Mercy

So my Pontiff just announced an easing of the requirements for women (and I would guess, male contributors) to receive absolution for having an abortion, in honor of the upcoming Year of Mercy.

Some thoughts.

First: good.  Seeking forgiveness for your sins and being able to talk through it with a confessor is a lynchpin in Catholic spiritual life.

Second: this is not what pro-abortion Catholics (and others) think it is.  Nor, I suspect, is it what many women who might avail themselves of this mercy think it is.  It is not carte blanche to abort your child and then have your guilt wiped away for free.

Forgiveness of sins is a deep business in the Catholic Church.  Catholics look much deeper theologically about sin and forgiveness than many people outside the church.  And this is where I’m worried the faithful might be led astray.

One fundamental aspect of receiving absolution is the idea not just that you’re sorry you did something bad, but the attitude that given the same situation, you wouldn’t make the same choice.  Mouthing the words doesn’t relieve you of the burden of sin.  Saying you’re sorry doesn’t relieve you of the burden of sin.  Confessing that you did something terrible in your past to someone else might be psychologically beneficial, but without the conviction that you a) regret the choice, and b) that you wish that you hadn’t done that thing, absolution cannot take place.

As a former teacher, I could always tell when a student who had been caught cheating on a test felt true regret for having done something wrong vs. regret over having been caught.  Yes, as a matter of social convention, we train children to say their sorry even when they don’t mean it, but in adulthood we would want to see a deeper understanding of it.

I’m worried that women will look at the pope’s directives and think “Oh, I had an abortion.  I can be forgiven of it, even though ultimately I’ve reconciled myself to the fact that I did it and I would do it again if I had the same choice.”  A woman with this attitude, despite going through the sacramental process in the confessional, is not truly absolved of her sin.  She lacks the proper attitude to be forgiven.

But Catholic teaching about the sacraments tends to err on the “no man can know what is in another’s heart” side in administering the sacraments.  And I’m glad that women who do truly regret their decisions and feel sorrow for them now have an easier path back into the Church’s fold.  Hopefully, some of the women (and male enablers) who enter the confessional unrepentant will benefit from some time with a priest and be convinced of the real wrongness of their decision.

A cautionary tale though.  There’s a story about St. Phillip Neri, who was preaching during a Jubilee celebration which would have qualified the participants for an indulgence.  Blessed by grace though, the saint saw that only two people in the entire crowded church were actually receiving the indulgence, him and some old lady.  Nobody else had the proper attitude to receive the grace.

I would feel very sorry if the faithful were misled into thinking that showing up at confession and receiving absolution were a strictly physical process instead of, at heart, being the honest weeping of the man crying out “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

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