for Pope Francis and his willingness to recognize these truths and to welcome hurting women into the fold. They should know they are always welcome in the Church. I do believe that these women can find a home again in the Church, and that as Catholics we’ll continue to learn how to be receptive, welcoming, and loving to those who have had or participated in abortions.”
Mary Rice Hasson, Director of the Catholic Women’s Forum
“Here in the U.S. most bishops already allow priests to offer absolution to those involved in abortions (the mother, father, doctors, nurses, others). By announcing this to the world, Pope Francis sends two universal messages: First, he is calling Catholics ― including Catholics involved in abortions ― back to confession, so they can receive healing in even the most painful circumstances. We’re all sinners, so there’s power and grace in hearing the priest say, by the authority of Jesus Christ, ‘I absolve you of your sins. Go in peace.’
Francis’ second message emphasizes the gravity of abortion ― he again calls it a ‘grave sin’ ― but by emphasizing the seriousness of ending ‘an innocent life,’ he throws into relief the greatness of God’s love: There is no sin greater than God’s forgiveness and love. His love is truly unconditional. No matter how awful our sins, or how far away we’ve been, the Lord opens his arms wide and says, ‘Come back, I forgive you. Let me heal you.’”
Celia Wexler, Catholic Journalist
“Abortion never should have been considered a sin that deserved special treatment. If murderers, rapists, torturers, and pedophiles are entitled to have their sins forgiven through the sacrament of confession, what made abortion more serious or more sinful, or even as sinful? I’m glad that the Pope now agrees that any priest can forgive abortion. But it still emphasizes the church’s misogyny, particularly when abortion often is something a woman may choose because it is the least bad of many bad options ... I don’t believe one priest pedophile has been excommunicated, and yet one can be automatically excommunicated for permitting an abortion.”
Emily Wilson, Catholic musician and speaker
“I hope it will help these women feel the love of God the Father, rather than the scorn of those who make them feel as though what they have done is unforgivable. I do not believe it is common for women who have had abortions to come to the church to seek forgiveness, because the Church is often portrayed as a place with people who are angry with these women for their decisions. The reality is that abortion is a sin that can be forgiven, and that these women belong in the Church just as much as anyone else - we are all sinners - none of us is perfect, God’s mercy is extended and open to all. As someone who belongs to the Church and wants to love and support these women, I hope that women do come to the Church to be reunited with the Father who created them and loves them more than they can fathom.”
Cara McDonough, Catholic blogger
“As a pro-choice Catholic woman who feels a strong disconnect with the Church on many social issues, I see Francis’ statement as a beacon of hope that the Catholic hierarchy is continuing to move towards a more compassionate and modern approach to the difficult issues that many women face such as abortion. Francis’ continued emphasis on mercy - rather than harsh judgment - is a welcome one, and this is certainly a major announcement.
However, while I am happy with this news on an intellectual level, I have to be honest that it does not affect me much personally. Many of the women I know - Catholic women included - are pro-choice... and pro birth control. I don’t know that these women would find forgiveness from the Church a crucial issue. My hope, though, is that this statement will provide healing and hope to women who do.”