Abortion and Mercy: Responses to Pope Francis’s Remarks

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What did Pope Francis say Tuesday in his statement about abortion and mercy? Is it any different from what the Church has always taught? National Review Online consults experts in theology, medicine, and post-abortion ministry.


Kathleen Beckman

The pope knows that abortion is serious. He understands that many women are struggling with the aftermath of their decision (sometimes made under extreme duress), especially in light of recent videos that reveal the truth about abortion. The Church has always loved the sinner and abhorred the sin. And in a letter yesterday, the Vicar of Christ acted as did the Father of the Prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). He reached out with merciful arms to those who have “resorted to abortion” and offered the sacramental opportunity for reconciliation for “one who has repented,” and “approaches the Sacrament of Confession.” Pope Francis is counting on, and inviting the Catholic clergy to welcome back the contrite, hurting mothers and to help them understand not only the gravity of their action, but also the infinitude of divine mercy so that genuine healing and conversion can occur. Some of the greatest defenders of life in this present age are post-abortive women who are authentic witnesses. What is unique is that the pope “conceded to all priests for the Jubilee Year the discretion to absolve the sin of abortion for those who seek forgiveness.” In granting to all priests special authority to forgive the sin of abortion for the duration of the Jubilee, Christ’s Vicar has opened up the floodgates of healing mercy for countless women who have been wounded by the abortion industry. The upcoming Year of Mercy is a unique opportunity calling forth special grace. A good confession and a good confessor can start the life-changing healing process for many women.

Kathleen Beckman is president of the Foundation of Prayer for Priests and author of Praying for Priests.


Matthew Bunson

Pope Francis has extended to women who have procured abortions — and those who have assisted them — an opportunity in the Jubilee Year of Mercy to find yet another means of encountering God’s forgiveness and merciful love.

In a society in which tens of millions of children have died through abortion, Francis is saying that the Church is aware of the grievous actions that have been committed, but the Church is also inviting women to heal the devastating wounds caused by the sin in the lives of so many. The pontiff wrote in his letter, “I am well aware of the pressure that has led them to this decision. I know that it is an existential and moral ordeal. I have met so many women who bear in their heart the scar of this agonizing and painful decision.” This echoes his pastoral outreach to women in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”), in which he wrote, “We have done little to adequately accompany women in very difficult situations, where abortion appears as a quick solution to their profound anguish.”

His action is a powerful gesture of encouragement that does not water down the Church’s teachings on abortion but reflects what the Church has always proclaimed: No one is outside the boundaries of God’s love and forgiveness if we ask Him with a humble and contrite heart. The mechanism for forgiveness, even for abortion, has always been present, but now Francis is making it possible for priests everywhere to have the faculties to forgive those who have had an abortion throughout the Jubilee Year.

He is opening the doors of mercy very wide. In the Year of Mercy that begins in December, it is a door for all of us, if we are willing to take the first steps. 

— Matthew Bunson is senior correspondent for Our Sunday Visitor and faculty chair at the Catholic Distance University.


Father Christopher Collins

Pope Francis on Tuesday announced a decision by his authority as Supreme Pontiff “to concede to all priests for the Jubilee Year the discretion to absolve of the sin of abortion those who have procured it and who, with contrite heart, seek forgiveness for it.” This is consistent with the principle of subsidiarity extending the faculty or power to priests throughout the world to forgive the sin of abortion. The Church teaching remains consistent that abortion not only unjustly destroys the life of an unborn child but also brings severe spiritual, emotional, and psychological pain and suffering to women, the fathers who lose their unborn children, and those in the medical profession who are complicit in such destruction of innocent human life. The injustice of abortion is not in the least called into question by Pope Francis’s action. But the prophetic stance against this injustice is complemented in the Church’s pastoral practice by offering the even greater mercy of God in the sacramental life of the Church, providing an immediate way back into union with Christ and his Church for those who have been wounded by abortion in a variety of ways. In the Church’s law, the ability to forgive this sin is reserved to the bishop and, when the bishops choose they can to extend that power to their priests. It is already the case that in most American dioceses, bishops have made this delegation for years. It is not so in many other parts of the world. So with this action, the pope extends the application of mercy in these cases that is already commonplace in the Church in America. This of course is consistent with Francis’s call to priests and all the faithful to “go out of ourselves,” into the peripheries and into the places of great pain and suffering and to bring the mercy of God where it is most needed.

