The big news in the Roman Catholic world is Pope Francis’ decision to allow all priests, not just bishops and special confessors (1,142 priests and monks from around the world) for the duration of the Vatican’s Jubilee Year of Mercy to give women absolution for the grave sin of having an abortion. The Jubilee Year of Mercy is now drawing to a close. Pope Francis has extended the granting of this special power to ordinary priests beyond the Jubilee Year of Mercy.
The reason having an abortion required a bishop or special confessor to grant absolution is that having an abortion incurs automatic excommunication. Only eight other sins carry the penalty of automatic excommunication: apostasy, heresy, schism (all one sin), violating the sacred species (i.e., throwing away or otherwise abusing the consecrated wafer or wine), physically attacking the pope, sacramentally absolving an accomplice in a sexual sin, consecrating a bishop without authorization, and directly violating the seal of confession (i.e., The confessor’s words or behavior make both the penitent and the penitent’s sin easily identifiable.)
It is interesting to compare this list to the myriad of sins that don’t incur the penalty of automatic excommunication: such sins as mass murder, rape, torture, child abuse, engaging in slave trade, and lying about any of the above. A woman could drown all her children and not be excommunicated, but aborting a fetus—out!
The Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, who ordered the deaths of countless political opponents, was never excommunicated. In fact General Pinochet was a devout Catholic who attended Mass and received Holy Communion daily.
This attitude toward abortion betrays a profound misogyny that has a long history in Christianity. Look at these statements from the early church fathers:
“Every woman should be filled with shame by the thought that she is a woman. . . . the consciousness of their own nature must evoke feelings of shame”—Clement of Alexandria, Theologian and Greek Father, 2nd century
“Men should not sit and listen to a woman . . . even if she says admirable things, or even saintly things, that is of little consequence, since it came from the mouth of a woman.”—Origen, Theologian and Greek Father, 2nd-3rd centuries
”And do you not know that you are (each) an Eve? The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age: the guilt must of necessity live too. You are the devil’s gateway: you are the unsealer of that (forbidden) tree: you are the first deserter of the divine law: you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God’s image, man. On account of your desert—that is, death—even the Son of God had to die. And do you think about adorning yourself over and above your tunics of skins?”—Tertullian, Father of Latin Christianity, 155-245
“God maintained the order of each sex by dividing the business of life into two parts, and assigned the more necessary and beneficial aspects to the man and the less important, inferior matter to the woman.” –Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople and Doctor of the Church, 4th century
“I don’t see what sort of help woman was created to provide man with, if one excludes procreation. If woman is not given to man for help in bearing children, for what help could she be? To till the earth together? If help were needed for that, man would have been a better help for man. The same goes for comfort in solitude. How much more pleasure is it for life and conversation when two friends live together than when a man and a woman cohabitate?” – Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, Doctor of the Church and Latin Father, 354-430
Women were seen as good mostly for procreation. Of course, such attitudes are hardly unique to Christianity or Catholicism. Both the Talmud and the Koran are also profoundly misogynistic, and contemporary Jews and Muslims struggle to come to terms with gender equality
It’s important to remember that Pope Francis is carrying a lot of baggage as he struggles to liberalize his church, and it’s quite understandable if many Catholic women are not prepared to wait.