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The Year of a Not-so Radical Change

December 8 will mark the beginning of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy for those of the Catholic faith.  Once the year begins, Catholics will be able to have extraordinary sins forgiven by participating in the confession process.  Along with the declaration of the festivity, Pope Francis announced that those seeking absolutions for having participated in the abortion process will be able to confess and receive forgiveness.  The Jubilee Year has a long tradition in the Catholic Church, but the announcement of a simplified process for forgiving those who participated in the process of obtaining an abortion is revolutionary. Or so it appears.

The Jubilee Year originates in the Old Testament. According to Sterling Professor of Divinity Harold Attridge of Yale Divinity School, “The Jubilee Year connotes restitution of fundamental social justice.” In other words, it was a time to settle debts, apologize to those you have wronged, and forgive those who have wronged you.  Historically, the year offered a periodic cleaning of the slate for those who practiced Judaism- a time to reconcile with one’s neighbors and to forgive transgressions. The Catholic Church ultimately decided to keep the practice, offering Catholics the opportunity to have extraordinary sins absolved by the granting of Jubilee Indulgences.

Jubilee years tend to mark years of importance, such as 2000, but this Jubilee Year is different. The Pope’s declaration appears to be in line with his desire to create a church-wide message of forgiveness and mercy. Teresa Berger, Thomas E. Golden Jr. Professor of Catholic Theology at the Yale Divinity School, characterizes this particular Jubilee Year as not being marked by a particular date, but by the Pope’s “wish to imprint a particular theme on this year —  the theme of mercy.”

Pope Francis’ rise to the papacy has brought to the Catholic Church a much more conciliatory tone than that of the two previous Popes. His message of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy fits in with and enhances his overarching vision of a more accepting Catholic Church that seeks not to exclude, but to provide comfort to the disadvantaged across the globe. He has become something of an international hero for these changes, even winning Time’s Person of The Year award in 2013. He famously made headlines when he responded to a question about homosexual priests by saying, “Who am I to judge?”

Many critics of the Catholic Church’s traditional stances on social issues, including abortion, gay marriage, and the possibility of ordaining women, view Pope Francis as a reformer, and hope that he will lead the church in a more liberal direction. In fact, many hoped the changes that accompanied the declaration of the Year of Jubilee would be harbingers of future social policy shifts. However, such a view is misguided.

Despite Pope Francis’ international popularity, modern day popes are severely constrained compared to their predecessors from prior centuries.  He seems to have revolutionized the message of the Church while keeping within the bounds of the same core values that have guided the Vatican throughout modernity.  As Professor Berger put it, “The Pope is wielding power on the level of the incredible allure he has managed to exude.”  He may be changing the Church’s image on issues of social policy, but its historic stances remain – including an unflinching opposition to abortion.

The Catholic Church views abortion as a grave sin that is not permissible under any circumstances. Both the Vatican’s opposition to abortion and its opposition to capital punishment stem from the immense value the Catholic Church places on the sanctity of life. This guiding value serves to explain the Church’s positions on social issues concerning matters of life and death, such as euthanasia, which do not coincide with traditional American party lines.

Catholic doctrine states that knowingly receiving an abortion or assisting in the process is murder and causes an immediate excommunication. Theoretically, this is a reserved sin that can only be absolved by high-ranking authorities in the Vatican, such as bishops. As Pope Francis writes in his letter declaring the Year of Jubilee:

“I have met so many women who bear in their heart the scar of this agonizing and painful decision. What has happened is profoundly unjust; yet only understanding the truth of it can enable one not to lose hope. The forgiveness of God cannot be denied to one who has repented”

This idea of the “scar” of abortions resonates with the pro-life community. Elizabeth Tokarz, president of Choose Life at Yale (CLAY), said, “No human should have to live with the knowledge that another is absent from the earth because of his or her decision. Abortion ignores the human dignity of all who are involved, the child and the family.”  This same idea that galvanized the pro-life community has inspired vehement opposition among the pro-choice community.  In a New York Times op-ed, prominent feminist and author Jill Filipovic writes about women who have had abortions: “In surveys, nearly all say it was the right thing to do, and positive feelings of relief or happiness outweigh negative feelings of regret or guilt for more than nine in 10 women, even years after the procedure.”

The simplification of the process of receiving absolutions for abortions reflects the complexity of the structure of the Catholic Church.  Under the guidelines announced for the Year of Jubilee, those seeking absolution for having procured abortions can now confess to local priests to gain absolutions rather than having to travel to high-level officials in the Vatican or face immediate excommunication.  The Catholic Church is an extraordinarily complex and opaque organization that combines a reverence of tradition with the endowment of immense power in the hands of a single man.

