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Abortion is now easier to forgive, but what is Pope's prescription for the pill?

Catholics who have had terminations can now have their sin absolved by a priest. But what about that other sin - artificial contraception?

By Malachi O'Doherty

Published 24/11/2016

Pope Francis has changed the Catholic stance on absolution after abortion
Pope Francis has changed the Catholic stance on absolution after abortion

Until the latest intervention by Pope Francis, abortion was a sin like no other. Terminating a pregnancy, or assisting someone to do so, was the only offence in Catholic Canon Law that brought immediate excommunication.

Your priest, or bishop, might not know that you had taken the boat to Liverpool and no determination might formally have been made against you, but you had ceased to be a Catholic - even if you had only helped a friend or partner, say, by providing the price of the ticket.

This was not the case with ordinary murder. You might have lost the rag with your husband and staved his skull in with a rolling pin; you might have thrown a punch at a mate in a drunken rage and dropped him onto a kerbstone; you might, indeed, have prepared a bomb in a barn and driven it into a city centre and left it to wipe out a dozen people, but these were sins of a different order. For these, a priest was sufficient to grant absolution.

Assuming you were genuinely sorry and wanted to get back in good standing with your Lord and restore your hopes of paradise, you had only to repent in full candour and regret before a priest and he could set your penance, don his purple stole and grant you absolution.

Those of us who have been Catholics well recall the lightness of step with which we left the church after confession and tripped home, knowing that if we were struck by lightning on the way, we would go straight to Heaven.

But if you believed in the absolving power of repentance and the mediating authority of a priest, it would have availed you very little if you had bent the knee before him in a confession box and attempted to divest yourself of the guilt of having had an abortion.

His responsibility in that situation would have been to inform you that there was nothing he could do for you, because you were no longer a Catholic, but refer you to the bishop. Only he had the power to reinstate you into the Church.

The abortion anomaly, which treats it as the worst possible sin, was no doubt rationalised by many logical theologians, deploying arguments that I wouldn't be able to grasp. That's what theologians often tell me when I ask them awkward questions. But those arguments have been waived now, anyway.

Maybe the arguments had something to do with the aborting of a foetus denying its soul the prospect of baptism. But that shouldn't matter so much since Limbo has been done away with.

It used to be that, if you died before you were baptised, you lost all prospect of entering Heaven. Since a previous Pope changed the Church's mind on that, it presumably doesn't actually feature in the reasoning by which abortion is a sin of a different category to all others.

Still, Francis has not said anything to imply that abortion is less of a sin that it was. He wants to emphasise the severity of the offence against God entailed in ending the life of an unborn child. This applies at any stage in the growth of that child from the moment of conception.

But he has decided that it is wrong to assume that this sin, more than any other, distances a person from the love of God. Yet that is exactly what was implied by Canon Law before his intervention.

If I had walked through a supermarket with a machine gun, killing all around me, that would have been a sin that any ordinary curate fresh out of Maynooth could have dealt with.

If I had stood outside a primary school, handing crystal meth out to children; if, indeed, I had been handing out Jelly Babies and coaxing them back to my camper van, whatever my problems with the law, my estrangement from God could have been mended with the help of any priest.

But if I had handed the morning-after pill to my partner, phoned the doctor to get a prescription for her, looked up the website of a clinic, that would have been collusion with equal guilt in a sin more awful than any other.

Only a bishop would have been qualified to test the authenticity of my repentance and allowed me to receive communion in a Catholic church again.

You can be entirely indifferent to the usual deliberations of men of the cloth and still see that Pope Francis has done a sensible thing, within the terms of his own logic, in removing that contradiction.

For even if you believe, as many do, that abortion of an embryo is murder, it would surely be difficult to argue that it is a worse murder than any other.

Our Attorney General once said, on BBC Radio Ulster's Sunday Sequence programme, that abortion was equivalent to letting a child be born, then shooting it. But even that logic - equating abortion with murder - doesn't provide a rationale for treating it as worse.

By that logic, the one who had shot the newborn baby might have remained a Catholic while the one who had had the abortion did not. Though, after shooting a newborn, most people would probably think that their chances of going to Heaven had been severely compromised (if they believed in Heaven). And none of this would make any difference anyway, unless the sinner was truly sorry.

Pope Francis has made clear that the requirement of sorrow and repentance is still as strong as ever. So, he hasn't really liberalised the law; he has simply removed an anomaly that made the Church look ridiculous to those who ever knew that law was there.

That anomaly was, he believes, an obstacle to women seeking forgiveness for the sin of abortion. Now there need be no obstacle but their own contrition (or lack of it).

There is, as yet, no provision for the woman who does not regret her abortion. But there is a practical precedent for how that may be dealt with.

For there is another sin which women and men routinely commit and do not regret: their use of artificial contraception.

If the letter of the Church's law is to be obeyed, then there should be long queues outside the confession boxes of people seeking forgiveness for their use of condoms, coils and the pill.

But there are no such queues. And priests have long given up expecting those in their flock to apologise for enjoying sexual intimacy free from the fear of bringing an unwanted child into the world.

The governing principle there is, "Don't ask, don't tell". The Church has lost too many people already who took the rule literally, decided that it did not apply to them and then simply left.

So, perhaps, now that they can take their guilt to any old priest, Catholic women will be queueing to get absolution for abortions past.

But perhaps they will decide, as they did with the pill, that some things are best decided by themselves, without reference to the Church.

Belfast Telegraph

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