Pope Francis, Abortion and Empathy

It has only been two days since the international news media broke the story that, during the upcoming Jubilee Year, Pope Francis will grant Catholic priests permission to forgive women who have had abortions and physicians who have carried them out. This news is already making many waves throughout the Church and beyond. Pro-choice Catholics and the liberal secular media are rejoicing at this news while arguing that it does not go far enough to change the Church’s stance on women. Meanwhile, some pro-life Catholics are already expressing the concern that this decision, while making no change whatsoever to Church doctrine, is a dangerous concession to secular values.

However, a closer look at Francis’s words reveal that as usual, his message is likely to be misconstrued by liberals and conservatives alike. Pro-life Catholics need not fear, as Francis is making no changes whatsoever to the Church’s official stance. However, he is giving us with a serious challenge in reminding us to live out our Christian summons to be a sign of Jesus’ love in the world. We are called to act with mercy rather than judgment, compassion rather than harshness, empathy rather than self-righteousness. As Francis states in “Misericordiae Vultus: Bull of Indiction of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy,”

10. Mercy is the very foundation of the Church’s life. All of her pastoral activity should be caught up in the tenderness she makes present to believers; nothing in her preaching and in her witness to the world can be lacking in mercy. The Church’s very credibility is seen in how she shows merciful and compassionate love. The Church “has an endless desire to show mercy”. Perhaps we have long since forgotten how to show and live the way of mercy. The temptation, on the one hand, to focus exclusively on justice made us forget that this is only the first, albeit necessary and indispensable step. But the Church needs to go beyond and strive for a higher and more important goal. On the other hand, sad to say, we must admit that the practice of mercy is waning in the wider culture. In some cases the word seems to have dropped out of use. However, without a witness to mercy, life becomes fruitless and sterile, as if sequestered in a barren desert. The time has come for the Church to take up the joyful call to mercy once more. It is time to return to the basics and to bear the weaknesses and struggles of our brothers and sisters. Mercy is the force that reawakens us to new life and instils in us the courage to look to the future with hope.

The practice of mercy is not easy. At the personal level, we struggle to forgive one another for both real and perceived wrongs. Siblings hold grudges that last for years; friendships and relationships are severed over conflicting values; many of us struggle to let go of old resentments. At the societal level, shame and blame are rampant; any public figure discovered to have cheated on a spouse or embezzled money is vilified and scorned. (The infamous Monica Lewinsky recently gave a very thoughtful lecture on this topic). Our political beliefs – no matter which way they lean – give us plenty of opportunities to indulge in self-righteous moral indignation toward a perceived other whom we imbue with all of the characteristics we despise in ourselves. All in all, mercy is a much harder .task than judgment.

For me, it is an interesting coincidence that this message from Pope Francis came right during my first week of school. I am very interested in the topic of empathy and have decided to make it the theme of the introductory literature classes I’m teaching this semester. For today’s class my students read the title essay of nonfiction writer Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams, in which the author narrates her experience as a medical actor:

My job title is Medical Actor, which means I play sick. I get paid by the hour. Medical students guess my maladies. I’m called a Standardized Patient, which means I act toward the norms of my disorders. I’m standardized-lingo SP for short. I’m fluent in the symptoms of preeclampsia and asthma and appendicitis. I play a mom whose baby has blue lips.

Medical acting works like this: you get a script and a paper gown. You get $13.50 an hour. Our scripts are ten to twelve pages long. They outline what’s wrong with us—not just what hurts but how to express it. They tell us how much to give away, and when. We are supposed to unfurl the answers according to specific protocols. The scripts dig deep into our fictive lives: the ages of our children and the diseases of our parents, the names of our husbands’ real-estate and graphic-design firms, the amount of weight we’ve lost in the past year, the amount of alcohol we drink each week.

As the essay progresses, Jamison alternates between discussing her work as a medical actor and her own experience as a medical patient. Presenting her own case as that of one of her fictitious patients, she narrates a time when, at age 25, she had an abortion and a heart surgery one month apart. With striking honesty, poignancy and traces of humour, Jamison narrates the complex array of emotions she experienced undergoing both of these medical procedures: confidence in her decision to go through with the abortion, guilt over her lack of attachment to her unborn child, resentment toward her partner for his limited empathy, frustration at the cold demeanour of her cardiologist when she seeks to discuss the recent abortion, and, above all else, a desire to be understood and validated. She expresses a deep desire for mercy.

