Catholics and abortion: Welcome to the 20th Century, Pope Francis –

The Jubilee Year starts on 8 December so anyone seeking absolution will have to wait a few months to be forgiven but, on the upside, they will have time to get their confession word-perfect.

Pope Francis arrives in Saint Peter's Square for his inaugural mass at the VaticanPope Francis arrives in Saint Peter’s Square for his inaugural mass at the Vatican  Photo: REUTERS

This papal announcement is, in Catholic terms, quite a big deal. Abortion, after all is a grave enough sin to warrant throwing a woman out of the church forever, putting her at risk of an eternity in Hell. Which is, whichever way you look at it, one hell of a punishment.

It is also to be welcomed. After all, what Pope Francis has done, even if only for a year, will bring the church into, if not the 21st century, at least as far as the late 20th century.

The move is prompted, we are told, by the Pope’s views on compassion and mercy. Announcing the rule relaxation, the pontiff said many women who seek an abortion do so because they “believe that they have no other option”, adding that he had “met so many women who bear in their heart the scar of this agonising and painful decision”.

Which sounds fine and compassionate indeed. But this move is very pragmatic too.

For as much as this Pope champions the divine quality of mercy, he is also the leader of a multi-billion pound, multinational organisation that needs to keep its international flock coming to church every week. A church which is wildly out of step with the thinking of many of its followers on issues like abortion will find that very difficult indeed.

Despite the official teachings of the church, even some staunchly Catholic countries now have laws allowing abortion, divorce and gay marriage, and the vast majority of Catholics around the world simply ignore the church’s teachings on issues like pre-marital sex and contraception.

For the Pope to offer forgiveness to women who have had abortions is perhaps more of a recognition of the realities of modern life than any fundamental change in church thinking.

After all, despite Pope Francis’s words, abortion still remains a sin in his eyes and a woman who has an abortion is still required to seek forgiveness for that wrongdoing – even if it was to terminate a disabled child destined to a painful and short life, or a child conceived as a result of rape or incest.

If the Pope really did accept that, for most women, an abortion is often the lesser of two evils, a horrible choice that they often regret for decades to come, then he would make two further policy changes as well.

First, he would not require women to seek forgiveness since, if he believes they are making an “agonising and painful decision” and not casually killing their unborn child as part of a “throw-away culture”, as he said last year, then they have done nothing for which they should atone.

And secondly, if the Pope would like to see – as I think we all would – fewer abortions, then he would end the Catholic Church’s ban on contraception; a policy which is responsible not only for the deaths of many mothers forced into pregnancy after pregnancy and many unwanted children, but also for countless needless deaths from Aids in sub-Saharan Africa.

The Jubilee Year (a major event in the Church that normally takes places every 25 years) ends on 26 November 2016.

No one is entirely sure what happens after that. Presumably women who have made the “agonising and painful decision” to abort their pregnancies will just have to wait another 25 years before they can be forgiven for their sins.

Or else they can just, you know, go to Hell.


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