Pope Francis has declared 2016 (December 8th – November 20th 2016) to be a Holy Year of Mercy, with the slogan, Merciful like the Father. Holy Years come around about every twenty five years and they represent a period of remission from the penal consequences of sin, granted under certain conditions. As part of this year of mercy the Pope has indicated in a pastoral letter that priests may absolve those who have had abortions, the condition being that they have a profound sorrow for their actions. Up until now it has not been possible for abortion to be forgiven (except in exceptional circumstances) as it is considered a grave or mortal sin.
Pope Francis said, “I am well aware of the pressure that has led them to this decision. I know that it is an existential and moral ordeal.” No doubt this is true but it seems to me that this directive raises as many questions as it answers.
The first question, of course is, “Does this change the church’s attitude towards abortion, and to those who seek abortion?” To which the answer from the Vatican is, “No.” Abortion remains a grave sin and the Roman Catholic Church remains implacably opposed to its use. So far, so consistent.
But now we start to discover the inconsistencies. The dispensation to forgive abortion applies only during the Holy Year. What, then, do we say to women after the end of that period? Or what do we say to all those women who have carried the pain of remaining unforgiven for years, perhaps decades? Are they to remain unforgiven? Are they to be treated differently? What is so special about this period of mercy? Are we to limit God’s mercy?
Let’s leave aside for a moment the issue of abortion and think about what it might mean to say that certain sins are unforgivable, while other sins can be forgiven. It does not seem to me that this is what Jesus believed or taught.
In the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s gospel Jesus says,
You have heard how it was said to our ancestors, You shall not kill; … But I say this to you, anyone who is angry with a brother will answer for it before the court; anyone who calls a brother, “Fool” will answer for it before the Sanhedrin; and anyone who calls him “Traitor” will answer for it in hell fire.
You have heard how it was said, You shall not commit adultery. But I say this to you, if a man looks at a woman lustfully, he has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
And again in the story of the woman taken in adultery (John 8.3-11) takes the same view – sin is sin and no distinction is to be made between one sin and another. Murder is no more sin than anger, and adultery is no more sin than lust. Jesus does not minimise the significance of sin but neither does he allow us to feel self-righteous about our own conduct nor to condemn someone else because we adjudge their sin to be more serious.
So – back to abortion. No one would want to suggest that abortion is, in a itself, a good thing. It is a surgical procedure and, as such, carries risk. It is a procedure of last resort. It is something that, in an ideal, perfect world would not exist. But this is not an ideal, perfect world. In this, as in so many other areas of human life, we have to deal with the messiness, the imperfections, the grey areas where there is no right answer, only wrong ones. Here judgement is most certainly not required. Pastoral support, love and care is what is required – and, where, necessary, forgiveness.
The judgement passed on women who undergo abortion brings shame on, not just the Roman Catholic Church, but many other Christians of all traditions.
My hope is that the experience of this Holy Year of mercy will lead us all to find that God’s mercy is unlimited and that he calls us to be similarly merciful.