— Christopher S. Collins, S.J., is assistant professor of systematic theology at St. Louis University and author of Three Moments of the Day: Praying with the Heart of Jesus and  The Word Made Love: The Dialogical Theology of Joseph Ratzinger / Benedict XVI.


Father Roger J. Landry

Pope Francis’s action Tuesday changes very little if anything for priests and faithful, especially in the United States, but hopefully it inspires many who have had abortions or helped or encouraged others to have them to come forward to receive God’s mercy. 

The reason why it changes very little is two-fold.

First, most priests in the U.S. already have through their bishops what Pope Francis is extending to priests throughout the world: the faculty to lift the canonical penalty of excommunication from those who have had an abortion or have closely cooperated in another’s abortion, aware that such an action bears the canonical penalty of automatic excommunication.

Second, very few people who have an abortion or closely cooperate in someone’s having one incur the penalty of automatic excommunication. 

A little background in canon law might be helpful to understand more fully those reasons.

If someone has incurred the penalty of automatic excommunication for the sin of abortion, before a priest can absolve that sin and all other sins, that penalty (censure) would have to be lifted. If his bishop hadn’t given him the faculty to do so, then if someone confesses the sin of abortion, he would need to figure out whether the excommunication had been incurred. If it had been, then — outside of a danger-of-death situation in which every priest has the ability to absolve of necessary censures to make absolution possible — the priest would need to ask the person to return to the confessional at a later time while he requests permission from the bishop to lift the censure so that he could then absolve the sin. A priest is trained to ask this permission in a way totally protecting the identity of the penitent if he himself even knows the penitent’s identity.

A priest occasionally has to ask for similar permission from the Vatican’s Apostolic Penitentiary for other sins so grave they likewise incur automatic penalties, like the desecration of the Eucharist, or the less frequent occurrences of someone’s trying physically to attack the Holy Father, a priest’s breaking the seal of confession or attempting to absolve an accomplice in a sin against the Sixth Commandment, or a bishop’s having ordained someone a bishop without a papal mandate.

Once a priest receives the necessary permission to absolve the censure, he can do so in the confessional and then absolve the sin. 

It’s rare, however, that someone who has had an abortion or cooperated closely in another’s having had one would have actually incurred the automatic excommunication, because one of the conditions for incurring it is that the person needs to be aware of the penalty before committing the sin, and, frankly, few are. Most have awareness of the sinful quality of abortion, but few are conscious of a corresponding canonical penalty. 

So even in dioceses and countries where the local bishops haven’t extended to priests their episcopal faculty to absolve the censure of abortion, most priests would already be able to give absolution to those who have had abortions since few — because of their ignorance of canonical penalty of automatic excommunication – would have incurred it.   

Hopefully the media’s attention to Pope Francis’s universally extending this faculty to the priests of the world for the Jubilee Year of Mercy will help people grasp better the sinful nature of abortion — which he wrote about movingly and forthrightly in his letter announcing the extension of the faculty — but also the greatness of God’s will to forgive, for His loving mercy is always greater than our sinful misery. Heaven rejoices more for one sinner who repents, Jesus emphasized, and hopefully many of those who carry the wounds of the sin of abortion will hear the pope’s appeal, respond to it, and come through the Sacrament of Reconciliation to experience a little of heaven’s greatest joy. 

Roger J. Landry is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Mass., who works for the Holy See’s Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations and is national chaplain for Catholic Voices USA. 


