In the years since his election, Pope Francis has appeared to soften the church’s historically punitive tone towards women who have had abortions. But one thing he hasn’t done is change traditional church doctrine on this complex and evolving issue. The message of the church is still the same ― that abortion is a grave sin.
Francis revealed some of this attitude during his weekly general audience on Wednesday.
In a wide-ranging sermon cautioning against worshipping idols like beauty, wealth, and power, Pope Francis slipped in a few thoughts that illustrated just how detached he may be from the realities of women’s lives.
He described a situation he said he’d heard about during his time in Argentina. It was about a woman whom he said had an abortion just to keep her figure.
“It’s terrible, it hurts the soul what I heard one time years ago in the diocese of Buenos Aires: a woman, a good woman, very, very beautiful and who bragged about her beauty, commented as if it were natural: ‘Yeah, I had to have an abortion because my figure is so important.’”
These attitudes “take you on the wrong path and they don’t bring you happiness.”
If these are the types of abortion stories Francis is hearing, it could mean that he hasn’t been listening hard enough to women who have had abortions.
Women obtain for abortions for a number of reasons ― to provide for the children they already have, because the fetus had life-threatening abnormalities, or because they simply aren’t ready to become a parent. For these women, the decision is never trivial. It’s never made lightly or frivolously, in the way that Francis suggested.
Tessa Maulhardt, a senior associate for the progressive advocacy group, Catholics for Choice, told The Huffington Post that it’s comments like this that show just how “out of touch” Francis and others at the Vatican are about women’s lived experiences.
“We know historically Pope Francis always had a blind spot when it comes to women. All of his brothers in the hierarchy have spent much of their lives as celibate men among other celibate men,” Maulhardt said. “He’s great on so many things, but he is pretty ignorant about women’s reality.”
In her work with grassroots partners around the world, Maulhardt said she’s discovered “the reality is that Catholic women throughout the world, including in Francis’ country of Argentina, have abortions.”
In the United States, studies show that Catholic women get abortions at about the same rate as all American women. About half of Catholics in America (54 percent) believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 42 percent say it should be illegal.
In the past, Francis has berated church officials for being too “obsessed” with culture war topics, like abortion. He’s also indefinitely extended priests’ ability to grant forgiveness for anyone involved in abortion, when previously, in many places in the world, that ability was restricted to bishops or special confessors.
But treating abortion as a sin has severe consequences for the women in Francis’ flock.
“What’s very concerning about this attitude is actually its influence on much of the Catholic hierarchy, who hold sway over many politicians in countries all over the world, and who can make it difficult for women to access safe and legal abortions,” Maulhardt said.
While many men and women she works with see Pope Francis’ pastoral approach as a “breath of fresh air,” Maulhardt said Catholics will continue making decisions about reproductive health that are best for them.
“Ultimately, [women] are going to make the decision on their own, based on their own consciences.”