As the daughter of a staunch pro-life activist, I can understand why some Catholics will be alarmed by our pope’s call for mercy for the perpetrators of abortion. For me, abortion is nothing less than the taking of an innocent life. When I read Jamison’s piece (and I recommend you do so as well – it is wonderfully well-written), my first reaction was one of judgment rather than mercy. I was struck with the temptation to dismiss the young Jamison, who wilfully chose to have an abortion, as irresponsible at best… and callous at worst.

However, as I read the story a second time, I suddenly remembered a moment from my freshman year of high school, when I stepped into my high school cafeteria with a pro-life button pinned to my dress. “Oh come on, Jeannine,” said a classmate who would eventually come to be one of my closest friends, though I could never have predicted it as she rolled her eyes sardonically at me. “If you got pregnant, what would YOU do?”

My spine recoiled at the very suggestion that I was capable of becoming pregnant. At fourteen, I saw sex and pregnancy the same way I saw death – as too far in my future to be true. Raised in a loving, protective family, I knew nothing of abusive stepfathers or adolescent prostitutes; I naively believed rape to be a rare phenomenon rather than a routine occurrence. The idea of my becoming pregnant in any context other than a stable, sacramental marriage far in my future seemed an absolute impossibility. My friend’s jarring question stopped me dead in my tracks: what would I do if I became pregnant at fourteen? The sheer possibility of an unwanted pregnancy terrified me…and now, half a lifetime later, it still does. Because, while I hope that I would do the right thing, I cannot be completely sure that I would, no matter what, in all circumstances. And, no matter what decision I made, I would hope to be treated with mercy – even if both I and the people around me knew that what I’d done was wrong.

This is the message that Pope Francis is seeking to convey in “Misericordiae Vultus.” It is possible to show mercy toward others without compromising one’s stance on right and wrong. It is possible to recognize that we are all fragile, vulnerable sinners, falling again and again into wrongdoing, constantly needing to turn to God for forgiveness. At some point in our lives, each and every one of us is doomed to fall short of our own moral values, to cause serious harm to ourselves and others, to look in the mirror and see our worst self. But, as Pope Francis reminds us, the healing grace of Christ is always present to call us home. And just as we are shown mercy, we must show mercy to others. As Francis says,

2. We need constantly to contemplate the mystery of mercy. It is a wellspring of joy, serenity, and peace. Our salvation depends on it. Mercy: the word reveals the very mystery of the Most Holy Trinity. Mercy: the ultimate and supreme act by which God comes to meet us. Mercy: the fundamental law that dwells in the heart of every person who looks sincerely into the eyes of his brothers and sisters on the path of life.

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  • Tanco

    Pope Francis’s bull is a masterstroke. We must reflect on our feeble and fallible communication of the Lord’s superabundant mercy to women who have confided in us that they have had abortions. As you write jeanninemariedymphna,

    It is possible to show mercy toward others without compromising one’s stance on right and wrong. It is possible to recognize that we are all fragile, vulnerable sinners, falling again and again into wrongdoing, constantly needing to turn to God for forgiveness.


    Yet, a woman who has had an abortion will not always accept the invitation of the Lord of the Sacred Heart and his infinite mercy. If she has been raised Catholic, she may choose to not attend Mass again. She might even display overt hostility towards “Catholicism”. Often the only “Catholicism” which peri- and post-abortion women see is activists shouting rosaries and waving placards across the legal barrier line. Some protesters even engage in harassment of women and escorts walking into the abortion clinic in what some might consider as a last-ditch attempt to dissuade a women from an abortion. Are these men and women truly the face of Christ? Or, do they merely further alienate a woman who, at this very moment in time, is mistakenly resolved that abortion is the solution to her problems?

    We the devout know that abortion is never the solution. Yet still, no amount of screaming or demonstrating will hasten the grace of Christ’s Heart. The act of showing mercy and loving-kindness sometimes must take place after the deed. It is there where the faithful can reflect a heartfelt faith or display the self-anointed indignation of works-righteousness.

  • brian martin

    My understanding is that priests here in the USA already have the power to forgive this sin.

  • Roger

    There’s no such thing as a “pro-choice” catholic. They are mutually exclusive. You can’t be considered Catholic if you are pro-choice. Its that simple.