Father Joseph Koterski 

What does the Catholic Church say to people who have participated in abortions? The clear and simple message is that God’s mercy and forgiveness is always available for those who repent, even in the case of grave wrongs.

One of the most precious gifts that Christ gave to His Church is the power to forgive sins. This gift pertains to sins great and small. What is required is that we acknowledge the sin and be sorry for it. The normal way that the Church uses is the sacrament of penance. We confess our sins to a priest, and through him we receive absolution and counsel. For most sins, there are no prescribed penalties, but the priest will assign us a penance as a sign of our contrition and our commitment to mend our ways. There is no sin that cannot be forgiven in this way.

In recognition of the fact that some sins are especially grave, however, canon law imposes automatic penalties such as excommunication on certain kinds of sin. The law also puts restrictions on who has the power to remove these penalties. What Pope Francis did Tuesday is to make it possible for any priest already authorized to hear confessions to remove the automatic excommunication for someone who repents of having incurred this penalty by knowingly choosing to commit such a grave sin as abortion.

What sort of sins are regarded as this grave? Some pertain to our faith: apostasy, heresy, schism. Some pertain to acts of violence: the desecration of the Eucharist, a physical attack on the pope, abortion. Interestingly, some are sins that only a priest or a bishop could possibly commit: bestowing absolution on an accomplice in a sin against the Sixth Commandment, the unauthorized ordination of a bishop, a violation by a confessor of the seal of confession.

It is thus a rather short list, and one that includes only grave wrongdoing. What puts procured abortion on the list is that it is a deliberate taking of the innocent life of a human being at its most vulnerable stage of development. While nothing can ever make doing so right, the Church is ever eager to reconcile anyone who is willing to repent, for the mercy of God is without limit.

Joseph W. Koterski, S.J., is associate professor of philosophy at Fordham University and editor-in-chief of the International Philosophical Quarterly.


George Mussalli

As an Ob/Gyn physician, I have had so many patients who have had abortions. Regardless of their religious beliefs, non-beliefs, or political party, it has been my experience that women feel sad, guilty, and remorseful about their abortions. I can see in the course of caring for them that their abortion weighs heavily on them. What we recognize as a therapeutic approach to a traumatic event in medical practice is well aligned with the response of the Catholic Church to women who have suffered an abortion. An open discussion of thoughts and feelings about the abortion (examination of conscience and confession). A grieving for the decision and the consequences of the decision to abort (penance). Arriving at a place of acceptance and peace where one has the possibility of living unburdened (forgiveness and reconciliation). So the Catholic Church embraces and supports the woman who has suffered an abortion. She has an avenue to achieve true healing through forgiveness.

George Mussalli, a former chairman of obstetrics and gynecology at the legendary St. Vincent’s Hospital, now runs Village Obstetrics in New York.


Anne Nolte

Many women who have had abortions deeply and painfully regret their decision. When I ask women in my medical practice how they feel about a past abortion, the majority report deep feelings of regret, emotional pain, and loss but say they felt like they “had no other choice.” Women who have had abortions are also victims of abortion.

A woman facing an unplanned pregnancy enters into a state of “crisis” — her world has been turned upside down, and she does not know what the future holds. With most crises that we face in life, time passes and our emotional and psychological state calms down, allowing us to think clearly about our situation and make decisions based on what we really want in a given situation. The unfortunate situation for women facing an unplanned pregnancy is that they often are not given the time to let their emotions settle down before making a decision. Instead, while in this state of crisis and fueled by a sense of panic, they end up in a doctor’s office with a medical professional telling them how simple it is to “just make all of this go away” by taking a pill or having a procedure that ends their “unwanted” pregnancy. Many women make a decision on impulse, hoping to get rid of their feelings of panic and anxiety, only to later question, regret, and mourn the choice they made once their emotions begin to calm down. Those who are religious speak of feeling like they committed “the unforgivable sin.”

