The Pope and Abortion

For the next year, the pope will permit priests to offer forgiveness to women who have had abortions during a year of jubilee.

This is not a completely radical change. Certain confessors could already offer absolution. But this does signify a different sort of approach, one Pope Francis has been known for, prioritizing the pastoral to the doctrinal. It also lifts the other crucial part of Catholicism: the virtue of staying connected.

I’m not sure how many Catholics women will take advantage of this option: as Catholics for Choice remarked, Catholic women have been making alternative arrangements for some years now. After all, in some historically catholic countries, women do get abortions.

One may believe abortion is morally repugnant but should be safe and legal. A Catholic in a secular nation state might fall into such category (as might black Jewish, philosophers in the preceding link). I think such a view, while apparently contradictory, is practical and realistic. I am not of that school, but that is where I seek some mutual understanding with more devout Catholic or others who find the procedure itself signals something, in our culture at least, is wrong.

Unlike the liberal tradition, the Catholic one does not elevate choice as the highest moral good. Instead, in its deeply communitarian ethos, it understands persons as relational. It comes to it’s anti-abortion position not as the evangelcals do, but because the fundamental moral unit is never just a single person.

It is not a view that is particularly appealing in this age.

But it explains why the church holds both views that are anti-commerce and anti-abortion. Bodies, and their lives, should not be abandoned or sold, and abortion is one choice along many others that diminishes our shared life. They note also, that being pro-choice does not make one a feminist: patriarchy itself can elevate the abortion of fetuses, especially those of girls. That said, although these are arguments can sharpen the issues, in our broken world such decisions must remain medical decisions that women make with their doctors.

The pope’s move should be understood not as a change in the church’s view toward abortion, but a clarification of a pastor’s role. In this way it seems very Anglican. The benefit is that it seeks to diminish the shame and acknowledge the reality of women who make such choices.

This instruction should not, of course, be anything new to Anglicans. Our theology already tends to arise from the pastoral, the practical, and the liturgical. We can give thanks that the Pope has decided to take a cue from the Anglican playbook.

Simon Doonan Holds a Grudge: On the Proper Understanding of Forgiveness

Simon Doonan writes about the healing power of holding a grudge and challenges our “softy” culture.

I understand the sentiment.  Who doesn’t love a grudge?

Fortunately, his description of forgiveness is far from the church’s practice.   Forgiveness should not to diminish the worth of our own suffering, or to make us a nation of push-overs.  Forgiveness- or in the sacraments of the church, absolution – requires a depth of spirit.  For this reason, it is regulated.

Forgiveness cannot be demanded.  One cannot command someone to forgive, just as one cannot tell someone to “feel better.”  That’s emotional manipulation and blackmail.  The victim of a rape cannot be told to forgive; nor can the person’s mother forgive on the victim’s behalf.

Forgiveness also does not substitute for divine justice.  Liberal Christians may define hell all sorts of ways, but let us not forget what it’s there for.  It’s there so that we have a conceptual place for people who are certainly guilty of all sorts of crimes against humanity we cannot imagine doing ourselves, people obviously beyond our moral universe.  It’s there to say to the sociopaths among us that, even if the SEC won’t get you, God will.

For if Simon is saying, let’s us not abandon justice for the sake of forgiveness, he is perfectly right.

Fortunately, that’s not what tradition expects.

We don’t ask for forgiveness on behalf of other people.  If my friend gets murdered, I may ask God for forgiveness for my desire for revenge; but not for my murdered friend’s murderer.  And of course, I may choose instead to let God make whatever decisions about the murderer’s soul.  My hate can be my own.  I’ll let God do the hard work.

Nor should we forgive people who haven’t asked.  We forgive when people seriously and earnestly repent.  When they stop the excuses, the explaining, and recognize their fault and sin, THEN we can begin.  In these cases, the community of faithful people, through the church, may offer absolution.

This does not replace, of course, the demands of the law.

Certainly in the everyday work of living, we will get slighted and bruised.  These do not require forgiveness.  Instead, it is enough that a faithful person learn not to be offended, and to maintain one’s integrity in doing the work of life and seek the magnanimity and joy in life which we believe God wants for us.  An insult to me may merit indifference more than forgiveness.

The church believes in forgiveness, through the sacrament of confession, because it believes it forms a moral conscience, and it limits the damage victims also cause others harm.  We are rarely simply perpetrators or victims; we both cause harm and we receive it.  So t0 forgive has a task: to stop passing victimization along.

To forgive and absolve was handled carefully through the clergy class.   It was understood as a divine act, a gift, an opportunity to begin anew.  God is, by nature, terrifying, fearsome and jealous; the church could be alternately kind and merciful when the penitent came to his or her senses.  It was not meant to be casual or easy, but an opportunity to confirm a sense of right and wrong: a sense of order.

So although grudges are enjoyable, they are rarely helpful. They may have a place in our private imaginations, but they diminish our public life.  Our resentment may be full of error and misplaced pride as much as an expression of injustice.  Holding a grudge cannot replace restoring justice.  I share, for example, Simon’s outrage about the killing of elephants for ivory.  But I am not interested in either forgiveness or holding a grudge.  It should simply stop.  Now.

Our knowledge of goodness and sin are limited.  So we set limits to our behavior and to who has permission to forgive and absolve.  We believe, or hope, that there is eternal justice.  We know we may each be guilty; or vindicated.  But finally we will err on the side of mercy.

After my mother died, however, I ran into a famous poet who had been her mentor.  I’d discovered another time that he’d surreptitiously done great harm to her career.  When he discovered who I was, he said, “I always regretted not giving her the help she deserved.”

I told him to get a priest.