It has been a big first year for Pope Francis; folks from all strokes are paying attention to him, especially on abortion. Some liberal Catholics think he is their man; some conservatives are worried, especially with the out-of-context media explosion regarding a few of his remarks in an America Magazine interview. But Pope Francis is the Pope, Catholic through and through. He understands the authority of the Magisterium. And much to the chagrin of some who hoped or feared otherwise, he hasn’t changed anything that can not change, and he never will. Francis’s statements regarding abortion present a clear picture of the importance and unchanging character of its qualification as a mortal sin, while in the process leaving plenty of space for lay and clerical activists to take up the charge against abortion.
Many people misunderstood the Pope’s statement in an America Magazine interview in August 2013:
“We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible….But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.”
The line that everyone who wanted to misunderstand misunderstood was “we cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage” etc. But the key word in that sentence is “only,” meaning that we have to talk about the Gospel and Christ and salvation too. No Catholic should find anything controversial about the call to preach the Gospel in addition to the Church’s moral teaching. Francis is correct that the moral teachings are based in the Gospel and in Revelation, which remain primary.
In the second part of the “controversial” statement, Pope Francis defends himself and makes plain that he isn’t adding anything new or taking away anything either. “The teaching of the church,” he says, “is clear.” The church has taught consistently for millennia that abortion is a grave moral evil. The Catechism itself reads:
“Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable.” (CCC 2271).
Pope Francis knows this well, of course.
Second, he declares himself a “son of the church.” This again is unsurprising given that he is the pope. Yet it also demonstrates that he understands himself and his office exactly as he should, as an inheritor of the tradition and chair of Peter. Reading the full paragraph reveals a very self-aware Francis who seeks to ensure that the Church is oriented around Christ, first and foremost. Many writers have spoken of Francis marking a “shift in tone” as opposed to a shift in doctrine or teaching. In a way, these writers are right. Pope Francis simply says things in a way that catches people’s attention–and that can actually be very beneficial!
Significantly, abortion receives some paragraphs of specific commentary in Francis’s longest, most-serious writing yet, the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium. In expressing the concern the Church should have for the vulnerable, he brings up abortion and the sanctity of life as the foundation for human rights.
Among the vulnerable for whom the Church wishes to care with particular love and concern are unborn children, the most defenceless and innocent among us. Nowadays efforts are made to deny them their human dignity and to do with them whatever one pleases….
This defence of unborn life is closely linked to the defence of each and every other human right. It involves the conviction that a human being is always sacred and inviolable, in any situation and at every stage of development (EG 213).
Francis beautifully expresses sanctity and value of human life at its most vulnerable stage: in utero. There is no more classically Catholic stance than this.
He also does not leave a shadow of a doubt that the Church’s teaching on abortion can not change:
Precisely because this involves the internal consistency of our message about the value of the human person, the Church cannot be expected to change her position on this question. I want to be completely honest in this regard. This is not something subject to alleged reforms or “modernizations” (EG 214).
Understanding the human person as created in the image of God is a doctrine that serves as the basis for much of the Church’s moral teaching, including abortion. As such, the teaching on abortion cannot change any more than the opening chapter of Genesis can change, wherein human creation in the image of God is first proclaimed.
Pope Francis then takes a jab at “progressive” abortion supporters:
It is not “progressive” to try to resolve problems by eliminating a human life (EG 214).
For those who would don the mantle of moral superiority in the title “progressive,” Francis offers a sharp rebuke. Killing others, including babies, is not forward-thinking or truly helpful.
Despite this severity, he closes with his characteristic compassion and demonstrates just how deeply he understands the pain that leads people to into such grave evil:
It is also true that we have done little to adequately accompany women in very difficult situations, where abortion appears as a quick solution to their profound anguish, especially when the life developing within them is the result of rape or a situation of extreme poverty. Who can remain unmoved before such painful situations (EG 214)?
While condemning abortion in no uncertain terms, Francis is nevertheless intimately aware of and sympathetic to those in pain who seek the “solutions” that are touted by our culture. Abortion is one such “solution” that is illusory and performs an unacceptable evil. The true solution is found in Christ alone, and it is the task of the members of His Body to help be part of the solution in compassion and grace.
Now, it is true that Francis has not spoken extensively about abortion, though his few statements have been ample. As Pope, it is his prerogative to speak about what he feels the Church and the world most need to hear. That Francis has not dwelt on abortion is not a criticism of pro-life activists. In fact, Lay Catholics are supposed to profess the Gospel in their particular situations, including the truth about abortion. Francis simply reminds us that our witness should always be Christ-centered, including when we condemn abortion. It is part of the beauty of the Church that the pope need not micro-manage all of the Faithful, and that the laity has a vital and active role in proclaiming the teachings of Christ and His Church as well.