ORIGINAL: Even my largely sympathetic approach to matters Roman flinched when I saw this headline via Twitter last night:
"Pope to allow all priests to forgive abortion during Holy Year"
A Protestant reading of the headline suggests that far from being the benign "I just sign off on what the church as a whole agrees to" figure at the top of one particular model of ecclesial hierarchy, the Pope, even this Pope, has extraordinary powers.
Worse, the powers in this case decide not so much which sins are forgivable and which are not, but whether sins will be forgiven this calendar year but not next year. A sin is a sin, is it not? And if it is not the unforgivable sin then it is always forgivable, is it not? God's eternal grace applies in 1515 as much as in 2015 ...
Of course, another part of the Protestant scriptural mind says not to judge lest you be judged, so as someone who likes people to read my posts and not just my headlines, I read the Reuters article.
There I found things were not quite as I had thought. Not great, but there is a redemptive quality (if I may use such a notion in this context) in this particular Pope acting in this particular way.
Here is the opening part of the report:
"Pope Francis will give all priests discretion during the Roman Catholic Church's upcoming Holy Year to formally forgive women who have had abortions, in the Argentine pontiff's latest move towards a more open and inclusive church.
In Church teaching, abortion is such a grave sin that those who procure or perform it incur an automatic excommunication, which can only be lifted by designated church officials.However, from Dec. 8  to Nov. 26 , during an extraordinary Holy Year or "Jubilee" on the theme of mercy, all priests will be able to do so if the women repent "with a contrite heart", the pope said in a letter published by the Vatican on Tuesday.Francis described the "existential and moral ordeal" faced by women who have terminated pregnancies and said he had "met so many women who bear in their heart the scar of this agonizing and painful decision".
The pope's letter did not mention those who perform abortions."So the Pope's power/authority is not being used to forgive sins according to the calendar but to widen the means by which assurance of forgiveness may be received, in the context of a sin which incurs 'automatic excommunication.' That power/authority is also being exercised relative to an church-decided rule rather than to a God-revealed rule about excommunication. A Protestant can be empathetic to these things -we have a few rules of our own. Remember the time when use of any Bible except the KJV incurred automatic excommunication ... Then there were the churches that would expel you if you spoke in tongues ... :)
The article goes on to report a helpful explanation:
"Although he has shown no intention of retracting the Church's opposition to abortion, he has alarmed conservatives by taking a less forceful tone than his predecessors.
"This is by no means an attempt to minimize the gravity of this sin, but to widen the possibility of showing mercy," Vatican chief spokesman Father Federico Lombardi told reporters."
Ah, so here we are in common territory as we Christians around the globe explore all matters of human sexuality in the 21st century: how to be faithful to 'the gravity of sin' while widening the possibility of 'showing mercy.'
Before we Protestants throw doctrinal stones across the Tiber (and, spoiler alert, if you read the whole article, there is talk of ... Indulgences!? ... Luther, stop rolling in your grave) we do well to pause. Log and speck. How are we doing at maintaining the gravity of sin while ever widening the possibilities of showing mercy?
And, I appreciate, whatever I think about the idea that only certain officials can offer forgiveness and remit automatic excommunication, that Rome takes seriously such a grave sin as taking human life. If only we Protestants treated sin as seriously!
Postscript: someone else is quoted in the article, responding from the liberal/progressive wing of American Catholicism and introduces a new phrase to theological discourse:
"This is a pope who is not stuck in the pelvic zone, and perhaps his message on how he thinks about abortion is more for his brother bishops than Catholics in the pew"
May all our theological ruminations on matters of human sexuality never get "stuck in the pelvic zone" :)
UPDATE: Somehow I am on some kind of circulation list for the NZ Catholic Church and I have just received this about our local Kiwi situation:
"Clarification for New Zealand Church
You will be aware of the news reports overnight of Pope Francis’ announcement that all priests will be allowed to absolve the sin of abortion during the forthcoming Year of Mercy.
To clarify the situation in here, the New Zealand Catholic Bishops many years ago delegated this responsibility (they are entitled to do so) to New Zealand Priests.
Bishops in other countries may have also taken the same step as well. However Pope Francis has announced that this is to be universal for the upcoming Year of Mercy. Here in New Zealand the current situation will continue after that.
NZ Catholic Bishops
04 496 1725
021 611 052
NZ Catholic Bishops
04 496 1725
021 611 052