Any hopes women had of Pope Francis being a supporter of reproductive rights crumbled away on Saturday when the pontiff made an unusual — but decidedly conservative Catholic — stop on his five-day South Korea tour. During his trip to Kkottongnae to meet with clergy and lay people, Pope Francis visited a memorial for abortion victims, and yes, that's exactly what it sounds like. It's a grand yet definitive move for Francis, who has been trying to strike a balance between the Church's conservative and liberal members since he assumed the papacy in March 2013.
Called the "Cemetery for Aborted Children," the anti-abortion memorial is a field lined with white crosses symbolizing the souls of the unborn, and features a statue of the Holy Family — Mary, Joseph and Jesus. Located more than 100 miles south of Seoul, the memorial rests on the grounds of the Kkottongnae home for the sick and the disabled, according to The Boston Globe.
Accompanied by a clergy member representing South Korea's anti-abortion groups, the pontiff bowed his head and said a silent prayer while at the site. A member of the Kkottongnae community told The Globe that having the pope at the memorial is "a clear testimony of his defense of life."
It's true that Francis has espoused pro-life positions during his papal tenure, but the pontiff has also been something of an enigma, eschewing luxury cars and clothing and the old-school Latin Mass while upholding some of the Catholic Church's most stringent doctrine. (Abortion is outlawed in Catholicism, even when a woman's health is in danger.)
Francis, too, has so far seemed more concerned with the Catholic social issues of poverty, immigration reform and universal health care — so much so that Fox News recently declared a "War on Conservative Catholics," with Pope Francis as the oppressive leader. Francis, Fox News said, speaks and thinks "too much like Obama."
Francis has shown a gentler side on controversial social issues than his predecessors, even chastising his fellow clergy and the Catholic community for spending too much time preaching an anti-abortion and ant-gay agenda. In September 2013, Francis said in a now-infamous interview: "We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods."
But the pontiff may have given liberal Catholics, particularly women, a sense of false hope. He has dramatically shifted his tune since that September 2013 interview, calling the idea of abortion "horrific" and encouraging Catholic doctors not to perform them. "It is horrific even to think that there are children, victims of abortion, who will never see the light of day," Francis has said.
In April, Francis gave one of his strongest anti-abortion speeches yet, stating:
Abortion compounds the grief of many women who now carry with them deep physical and spiritual wounds after succumbing to the pressures of a secular culture which devalues God’s gift of sexuality and the right to life of the unborn.
Just two weeks before that speech, delivered to a group of African bishops, the pontiff derided abortion as an "unspeakable crime." Over the last year, these interviews reaffirming the Second Vatican Council and using Pope John Paul II's famous "culture of death" phrase have been a major blow to pro-choice Catholics who would like to see more plurality on the issue.
What's interesting to note about Francis, however, is his appeal to the modern world. With his visit to South Korea, the pope is looking to build a relationship with the nation's growing Catholic community, and this mission no doubt extends to the rest of the world.
In order to resonate with the global Catholic community, Francis may need to look at the statistics first: A 2014 Univision survey found that 57 percent of Catholics from around the world believe abortion should be legal in some cases. South Korea — where abortion has been outlawed since 1953 — has one of the highest abortion rates in the world. According to the Guttmacher Institute, if abortion were legalized in South Korea, the abortion rate would actually decline over time.
Aside from his stop to the abortion victims memorial, Francis was back in his old ways on Saturday when he delivered the homily at the beatification Mass of more than 120 South Korean martyrs. During his homily, Francis called for South Koreans to reject materialism, using the martyrs as examples. "They were willing to make great sacrifices and let themselves be stripped of whatever kept them from Christ — possessions and land, prestige and honor," Francis said.
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