This week, Pope Francis shocked the world once again with the announcement that women who have had abortions may now look towards their priests to lift their excommunication from their church rather than their bishop. This move seems at first minuscule—the priest is just one step down the hierarchy of the Catholic Church from the bishop. Women will also only benefit from the change for only the duration of the mercy year, which begins in December and ends next November. Though the women have been granted easier access to a religious mediator for their “sins,” they must still rely on a male leader to control her membership to the church.
The significance of this change lies not in its effects but rather its symbolism. Though I don’t practice the religion, I grew up going to a Catholic church on most Sundays. I’m not a theologian or expert on the religion, but I do understand the effects of Catholicism on average, every day practitioners. The change initiated by the Pope this week holds a symbolic meaning. Despite the lack of longevity and productivity of the switch, its timing and its implications are worth noting.
Just a few weeks ago, Planned Parenthood came under fire from anti-abortion groups for allegedly selling aborted fetus tissue for profit. Planned Parenthood denies these claims and much controversy surrounds the issue at the present time. The anti-abortion group, the Center for Medical Progress, released videos that made it seem as though Planned Parenthood was considering illegally selling fetus tissue. The event has brought into question the murky waters surrounding laws about donating fetal tissue.
Pope Francis’s declaration about the church’s abortion policy occurred at an interesting time, a few weeks before he is scheduled to visit the United States. The timing of the leader of the Catholic Church’s announcement must have some significance. The Pope has made his stance on the inclusion of traditionally marginalized groups: “No closed doors!” His liberal ideas (at least liberal in comparison to previous Catholic leaders) encourage mercy.
In relation to the conflict between Planned Parenthood and the Center for Medical Progress, this mercy could be granted to either of the parties.
The timing of his announcement suggests he may make comments about this debate. I’m interested to see what he has to say. The Pope has stated that he is “aware of the pressure” that has led some women to abortion, thus acknowledging the women as victims of social pressures rather than demonizing them for their actions.
Despite Pope Francis’s statement, the Catholic Church still considers abortion a mortal sin. The Pope has made strides in speaking for groups ostracized by the religion and has encouraged flexibly regarding the enforcement of rules. Though the Pope advertises a theme of mercy and forgiveness, the decisions and actions of every-day Catholics has not necessarily changed at a universal level. The changes and suggestions offered by the Pope symbolize a move towards inclusion and tolerance. However, the Church has a long ways to go. In an era of inequality based on race, class, gender, and many other identities, symbolism is not enough to bring about significant change in the ideals of the Catholic Church. Nevertheless, direct words and comments about the Planned Parenthood-CMP conflict might turn some heads in both the religious and the political sphere.