Bishop Hying

Christians are challenged to truly build and foster a culture of life

      Recently, Pope Francis announced that all priests throughout the world have the necessary permission to “absolve the sin of abortion” during the upcoming Year of Mercy. Based on comments and questions I heard from many people, there appears to be some confusion about what this news actually means. 

      Like individuals who commit other serious sins, Catholics who procure an abortion (including doctors, boyfriends or parents) suffer the penalty of excommunication from the Church. This means they are not able to receive the sacraments until the sin is absolved in confession and the penalty is lifted by the local bishop. For the penalty of excommunication to apply, however, the individual has to be aware of the penalty before procuring the abortion. Similarly, abortion is objectively a mortal sin, but the individual’s personal culpability varies widely, based on the circumstances. Many women are pressured or even forced by others to have an abortion; psychological and emotional trauma and stress often preclude individuals from thoughtfully and prayerfully discerning such a grave decision.

      Here, in most if not all of the dioceses in the United States, the local bishop has long granted permission to his priests to lift the excommunication penalty themselves when the sin of abortion is confessed; the situation does not have to be referred to the bishop.

      This current pastoral practice in our country means that the pope’s decision has no practical effect on how we minister to individuals wounded by abortion; in other words, we have already been doing for years what the pope proposes during this Year of Mercy for the whole Church. 

      What the pope’s announcement does notmean is that somehow abortion was not forgivable before this or will not be after the Year of Mercy ends, as some people have interpreted what they heard or read.  There is no special window of mercy that is only available for a limited time. As the Church prophetically proclaims the sanctity of all human life and condemns abortion as a grave sin, so equally she lifts up the mercy of God poured out in Jesus Christ which is readily available for those who seek forgiveness through repentance and a change of heart. 

      Pope Francis has spoken often about our “throw-away culture” and how many persons, including the unborn, the poor, the elderly, immigrants and the incarcerated are discarded, rejected and marginalized.  Mother Teresa frequently said that the greatest human poverty was the overwhelmingly sad experience of being unwanted and unloved.

      In my priestly ministry, I have been blessed to encounter many women and men who have been scarred by the tragedy of abortion and were looking for healing, peace and forgiveness. I have come to learn the complexity of this social and moral issue, the myriad factors and circumstances that influence such a decision and the heartbreak that accompanies the abortion of an unborn child. I have walked with many people as they found new hope and joy, came to believe in God’s forgiveness and embraced the often slow process of forgiving themselves. These graced experiences have made me more profoundly “pro-life” because I have seen first-hand how abortion not only takes an innocent human life but also scars and wounds the web of people and relationships around that unborn child. There are better and life-giving choices.

      As followers of Christ, we are challenged to truly build a culture of life where every human person is welcomed, wanted and loved, where all mothers and fathers, regardless of the circumstances of the conception of their child, choose for life because there is a supportive community of love, a web of practical help and morally good options surrounding them. It is never enough to be simply against abortion; we must generously work for the flourishing of families and individuals who are mired in poverty and despair. I am heartened by the wonderful efforts of the Women’s Care Center, the Carmelite Home, Nazareth House, St. Monica House and Sojourner Truth House, just to mention a few local organizations here in our diocese. We all need to sacrificially support these life-saving works.

      If you are carrying the wounds and guilt of an abortion, if you have been too afraid to confess your burden to a priest, if you are still struggling with believing and accepting the forgiveness of God, now is the time to reach out for God’s mercy and love. Trust the goodness of God, have confidence that the priest will not scold or condemn you, courageously lay down your burden and know the infinite and perfect love that God has for you!

       As St. Paul tells us, now is the moment of salvation; now is the time of mercy.

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