Pod people: abortion, confession, absolution

On this week’s Crossroads, host Todd Wilken and I talked about media coverage of Rick Perry’s appeal to evangelicals, the role of religion in the U.K. riots and World Youth Day.

It’s interesting to watch how unhinged media types get when dealing with an evangelical politician, but it’s also somewhat wearying, isn’t it? No matter your views or preferences? Will they have the energy to keep up with these attacks through 2012 on all of the evangelicals in the race? Are they shooting their wad too early? I guess we’ll have many long months to look at those questions in depth.

World Youth Day coverage, on the other hand, continues to be weak. I thought Dan, a commenter to our previous post put it well:

What strikes me is the complete disinterest in the content of the event. What might Pope Benedict be planning to say to the youth? What themes will he be developing? What is his goal? Why do so many young people want to hear him, and what is the sociological profile of these young people?

As reported by the secular press, it as though 1.5 million people were descending on Madrid for no discernible reason other than to hold a pep rally for the Pope. No wonder then that the focus is on the nuisance and the cost. For those who lack any interest in, or ability to understand, what the event is about, it must indeed seem like nothing more than a money-wasting nuisance.

Reporters may not have been interested in telling a story about more than one million young people descending on Madrid (it does run counter to the narrative, I guess), but some did pick up the story about the Cardinal Archbishop of Madrid granting all the priests attending the event the special power to lift excommunication and grant absolution to those who confess abortion. Unfortunately, I’m not sure how well that story was told.

The Guardian‘s subhed was:

Pope dangles ‘fruits of divine grace’ to excommunicated Catholics who admit, during Madrid event, to terminations

Now, when I first heard this abortion/excommunication story, I was sure it was wrong. If a Lutheran confesses to having procured an abortion or any other sin of which we’re repentant, the pastor doesn’t need special permission to absolve us. I spoke to a few canon lawyers and they explained that this is not the way it works in Catholicism. In that church, not all priests may absolve an abortion with its automatic excommunication. Some priests do have that power but if a person goes to one that doesn’t, that priest has to go back and get permission to lift the excommunication. When the penitent comes back, he or she is absolved then.

The Guardian actually explains this briefly by quoting Father Lombardi:

“Normally, only certain priests have the power to lift such an excommunication, but the local diocese has decided to give all the priests taking confession at the event this power,” said the pope’s spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi.

That part is handled fine, although I would love to know if my suspicions about why Catholics handle it this way are true. We need more information. But check out this paragraph:

At a time when church attendances in Europe are dipping Lombardi denied the deal on abortion had been dreamed up to attract waverers back to the church. “With so many young people attending there may be those who have had problems of this kind and it makes sense to reach out to them.”

The language is so bizarre — “denied,” “deal,” dreamed up” — come on! (And yes, some Catholics are crying foul at the general coverage.)

Let us know if you see any particularly good or bad coverage of the remainder of World Youth Day. It’s bound to improve, right?

As for the podcast, we also discussed a good example of media coverage from this week — the way in which British outlets recognized the role Islam played in one father coping with his son’s death from the riots there.

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  • Julia

    The New York Times finally cites a Spanish official as saying the World Youth Day event will generate funds for the Spanish economy – in the very last sentence.

    On Wednesday, José Blanco, spokesman for the government and one of Mr. Zapatero’s most senior ministers, added his support, saying that the government’s calculations showed that the event would yield a financial benefit for the Spanish economy.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/19/world/europe/19pope.html

  • Jeffrey

    I don’t fund the coverage of Evangelical politicians wearying. These are politicians whose Evangelical faiths shape their politics. Their messages are geared to appeal to that wing ox the GOP. So when they say they support creationism or gay conversion therapy, that’s a significant political position geared towards certain policy positions. I want the media to ask these questions about politicians and what shapes their policies and not be deterred by critics who are trying to portray Evangelical politicians as victims of the mean media.

  • Hector

    I would imagine the rationale for the priests forgiving abortion is something like this:

    1) World Youth Day is a joyous and holy occasion (at least, for Roman Catholics).
    2) Joyous and holy occasions have, for thousands of years, been associated with judicial displays of superabundant, spontaneous and gratuitous mercy. That’s why the first-century Jews had the custom of releasing a prisoner at the Passover, why Christian societies have often released prisoners at Christmas, and so forth.

    I don’t think it’s really any more complicated than that, but when it comes to the New York Times and Christians, you can always count of them to device a devious explenation.

  • Hector

    BTW, is confession a sacrament in Lutheranism? Just curious.

