Pope Francis, Abortion and Empathy

Pope Francis, Abortion and Empathy September 3, 2015

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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