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Reflections on a daring double play by the ‘Pope of Mercy’

One day after taping a video session with three US communities set to air Friday and described by those who’ve seen it as a “home run,” Pope Francis executed a daring pastoral double play on Tuesday, reaching out to two constituencies long alienated from the official structures of the Catholic Church.

In a concession that applies to a special “Year of Mercy” set to run from Dec. 8, 2015, to Nov. 20, 2016, Francis has decreed that any Catholic priest can grant forgiveness to someone who “procures” an abortion without need of special permission from a bishop.

While the reference in a papal letter released on Tuesday is primarily to women who have had abortions, the move could be read to apply equally to other parties, such as doctors who perform abortions and anyone else involved.

The pontiff also decided that any Catholic who confesses his or her sins during the year to a priest of the Society of St. Pius X, a traditionalist breakaway group not approved by Rome, will nevertheless be considered licitly forgiven.

Francis expressed hope on Tuesday that a rupture with the society may be overcome “in the near future,” seeming to style his opening as a prelude to broader reconciliation.

At first blush, four reflections on this papal double play suggest themselves.

First, it’s important to stipulate that this does not represent any change to official Catholic teaching. Both abortion and defiance of papal authority are still considered grave sins, triggering what canon law, the compendium of Church legislation, describes aslatae sententiae excommunication, meaning “automatic.”

In effect, what Francis has done instead of changing doctrine is to extend the range of mercy to anyone who seeks forgiveness with what he describes as a “contrite heart.”

Second, putting these two olive branches into the same package could be seen as another effort by Francis at political equilibrium, reminiscent of his decision in April 2014 to beatify the late Popes John XXIII and John Paul II together, icons for the Catholic left and right respectively.

The concession on abortion likely will be welcomed by many Catholic liberals who have long urged greater compassion for the women involved, while conservatives may cheer the opening to the Society of St. Pius X because they share some of the group’s concerns about the progressive reforms adopted at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

If what Francis wants is balance, however, he could get it in the form of blowback from both sides.

Some anti-abortion activists may wince at any step, however well-intentioned, which could be seen as reducing the level of moral seriousness the Church attaches to the act. (On the other hand, some may be grateful for the reminder that abortion actually triggers excommunication.)

Other voices, meanwhile, long have objected to the Vatican’s outreach to the Society of St. Pius X, complaining about the group’s troubled record on anti-Semitism and its generally disapproving attitude on matters such as inter-faith dialogue and religious freedom.

Reactions along those lines may make the rounds, especially since Francis heretofore has not been seen as a great friend of the traditionalist camp. Some may worry that the concession signals a change of line, perhaps especially in tandem with Francis’ recent visit to the altar of Pius X in St. Peter’s Basilica and his profession to be a “devotee” of the late pontiff.

Third, experts may have a field day noodling out the precise significance of both moves.

On abortion, there’s long been debate among Church lawyers over what exactly it means to “procure” an abortion – does it also apply, for instance, to a boyfriend who pays for the procedure or a parent who permits it in the case of a minor girl?

Church law says that accomplices to a grave crime are subject to the same penalty, which has raised thorny issues about whether legislators who support abortion rights, for instance, should be considered excommunicated.

The point of Francis’s letter certainly is not to try to settle such questions, but it may raise them anew.

On the Society of St. Pius X, things appear even murkier.

In the past, the Vatican has generally said that not everyone who occasionally attends one of the society’s Masses is necessarily in schism, but that the group promotes a “schismatic mentality” that can harden over time.

Rome has also held that priests of the society have been validly ordained, but they’re considered suspended because their ordinations came without proper papal authorization. As a result, they’re not technically authorized to carry out any ministries, including the sacrament of confession.

Francis, however, seems to have authorized them to do just that during the jubilee year, which may lead some to wonder if he’s effectively “suspended” their suspensions.

Vatican spokesman Rev Federico Lombardi told reporters Tuesdaythat Francis “isn’t making an appeal for juridical amnesty,” apparently meaning that his move doesn’t address the society’s standing under Church law.

Outsiders may struggle to grasp why this matters, given that the Society of St. Pius X is estimated to have a global following of no more than 1 million people, which works out to about 1/10th of 1 percent of the total Catholic population.

Yet the “Lefebvrist” movement, so dubbed for the late French Archbishop Marcel Lefevbre who founded it, is regarded as the only formal schism to follow Vatican II. Abhorrence of schisms runs deep in the Vatican’s DNA, since over the years they have been deeply destabilizing – splitting the church apart, and costing Catholicism whole regions of the world.

Every pope since Vatican II has seen ending schism as a priority. In that light, Francis’ outreach marks merely the latest twist in a long story.

Fourth, given Francis’ profile as the “Pope of Mercy,” none of this should be surprising.

Francis has pointed to mercy as the key to his agenda. During a press conference on a return flight from Brazil in July 2013, he said: “I believe this time is a kairos of mercy,” using a Greek term from the New Testament meaning a privileged moment in God’s plan for salvation.

The same emphasis is found in Francis’ motto, Miserando atque eligendo, which translates loosely as “choosing through the eyes of mercy.” It was in his first Sunday homily as pope, in which he said that “in my opinion, the strongest message of the Lord is mercy.”

In that sense, Francis’ new decree is consistent with the tone he’s set from the beginning.

Whatever one makes of the decisions on substance, anyone who knows Church psychology and culture will recognize them as more than merely cosmetic.

The take-away likely will be that Francis’ talk about mercy isn’t mere rhetoric. At least for a year, it’s been translated into policy on two of the most sensitive and polarizing challenges to face any pope in the modern era.


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