  • Jerry

    It’s interesting to watch how unhinged media types get when dealing with an evangelical politician, but it’s also somewhat wearying, isn’t it?

    Diane Dimond’s piece on HuffPo “Praying Is Not A Crime” is the most sensible perspective on Perry I’ve read so far:

    This column is not about politics or religion. It is about common sense and the right of every citizen in America to pray when and where they want without criticism. Yep, even politicians.

    Governor Perry is a lifelong Christian. He’s never made a secret of that and in fact he’s long worn his religion on his sleeve for all to see…

    There is absolutely nothing in the law that says he must keep his beliefs to himself.

    I don’t know about you but I don’t want a homogenized and pasteurized politician who aims to please everyone with politically correct dogma and doesn’t have a sense of awe about our place in the universe. I don’t want an office holder who doesn’t publicly express his/her most deeply held beliefs because I want to know the character of the person I might vote for.

  • Curmudgeon

    As a side note, most dioceses in the United States, if not all, regularly give the faculties needed to absolve for abortion and lift the excommunication to every priest. However, the bishop decides that. And in the Archdiocese of Madrid, that faculty might already be given to every priest as well.

    What the Archbishop did was extend that faculty to the priests visiting/attending World Youth Day. Even if one has faculties in one’s home diocese, these don’t ‘travel.’ (For example, a priest who is visiting has to have the permission of the pastor to witness a wedding in that parish. All of this is granted as a matter of course.)

    Landing on this as some sort of unusual ‘carrot’ is where the coverage went wrong. My experience has been that no one in the hierarchy wants to make it difficult for anyone to be reconciled with the church. What sense would that make? On any level?

  • http://www.devinetoursrome.com Charles Collins

    I do think there are some good questions to ask, which Mollie touched on, which is why certain sins carry the automatic sentence of excommunication.

    In reality, all priests technically have the power to absolve the sin of abortion, what they don’t have is the power to lift the censure that occurs because of the excommunication (the excommunicated cannot receive Sacraments until the censure is removed). Some of these censures are reserved to the local ordinary, some to the Holy See (for example, breaking the seal of confession).

    I am interested in why most English-speaking jurisdictions delegate this ability to lift the excommunication to every priest, and Spanish dioceses (at least Madrid) do not. Is it because abortion was, until recently, illegal in Spain? What are the theological and pastoral reasons for having a penitent be told to “come back tomorrow”?

    There is an informative, and, hopefully, interesting piece on the topic which could have been written, if the impulse to kneejerk Catholic-bash could be avoided.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    Luther’s two Catechisms, included in the Book of Concord which is supposed to be the foundational Lutheran doctrinal standard, have a great deal to say about the benefits of confession.

    Whether any contemporary Lutheran bodies practice auricular confession (better make that ROUTINELY practice), I can not say.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    If you want to know what the pope said, go to the source, or check out the ubiquitous Rocco. He provides the texts of several addresses and a link I would think a reporter would find helpful, giving, as it does, an overview of past World Youth Days.

    I really like Rocco, but he did come up with one blooper:

    As of press time, no indication emerged of how many confessions the Pope will actually get to conduct.

    On the other hand, he does come up with a good term for the event: popestock. :-)

  • Hector

    Re: Whether any contemporary Lutheran bodies practice auricular confession (better make that ROUTINELY practice), I can not say.

    For that matter, not enough Anglicans or (I’m told) Roman Catholics practice auricular confession enough nowadays, so that’s nothing unusual. (I have no idea how much it’s used among the Orthodox).

    I was asking because I’ve heard conflicting things about whether Lutherans recognize two sacraments or three, so I was curious what the truth might be (or if Lutherans are divided on the matter).

  • MJBubba

    Well, Lutherans do not all speak with one voice. Individual confession is all too rare, except in a minority of parishes where it is making an amazing comeback. Almost every worship service in the confessional churches (LCMS, WELS) begins with a service of corporate confession and absolution. That is less common in the ELCA churches. Our catechetical training has quite a lot to say about the grace that is poured out through confession and absolution, but we do not name Confession as a sacrament. This is because we keep our definition of “sacrament” clearly focused on Baptism and the Eucharist. The way that God the Holy Spirit uses the water, bread and wine as physical “means of grace” sets them apart in our theology.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Lutherans retain the practice of individual confession and absolution. It’s practice varies, however. We also do corporate confession. In my congregation, individual absolution is offered regularly and also by appointment and our pastor preached about confession and absolution just today.


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