Earlier this month, Pope Francis announced that in the upcoming Holy Year of Mercy, which begins in December, he will grant priests the authority to absolve of sin any woman who has received an abortion and seeks penitence from the church.
His act of special forgiveness is illustrative of the Holy Father’s efforts to illuminate the true nature of the Roman Catholic Church as the merciful, welcoming institution it is.
But as with nearly every act committed and word spoken by the pope, his announcement was met first with confusion — among Catholics and non-Catholics alike — then with widespread misunderstanding and eventually with disappointment.
Some women who had already confessed their sin wondered if they’d been absolved. Then media reports suggested Francis’ declaration was a progressive move; or perhaps it was a signal of a forthcoming change in church doctrine.
It was neither. Priests in the U.S. have long received (by way of their bishops) the faculty to forgive grave sins like abortion by first removing the threat of ex-communication. And nothing about the pope’s written statement indicated any further or more copious action was to follow.
In fact, the pontiff’s letter reinforces the “gravity of the sin committed.”
Still, the reaction to this latest announcement was similar to that expressed by many in the wake of the pope’s speech on creation and evolution last year, when headlines heralded the church for finally recognizing evolution. (To be sure, evolution was not in dispute; it has long been part of church teaching that faith and science are compatible.)
But the news media seemed to indicate otherwise.
Similarly, in 2013 when Francis told a gaggle of reporters, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” in response to a query about gay members of the clergy, the public discourse erupted in euphoria on one side and concern on the other that the church was about to change its teaching on homosexuality.
And in another of Francis’ more controversial moves, he released an encyclical, which, among other things, impressed upon humans the importance of good stewardship of the planet.
Never mind that carefully woven into his lofty rhetoric and theological reasoning are repeated affirmations of the church’s teachings on the sanctity of life, the complementarity between the sexes and the profound nature of the union formed by traditional marriage.
“In fact,” as William Doino Jr. explained in the religious journal First Things, “Francis has an outstanding pro-life record and is a strong defender of Catholic teaching on marriage and human sexuality — so by any reasonable definition is a ‘cultural warrior.’ “
When church progressives realize his message does not part ways with the dogma of Rome, even if his words and approach are novel, disappointment often follows.
But as disenchanted as some Catholic progressives may be with what they perceive as the pope’s stalled efforts to liberalize the 2,000-year-old institution, conservatives within the faith have also expressed worry over some of the pope’s rhetoric and recent moves.
The fear feels justified, especially to those Catholics who are well-versed in (or are old enough to remember) the theological fissures that widened within the faith in the wake of Vatican II and continue to spark disagreement between traditionalists and progressives.
The pope’s recent decision to streamline the annulment process is a flashpoint for Catholic conservatives, as well. But those with authority on the subject have explained that the new policy does not reverse, amend or alter in any way the church’s teaching about marriage and Holy Communion.
And as writer John Allen suggests, Francis’ action may be an attempt to introduce compromise on the subject in advance of the Synod of Bishops on the Family, as a way to “create space” for other important topics to emerge.
As America prepares to receive Pope Francis this week with the commensurate crush of media coverage, if one is an admirer of the pontiff, don’t get caught up in the overreaction to things he might say; perhaps it’s better to savor his joyful spirit and maybe listen with one’s heart and not one’s politics.
Cynthia M. Allen is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Readers may send her email at email@example.com.