The Church’s design guarantees that change occurs slowly and methodically.  with most decision-making happening at the local levels. Berger said that the Vatican is “governed by the principle of subsidiarity. Whatever can be adjudicated on the local level will be adjudicated there.” This guarantees that vast decision-making powers are left in the hands of the bishops and local priests. These bishops, for the most part, were appointed by Pope Francis’s more conservative predecessors, Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict.  T. Lawrason Riggs Professor of History & Religious Studies Carlos Eire told The Politic, “We are still living with the legacy of these last Popes.”  The policy for the appointment of bishops guarantees that change is an incremental process that takes place across generations, not years.

The Year of Jubilee and the simplified process of gaining absolutions was announced at a time of great turmoil surrounding the issue of abortion in the United States

A series of undercover videos filmed by the Center for Medical Progress, a pro-life activist group, appears to show clinicians at Planned Parenthood discussing the sale of fetal parts the sale of fetal parts by Planned Parenthood.  Planned Parenthood is the single largest provider of abortions in the United States, and although it is prohibited from using federal funds to pay for abortions, many pro-life activists in the United States are calling for the organization to be stripped of all public funding because of its link to abortions.

The graphic images of these videos have created an uproar in the pro-life community in the United States. Tokarz said about Planned Parenthood, “I know that [it]is a business that sells abortion. It makes sense that if Planned Parenthood performs so many abortions, they might look for other, related ways to further their profit.”

However, Planned Parenthood has contended that these videos are heavily doctored and seek only to slander and smear.  In the response to the first video, Planned Parenthood released a public statement, “A well funded group established for the purpose of damaging Planned Parenthood’s mission and services has promoted a heavily edited, secretly recorded videotape that falsely portrays Planned Parenthood’s participation in tissue donation programs that support lifesaving scientific research.” The scathing and urgent tones the opposing sides have adopted in the abortion debate form a backdrop for the Pope’s announcement.

To understand the complexities behind the politics of abortion in the United States, one must first examine the role played by Catholics.  While the Catholic Church is considered socially conservative in the United States, American Catholics do not always hold on to every view espoused by the Vatican. “Catholics in the US are used to being in a pluralistic society and are willing to make that compromise.  Where these traditions aren’t as prominent: they won’t have this propensity,” said Professor Attridge. He offered as an example of Mario Cuomo, the recently deceased former Governor of New York.  While Governor Cuomo was a deeply Catholic man who was individually pro-life, he espoused pro-choice policies on the state and national levels.

This willingness to adopt policy positions that are not in line with traditional Catholic values  can also be seen in Vice-President Biden’s support for pro-choice policies.  When asked in the 2012 Vice Presidential debate about how his religious views shape his position, he responded, “With regard to abortion, I accept my church’s position that life begins at conception. That’s the church’s judgment. I accept it in my personal life. But I refuse to impose it on equally devout Christians and Muslims and Jews and–I just refuse to impose that on others.”

In addition to structural roadblocks to change, demographic transitions in the Church make any move to liberalizing social policy difficult.  The appointment of an Argentinian Pope is just one sign of the Catholic Church’s explosion in popularity in Latin America, as well as Sub-Saharan Africa.  And while, according to Eire, “American Catholics are more liberal than the Pope,” churches in Africa tend to be far more conservative.  The Catholic Church not only has to weigh its tradition of opposition to abortion, but additionally consider that more than 50% of its followers come from Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa, areas that are typically very socially conservative.

After the declaration of a Jubilee Year, the American media highlighted the announcement regarding absolutions for abortions as a critical and important step. A deeper analysis, however, reveals that bishops in America have already empowered priests to offer these absolutions and that this gesture is of no great significance to American Catholics.  “What the Pope offered is nothing new. It is already practiced,” said Berger. “It was misread as a much larger step because they didn’t know that in the US this is already the case.” In fact, the simplified process was offered during the Great Jubilee of 2000.

If this announcement was nothing revolutionary, why did it receive such attention in the United States media? The answer lies in the fact that the Catholic Church is not democratic, nor is it interested in changing its core policy positions to win over skeptics.  While American politicians can craft policies for each election based on meticulous public polling, the Vatican is obligated to respect the positions that have been adopted over centuries of gradual shifts for a faithful that expect above all a reverence for tradition. The Catholic Church is a multifaceted, diverse, and conservative organization led by a charismatic and popular reformer figure attempting to reconcile rapid demographic change and centuries of tradition. Americans are used to a democratic system that provides outlets for rapidly changing public opinion.  As Eire put it, “Americans in particular have trouble with the autocratic structure of the Catholic Church.  It’s un-American and Americans want change quickly. And the Catholic Church doesn’t do it that way.”


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