Women Need More than Absolution: They Need the Church to be on Their Side

Changing our rhetoric, ordaining married men, and welcoming women back to the diaconate would make the Church a place where more people would come for guidance before an irrevocable decision is made instead of a place to seek absolution after the fact.

In a perfect world there would be no abortion. The sorts of structures that perpetuate economic injustice, the oppression of women, the sexual entitlement of men, and poor education wouldn’t exist. But they do. And as long as they do, the Church needs a better response to the problem of abortion.

pope-francisjpg-78988a47f1d9b1c8In a step forward this week, Pope Francis paved the way for any priest anywhere in the world to use his “discretion to absolve of the sin of abortion those who have procured it and who, with contrite heart, seek forgiveness for it” during the Jubilee Year of Mercy. Depending upon how you read Canon Law, ordinarily such absolution could be reserved to bishops or other priests who have been granted special faculties.

It’s a move that has been welcomed by many who see it as a hand stretched out to Catholic women who have undergone an abortion, especially in an environment that often seems void of the kind of mercy that Pope Francis is modeling for our Church. Pope Francis also shifted toward a more pastoral tone when he sympathized with “women who have resorted to abortion,” saying, “I am well aware of the pressure that has led them to this decision.”

And yet, I get the feeling that women – and their male counterparts – won’t be busting down church doors to get into the confessional. But perhaps there’s something deeper to explore. Perhaps there’s something more the Church can do.

Pope Francis has used the image of a “field hospital after battle” to describe what the Church can be for the 21st Century world. But what if the Church could provide ‘preventative care’ too? What if the Church could be there at the beginning of the battle that is modern life? What if the church could help people make different decisions instead of arriving on the field after the battle is done to point out all the mistakes — no matter how gently or lovingly it is done.

In his comments, Pope Francis says that women “resort” to having an abortion and that there is “pressure” leading them to make the decision. That kind of language makes me think that Pope Francis knows what so many of us understand: that these women and couples need more from the Church than absolution. Women, couples and families need to know that the Church is on their side.

Reframing the conversation, as Francis has begun to, would be a good start. But the Church needs to do more than tone down its rhetoric. The church needs to show in word and deed that it understands that there are political, economic, and cultural systems and structures at play making an abortion something to “resort” to. And more than that, the Church needs to demonstrate its commitment to overcoming those very structures and systems that put women and couples in their situation in the first place. It’s a tall order. But Pope Francis had laid the foundation to do just that. Let’s hope the bishops of the world take notice.

In addition to heated rhetoric, the continued insistence upon clerical celibacy and ordination for males alone hinders the ability of the Church to stand with and companion women and families on the 21st century “battlefield.” As the Extraordinary Synod on the Family seems to recognize, life – particularly the lives of women and families – in the 21st Century is not easy. And so they called for a renewal in the way we train ministers in the Church.

No amount of theoretical training on family life or women’s issues could ever replace the actual experience of raising a family or being a woman in today’s world. The Church doesn’t need ordained ministers with more training in family life or women’s issues. The Church needs families and women in ordained ministry.

And so the Church should begin having a conversation at the highest levels about returning to its earliest traditions of ordaining married priests and women deacons. There are married men and well-trained women who can respond to the call immediately if we would just open ordination to them.

Changing our rhetoric, ordaining married men, and welcoming women back to the diaconate would make the Church a place where more people would come for guidance before an irrevocable decision is made instead of a place to seek  absolution after the fact.

In a perfect world, families, couples and individuals wouldn’t face many of the difficult decisions that they do – including whether or not to have an abortion. But our world isn’t perfect. And until it is our Church needs to do better job of putting itself in a place to stand with people on the “battlefield” of life.

By: Russ Petrus, Program Director for FutureChurch






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