Pope Francis Saying Abortion Will Be Absolved By "Missionaries Of Mercy" Is More Confusing Than You Realized

The current pope, often considered something of a liberal pontiff for his stance on topics ranging from climate change to “trickle-down theories” of economics, has now confused matters even further by decreeing that priests will be able to absolve the “sin of a procured abortion” during the upcoming Holy Year. The Irish Times reported that Pope Francis’ statement effectively extends the powers of forgiveness for abortion from the Pope and his bishops (who usually hold this power) down to the Catholic Church’s “missionaries of mercy” — priests who visit dioceses and parishes over the Holy Year. The Holy Year will kick off Dec. 8, 2015, and run through Nov. 20, 2016.

The news seems to clash with Francis’ previous statements on abortion. Just last year, the pontiff called abortion a “sin against God” during an address that also denounced euthanasia and embryonic stem cell research as “a bad experiment.” His latest comment renders abortion, which he previously called “playing with life,” completely pardonable. Archbishop Rino Fisichella announced the new measure earlier this week, as he outlined the plan for the upcoming Holy Year — a global jubilee decreed recently by Francis, which seeks to promote his papacy’s focus on compassion and pardon, according to the National Catholic Reporter.

“The missionaries of mercy are priests sent out by the Holy Father at the beginning of Lent,” Fisichella explained. “The Pope is sending them out [to dioceses and parishes] as a tangible sign of how a priest should be a man of pardon, close to everyone...” Francis had already stated, in March’s papal bull announcing the Holy Year, that he would extend the powers of mercy to certain “reserved” sins that usually require the involvement of the pope, the Holy See, or local bishops to absolve.

Speaking with Italian news agency ANSA earlier this week, Fisichella said that the absolution would be available to women who had procured an abortion and to the doctors and health workers who had made the operation possible. By issuing this decree, Francis hopes to demonstrate “the Church’s maternal solicitude,” the Catholic Herald reported Fisichella as saying Tuesday. Priests imbued with the extraordinary power of absolution will be selected on the basis of their ability to preach well, particularly on the theme of mercy, and to accept confession without harshly judging the person confessing, the Herald reported.

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Some conservatives from within the establishment of the Catholic Church have reacted with thinly veiled disapproval to the news. Italian Cardinal Velasio De Paolis told national newspaper La Nazione that he was concerned the measure might cause confusion among the faithful. “Regardless of this decision by the Pope, the church will continue to consider abortion a sin. I hope it does not cause confusion,” he said.

Francis has previously come under fire from conservatives for his support for initiatives combating climate change, what critics consider a “far-left” stance on economics, his seeming endorsement of family planning, and his soft take on divorcees. He also shocked the world by saying he had no right to judge homosexuals. But De Paolis is correct: abortion will still be considered a sin, despite Francis’ measure. Church law currently stipulates that “reserved” sins such as abortion are punishable by excommunication, and Francis’ measure will merely allow women to be forgiven such a sin, thus saving them from the risk of excommunication.

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Critics have pointed out that Francis’ liberal comments are meaningless if he fails to alter the teachings of the institution he leads to reflect his opinions. An 2013 article by James Bloodworth published in British magazine New Statesman exhorted liberals to quit their lionization of Francis, disabusing readers of the pope’s “progressive” approach, and characterizing Francis' liberal comments as “a clever repackaging exercise.” “The issue is sin and the sin remains,” David Marr wrote in The Guardian in 2014, in response to the Vatican’s gesture of welcome to the lesbian and gay community. “So many beautiful commentaries have been written and so much optimism has been invested in Francis since he was elected pope,” Marr wrote.

But nothing he has said on this subject matters much until he goes to the window and declares — if indeed this is what he believes – that homosexuality is a commonplace of the human condition.
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In the measure allowing priests to absolve abortion, too, Francis is staying within the Church’s diktats while coming across as an enlightened and merciful leader. His priests, his “missionaries of mercy,” will be, he said, “above all, living signs of the Father’s readiness to welcome those in search of his pardon.” Yet that statement in itself requires that women feel the burden of their sin, and seek to off-load their guilt by confessing it. The Church’s official statements on the matter make clear that this is merely a temporary remission, not a rescindment, of abortion’s effectively unpardonable status.

According to The Washington Post, Holy Years generally occur every quarter of a century. Since the last one was held in 2000, under Pope John Paul II, the celebration of 2016 represents a special jubilee — one of only three ever to be held in the annals of the Catholic Church.

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