Pope Francis’ latest announcement that priests can impart divine forgiveness for women who have had abortions will continue to confirm, for many, impressions of the pontiff as the herald of a kinder, more progressive church.
But while Francis is often positioned as a radical reformer, he’s not upending centuries of official moral doctrine. Rather, he’s preaching a very old message of mercy, one given new life by his humility and pastoral sensitivity. In the process, he’s enabling the church to do what few would ever expect it to do today: surprise people.
This latest announcement has, perhaps predictably, disappointed many who are keen on greater reform of Church doctrines. There’s been no change to the Vatican’s position on abortion as a “grave sin” that takes unborn life – in his letter announcing the amnesty Francis characterises it as “profoundly unjust“.
But in emphasising mercy and forgiveness, Francis is getting across the idea that God is less a legislator than a loving Father – or, as Jesus says of himself, the Great Physician who “has not come to heal the healthy, but the sick”.
As Mary Eberstadt, Senior Fellow of Washington DC’s Ethics and Public Policy Centre, wrote after Father Bergoglio ascended to the pontificate, this was a Pope who recognised that “in a world already blasted by sin, the church is first and foremost a field hospital for broken souls“.
This goes some way to explaining the Pope’s extension of the olive branch to those who have often felt marginalised by the Church. Francis’ disarming exclamation when quizzed by a reporter on gay priests – “who am I to judge?” – introduced a novel take on the issue expected of a church many regard as unbending in its condemnation of those with whom it disagrees.
This latest announcement turns Francis’ compassion to women. He wants them to know that he understands that for a great many of them, deciding to abort a child was both an “existential and moral ordeal” and an “agonising and painful decision”. And in case we think that Francis is the first Pope to show empathy on the issue, we should note that Pope John Paul II spoke in similarly compassionate terms to women 20 years ago in his Encyclical letter on human life, acknowledging that for many women “the wound in your heart may not yet have healed“.
Of course, this papal concern will not do for many for whom the morality of abortion must necessarily give way to a woman’s right over her own body. They could also point out, with some justification, that sympathising with women is a bit rich when some sections of the church have seemed uniquely concerned with the life within the womb without demonstrating an equally appropriate regard for the woman herself.
But there is a particular power in papal statements giving voice to the trauma abortion can involve and offering absolution to those who want it. This is especially the case in a society that, in the midst of efforts to support and uphold women’s reproductive choices, sometimes risks minimising the pain and grief women can feel in having an abortion – as well as the confronting reality of the moral choice involved.
One aspect of Francis’ announcement that could leave people feeling confused is the suggestion – perpetuated by the way media outlets have reported the story – that forgiveness is only available in the next year: more precisely, in the Jubilee year announced by the Vatican that will run from December 8 through to November 20, 2016.
Some of the language around the story has made it sound like this brief window of pardon will soon be open and then shut forever after, with excommunication the only option left for women who have had an abortion, or special clemency sought through a bishop rather than the local priest. But forgiveness has always been on offer – it’s just that the Year of Jubilee offers a symbolically rich opportunity in which to seek it.
You can read about the remarkably beautiful – even utopian – idea of Jubilee in the Old Testament book of Leviticus, but the gist of it is that release and a fresh start are available for everyone. The Jubilee Year resets the fortunes of all so that debts are cancelled, slaves are freed, and ancestral lands are returned to their original owners. The idea is that no one should be impoverished nor allowed to profit at the expense of others. Rather, relationships are restored and everyone is given the chance to rest, to experience comfort, mercy, and freedom in the assurance that God has settled everyone’s scores.
Jesus means that he embodies the promise of Jubilee; he is God’s ultimate declaration of amnesty for all wrongs ever committed.
But such jubilation, if you like, lasts only for a year – and one that rolls around once every 50 years. Which is why it is remarkable that when Jesus enters the scene he announces it is Jubilee – “the year of the Lord’s favour”. Freedom and release remain central but the liberation he has in mind is spiritual: the forgiveness of sins. Jesus means that he embodies the promise of Jubilee; he is God’s ultimate declaration of amnesty for all wrongs ever committed.
This biblical backstory explains Francis’s hope that this coming year of Jubilee would offer “a true moment of encounter with the mercy of God”, particularly to burdened women seeking release. It’s not a forgiveness bound by a calendar year, but one freely available to anyone anytime.
That Pope Francis should seek to reach those on the edges – the vulnerable, wounded and dispossessed – strikes some as unusual, but it really shouldn’t. He’s singing a very old tune of the gospel of grace – one whose beauty has at times been muffled, but which it will do many people good to hear afresh.
Justine Toh is Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity.
This article originally appeared at The Drum.