    • Tanco

      Roger, I agree with you that one cannot be Catholic and pro-choice (ie. believe that the act of abortion is morally licit.) Abortion is never licit.

      However, some caution is in order. This is especially important when a woman who has had an abortion, and seeks healing from the Church, still claims that she is “pro-choice”. A rebuke is not helpful at this point. It’s better to listen to what the woman is willing to say and not pry. Perhaps she still believes that her abortion “solved her problem”, despite the reality that taking human life never solves problems.

      The best action at this point is to remind a woman who has had an abortion of God’s mercy. Prayer is very important, especially prayer that the post-abortion woman will seek absolution in the confessional and receive the Eucharist. The grace of God in the sacraments will illustrate to her the truth about the totality of human life. We laypersons can only be companions if we recognize and repent for our own sins. Our confession of sin clarifies the assistance we can give to our sisters.

    • Kurt

      I’m not sure there is any such thing as a Catholic who respects women. If a man murders an adult, any priest (unless the confessor was involved in the murder or the murder victim was the Pope) can pronounce absolution. Women who abort are singled out. There is something wrong here and even Pope Francis’s Year of Mercy action does not set this right.

  • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS

    What I found striking was something highlighted by John Allen over at Crux but otherwise generally ignored: Pope Francis paired this instruction (indult?) by also declaring licit confessions heard by the priests of SSPX, though they are regarded under canon law as validly ordained but under suspension because of their schismatic stance. He is making the very important point that the Lord will send his mercy where He wills it, and will not let himself be constrained either by our rules (no matter how necessary or just) or by the failings of his instruments. I am reminded of the the drunken priest in Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory who was, despite all his failings, a instrument of God’s grace. Pope Francis is making it clear that the Lord’s mercy to one repentant sinner is more important than the failure of SSPX to reconcile itself to mother Church.

  • Thales

    1. Meanwhile, some pro-life Catholics are already expressing the concern that this decision, while making no change whatsoever to Church doctrine, is a dangerous concession to secular values.

    jeanninemariedymphna, what are you referring to? I’d like to see some examples of this, because I haven’t seen that response anywhere.

    2. Pope Francis will grant Catholic priests permission to forgive women who have had abortions and physicians who have carried them out

    It’s my understanding that this is not correct: priests have always been able to forgive women who have had abortions. What they normally can’t do is to lift an excommunication penalty (which is sometimes attached to extremely grave sins), without a delegation of authority from the bishop or the pope. Now, it’s my understanding that all American priests currently do have the authority to lift the excommunication penalty, and have had this authority for the last 40 years, as the U.S. bishops have so delegated this authority. For some reason, some other countries don’t do this, so the Pope’s statement now normalizes this for other countries. But there’s no change in the U.S.


    3. My reaction to reading news articles about the Pope’s statement went something like this: “Huh? News reporting that ‘Pope says priests can forgive sins”? Duh. Of course they can. Journalists are dumb. No news here!”

  • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS

    Both Thales and Brian Martin have mentioned that they knew that priests in the US already had this authority. For what it is worth: I knew that canon law reserved this matter, but I was not aware that an exception had been granted in the US. Given that I count myself as far better informed than the average Catholic, I think that there could well be a perception issue in the US that this speaks to, even if, technically, it does not change anything at all.

    I would compare this to the widely held but erroneous belief that getting a civil divorce (whether or not you remarry) results in an automatic excommunication. I blogged about this earlier. Both these issues say a lot about the ways in which justice (or “the rules”) have trumped mercy in popular perceptions of the Church. Pope Francis is providing a useful anodyne to this.

    • Thales


      Great point about Pope Francis. For some reason, the media and non-Catholics seem more open to listening to Pope Francis, and that’s a blessing to be thankful for. Despite the fact that my first inclination is to roll my eyes when a journalist writes an article saying “the Pope says that sins can be forgiven!” or “the Pope says that mercy should be shown to women who have had abortions!” because that is old “not-news,” I should be, and I am, very grateful for a media report saying these things. We need more mainstream news articles saying “apparently the Catholic Church offers forgiveness!”, “the Church claims it offers comfort and mercy!” and “priests are alleged to have love for sinners!” It’s good evangelization.

      Also, even for those of us who know that this is “not-news,” it’s good to be reminded that mercy is important, charity and empathy is important, etc., because sometimes it’s easy to forget these fundamentals, when getting locked into debates about religious or liturgical minutia.