The Catholic Church has always taught of the inexhaustible mercy of God and the profound love of Jesus Christ, who took all of our sins, even the deepest and darkest, with Him onto the cross. But those of us who make up the Body of Christ in the world today sometimes forget as we fight, as we should, for justice for the unborn that in our midst are many, many women who are suffering from a past abortion decision — and our words and actions have the potential to wound them deeply and drive them away from Jesus, whose mercy is the only source of healing for their wounds. 

By declaring 2016 a Jubilee Year of Mercy, Pope Francis has yet again called us back to the most fundamental of principles of our Christian faith — to be as Christ would be and love as Christ loves – so that when speaking about abortion as we try to bring about cultural change, we do so always bearing in mind the words of Isaiah – “a bruised reed he did not break.” Lord, help us all to be more loving to our neighbors, particularly those women and men struggling to forgive themselves for a past abortion.

— Anne Nolte is founder and director of the National Gianna Center for Women’s Health and Fertility.


C.C. Pecknold

In the recent revelations about Planned Parenthood, we have all been horrified at the callousness of the human heart toward America’s secret Holocaust. Every heart should be shaken, every person moved by the horror and weight of this terrible sin upon us. As we watch the videos, many of us might not be aware of how personally this affects millions of women, millions of mothers whose own souls have been “war torn” by the scourge of abortion.

Abortionists call the baby’s head a “calvarium,” or skull in Latin. In this way, every aborted baby points us to Christ our head, crowned with thorns. As Pope Francis says, “every child not allowed to be born, but unjustly condemned to be aborted, has the face of Jesus Christ.” It’s understandable, then, that people would want to look away from the horror and weight of this terrible sin of abortion. As he stressed in his Jubilee statement, “the tragedy of abortion is experienced by some superficially, as if not realizing the extreme harm that such an act entails.”

In the wake of these videos, many have looked to Pope Francis and have asked what he would say, and Tuesday he announced that this Year of Jubilee will stress the readiness of priests to absolve those who have participated in the sin of abortion. The videos are painful to watch, they weigh us down with the knowledge of our sins, but the Holy Father wants to raise our eyes to the truth that these sins can be forgiven! As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “The human heart is converted by looking upon Him whom our sins have pierced.”

To all those whose hearts ache from the sin of abortion, Pope Francis wants to say, “Be courageous, go to confession!” There is hope after the sin of abortion, just as there is hope for all of us whose hearts have been scourged by sin. To be a Christian is to confess, “I am a sinner.” And confession is simply telling the truth about ourselves before God. What’s both dreadful and thrilling about confession is that we become our own prosecutors, and God hears our case. Weighed down by our sins, aware of the damage they do, our hearts are contrite, and we suddenly hear something amazing breaking through the screen: Through a priest of Jesus Christ we hear words flowing from Calvary: holy words of forgiveness, divine grace and mercy flow into our souls so that our contrite hearts can be raised to new life for friendship with God and our neighbor. This is the Jubilee of Mercy that Pope Francis proclaims.

— C.C. Pecknold is associate professor of theology at The Catholic University of America’s School of Theology & Religious Studies.


Vicki Thorn

It is fitting that Pope Francis’s message on abortion is part of the message of the Year of Mercy, because millions of women around the world have experienced abortion, and millions of men have been impacted.

The question of forgiving abortion and extending God’s mercy is not new. Saint John Paul II addressed it in The Gospel of Life, and Pope Benedict addressed it in “Oil on the Wounds.” What Pope Francis has done is to take the next step. Here in the U.S., where Project Rachel, which is a post-abortion healing ministry of the Church, has been implemented over the past 31 years, most priests have been given general faculties to forgive the sin of abortion. The Church has been ministering to women and men who come seeking aid for many years.

It is not true that in other countries this has been the case. The Holy Father has opened the door of mercy in a new and profound way. Indeed we need to be the field hospital for those who are the walking wounded. The priest confessors will be there to walk with those who are seeking forgiveness and mercy.

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