Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, said it best: “I do not believe that Catholic women will be queuing up to ask for forgiveness.”
“A long time ago, Catholic women around the world worked out that they can make moral and ethical decisions about sexual and reproductive issues. Catholic women know that they can in good conscience disagree with the hierarchy and still be good Catholics in good faith.”
O’Brien made that statement in reaction to Pope Francis’ year of mercy and forgiveness for women who’ve had abortions and confess, with full contrition, to a priest. O’Brien’s stance was a welcome reality check on the effusive praise for Francis in the past 48 hours.
It’s not that Francis’ embrace of women who’ve suffered through abortion is unwelcome. It’s definitely a continuation of what’s so attractive and hopeful about this pope. He gets the messiness of real lives in the real world. He seems to understand that good people make bad decisions, often in desperation and in poverty and when they believe they have no choice. He has shown such Catholics compassion. He’s invited them home and pushed back against the Catholic culture warriors who’d lock parish doors against gays, the divorced and remarried, feminist nuns, and women who’ve had abortions. “An evil.” “A wicked act.” “A murder.” These are characterizations we’ve long heard from the Church.
But many good Catholic women in America jettisoned the hierarchy’s sex rules way back in 1968, before legalized abortion, when Pope Paul VI reaffirmed the Church ban on artificial birth control. I remember well the whispers among devout Catholic aunts and mothers of four or six or more kids. There were certain priests who’d quietly tell them not to worry about the ban: they’d brought enough children into the world.
Many more good Catholic women and men here stopped listening to the hierarchy altogether during and after the sex abuse crisis. Which is worse? Birth control, abortion, or a deliberate conspiracy to hide priests’ crimes — for decades? The Church punishment for abortion: immediate excommunication. The Church punishment for its abuse-abetting bishops? Well, we are still waiting for a single bishop to come before Francis’ Vatican tribunal. Before Francis, there was no tribunal at all.
“It’s abundantly clear and the statistics are stark,” said O’Brien. “What Catholics practice is different than the dictates of the bishops. Ninety-nine percent of US Catholic women have used a method of birth control the bishops don’t like, and we know that Catholic women have abortions at the same rate as those of other faiths and no faiths.”
That rate in America is about 4 in 10 unwanted pregnancies.
It’s often noted that the more gay people a straight person knows, the more likely that person is to support gay rights. The same might be true for supporting women’s abortion rights. But we don’t necessarily know who among our teachers, nurses, daughters, sisters, mothers, or grandmothers have had abortions. Stigma and even shame can keep abortions secret.
To Catholic women who do feel such shame, Pope Francis has offered respect and reconciliation. That is a wonderful thing. But surely not all Catholic women feel shame or the need to seek forgiveness from a priest. Surely some have long been reconciled, in prayer and sorrow, with a merciful, forgiving, all-knowing, all-loving God.