The girl was nine years old, raped by her own stepfather.
Doctors determined that the girl’s tiny body was too small to bear a child, let alone two, so they scheduled an operation. Although abortion is generally illegal in Brazil, it is allowed in cases of rape and to save a mother’s life. The girl checked into a local hospital, only for the hospital to suddenly announce it was postponing the procedure because of pressure from the Catholic Church.
“God’s law is above any human law,” Archbishop Jose Cardoso Sobrinho of Olinda and Recife announced. “So when a human law … is contrary to God’s law, this human law has no value.” When the nine-year-old received an abortion at another hospital, Cardoso decreed that the girl, her mother and her doctors were all excommunicated. “We consider this murder,” said a lawyer for the archdiocese.
The abortion scandal soon went international. Rino Fisichella, an archbishop at the Vatican and president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, publicly criticized Cardoso and said the excommunications made the church seem “insensitive, incomprehensible and lacking in mercy.”
On June 8, Pope Benedict XVI finally weighed in. Instead of supporting Fisichella, however, Benedict “ordered that a statement be published reaffirming that the church’s teaching on abortion had not changed,” according to Conscience magazine. “Archbishop Fisichella was obliged to issue a clarification, which amounted to a retraction.”
Six years later, however, the Holy See is now a much different place.
On Tuesday, Archbishop Fisichella was back in the news, but this time firmly in line with his boss. During a news conference at the Vatican, Fisichella announced that Pope Francis would be empowering his priests to pardon women for having abortions. Moreover, the Vatican would be sending these “missionaries of mercy” all across the world as part of the Pope’s Jubilee, or Holy Year, of Mercy, which begins in December.
Francis has spoken sharply about abortion, calling it “a sin against God.” But his year of mercy is aimed at bringing back estranged Catholics by emphasizing outreach, even for those who have committed grave sins in the eyes of the church.
Last year, Francis told Catholic bishops in South Africa that “abortion compounds the grief of many women who now carry with them deep physical and spiritual wounds.” He noted, however, that reconciliation “must be rediscovered as a fundamental dimension of the life of grace.”
Fisichella, now the president of the council organizing Holy Year events, said the Pope’s decision was intended “as a concrete sign that a priest must be a man of mercy and close to all.”
The announcement is in line with a number of controversial moves from the Argentine pope. Since his election in 2013, Francis has pushed the church to become more tolerant. He reportedly met with a transgender man at the Vatican, seemed to endorse family planning by saying Catholics don’t need to breed “like rabbits,” indicated that divorced individuals could take communion, and has met with victims of clergy sex abuse.
Most shocking of all, he expressed an openness towards embracing gays and lesbians.
“If they accept the Lord and have goodwill, who am I to judge them?” he said shortly after his election. “They shouldn’t be marginalized.”
The pope’s sometimes seemingly off-the-cuff statements have made him the most popular pontiff in a generation. But they’ve also generated concern from Catholics who feel like the church is moving too much, too soon.
The controversies make more sense, however, now that Francis has outlined his vision for the church. In a papal bull, or official letter, issued last month, the pope outlined the philosophy behind his Jubilee of Mercy.
In a radical shift from the often harsh tone of his predecessor, Pope Benedict, Francis included the word “mercy” no less than 167 times in his letter. The church must be “an oasis of mercy,” he wrote. “The Church’s very credibility is seen in how she shows merciful and compassionate love.”
The bull also outlined Francis’s plan to have priests absolve people of previously unpardonable sins, including abortion.
“During Lent of this Holy Year, I intend to send out Missionaries of Mercy,” he said. “They will be a sign of the Church’s maternal solicitude for the People of God, enabling them to enter the profound richness of this mystery so fundamental to the faith. There will be priests to whom I will grant the authority to pardon even those sins reserved to the Holy See, so that the breadth of their mandate as confessors will be even clearer. They will be, above all, living signs of the Father’s readiness to welcome those in search of his pardon.”
Normally, Holy Years occur once every quarter century. The last one was in 2000 under Pope John Paul II. In March, however, Pope Francis announced plans to hold a special jubilee ten years early. It is only the third special jubilee in church history.
“I trust that this Jubilee year celebrating the mercy of God will foster an encounter with these religions and with other noble religious traditions; may it open us to even more fervent dialogue so that we might know and understand one another better; may it eliminate every form of closed-mindedness and disrespect, and drive out every form of violence and discrimination.
“God’s forgiveness knows no bounds,” Francis wrote. “Thus God is always ready to forgive, and he never tires of forgiving in ways that are continually new and surprising.”