Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

The conversion of Pope Francis

By Nancy Scheper-Hughes


Pope Francis (Flickr photo)

When Pope Francis arrives in Ireland this August to officiate at the Vatican’s triennial World Meeting of Families, the pontiff will be landing in a country that has changed almost beyond recognition over his lifetime.

Jorge Mario Bergoglio, S.J, first visited Ireland in 1980 when Ireland was still one of the most observant Catholic countries in Europe. There was no divorce, no contraception and no abortion. There was zero tolerance for pregnancies out of wedlock, and no public gay life in Dublin — let alone in rural towns and villages where homosexuals were sometimes angrily run out of town. Parish priests were allowed to whip school children — the most rambunctious of whom were sent to prison-like industrial schools — while “delinquent” girls who got pregnant were ostracized and sent off to work without pay at the Magdalene Laundries, their infants confiscated. In 1983 the Irish constitution was amended to give the fertilized egg the same right to life as the woman carrying the embryo.

Since that time, Ireland has changed dramatically. Today Ireland (like most of Europe) is a robust democracy guided by strong secular values and a dwindling number of practicing Catholics. Same-sex marriage in Ireland has been legal since 2015, and the current prime minister, Leo Varadkar, is gay with a male partner. Just last month the Irish abortion referendum resulted in a landslide vote (66 percent) for a constitutional amendment that would legalize and support abortion in the first twelve weeks of pregnancy.

Pope Francis has said nothing about the Irish abortion referendum, causing consternation among Catholics on both sides of the abortion issue. What might this silence imply? Francis has shown an evolving and gradualist approach toward political and moral dilemmas such as the global refugee crisis, global warming, poverty as a global social sin and the dangers of unchained global capitalism. His spontaneous and inspired comments on clerical homosexuality, divorced Catholics, or the narcissism and vanity of Vatican Cardinals have routinely knocked the socks off his listeners. “Who am I to judge?” Pope Francis famously said with respect to gay priests, adding: “If they accept the Lord and have goodwill . . . they shouldn't be marginalized. The [sexual] tendency is not the problem. . . . They are our brothers.”

But what about our sisters? Francis has yet to deal with women’s bodies and their messy reproductive dilemmas, especially for women in poverty. He has not been able to integrate his deep concern for the poor and the oppressed with the reproductive needs of women. He cannot comprehend the tragedy of accidental pregnancy for women who are too poor, too young, too old or too overwhelmed by too many children. Or the women whose partners and husbands are often shamed into running away because they cannot support the children they have helped bring into the world, and thus abandon the mothers to be single caretakers until they themselves die.

Women supporting the repeal of Ireland's abortion ban (Getty Images photo)

Yet despite the “joy of mothering” that Francis has attributed to the idealized Catholic mother, the pope is increasingly ambivalent and hesitant about his moral authority on women’s reproductive obligations. The pope’s gradual progression to a moral philosophy of a world free of exploitation — to say nothing of his admiration for intellectual and contemplative women — has led him on a journey of spiritual and material reckoning. Indeed the pope’s silence on the Irish referendum may be the next step in what I have called “the final conversion of Pope Francis.”

The pope’s first conversion on the topic of abortion occurred with the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy (2015-2016), during which Francis announced a “dispensation” to all Catholic women who had “procured” (his word) an abortion. In honor of the Jubilee Year, the pope would allow ordinary priests rather than bishops to absolve and forgive women who confessed and regretted their mortal sin of abortion. He declared: “I henceforth grant to all priests ... the faculty to absolve those who have committed the sin of procured abortion....I wish to restate as firmly as I can that abortion is a grave sin, since it puts an end to an innocent life. In the same way, however, I can and must state that there is no sin that God’s mercy cannot reach and wipe away when it finds a repentant heart seeking to be reconciled with the Father. May every priest, therefore, be a guide, support and comfort to penitents on this journey of special reconciliation.”

Shortly after this announcement, I was asked during a public radio interview about the pope’s proclamation. I explained that the special Jubilee Year of Mercy was helpful to many women. Abortion was treated by the Catholic Church as a particularly heinous sin, one that automatically excommunicates women from the church. Since most women would not want or be able to confess to a bishop or archbishop, many Catholic women had kept their secret to themselves and complicated the situation by receiving holy communion along with their husbands and children so as to not give scandal to their parish, their family, and their friends. This led to a terrible double bind since the original mortal sin then turns into a sacrilege. The fact that Pope Francis had just announced a new “pathway” to reconciliation for these Catholic women was the beginning of a negotiation of sorts.

But a caller during the radio show, a man named Rubin from Brooklyn, illustrated the limits of the popular understanding of the Year of Mercy. Rubin and his wife are both Catholics, and she had an abortion some years ago. “I am the one who shares the guilt,” Rubin said, “and I am thinking about all those men like me. I mean we are also responsible; we made that decision together. I was the breadwinner, and I freaked out when my wife got pregnant. We had three small kids and I said, ‘Annie, we can’t do this now.’ It was awful, and I, well, can I also get absolution? Is that available to us men?”

The more Rubin talked about his isolation and shame about what he had done, the more I felt complicit. So, in solidarity with the guilt-ridden man, I revealed an abortion I had when I was of a certain age and already had three children in college and high school. My husband was frantic and as guilt-ridden as Rubin. Michael cursed himself for not having a vasectomy after our third child was born. My doctor was no nonsense and all but drove us directly to the family-planning clinic. It was an early abortion, but for years I asked the little guy — though I didn’t know its sex — to forgive me. I wasn’t concerned about God at that moment, but I do sometimes still think of an accidental gift that was turned down.

I told Rubin he could probably ask a priest in confession for forgiveness, and he would probably get it — the dispensation also applied to “those directly involved in the procedure” — but that it was strange that Pope Francis presented this option as if it only applied to women. Francis, I said, was on a journey, and the “exceptional” dispensation, though limited, would be part of a longer process. The pope often referred to “throwaway” cultures that turn everything into an object, including an embryo or fetus seen as excess human tissue. But if abortion is a sin, it seemed to me that it is only so when the decision to end a pregnancy is equal to the decision to extract a tooth — that is to say casual, normalized or what Hannah Arendt would call “unthinking.”

The morality of abortion is based on what liberation theology priests and nuns in Brazil call conscientizaçao — radical consciousness and critical thinking. The decision to end a pregnancy concerns more than a single, individual body just as raising a child takes a social world with “good enough” love and care to feed and nourish the body, mind, and spirit of a little criatora (little creature).

Francis’s concept of “throwaway” embryos as rejected fetal packages of DNA has merit, but, as poor Brazilian women often reminded me, the real throwaway babies are the millions of unwanted “rubbish children” who roam the streets, slums and waterways searching for their next meal. Those that manage to survive become the throwaway street kids who all too often end up as a hired gun for a death squad or a neighborhood gang. Street kids are hated and resented for the very air that they breathe.

The other side of this argument, however, concerns the recognition of life in an embryo. Here, the midwives of northeast Brazil have a valuable perspective. In the urban slums and rural favelas, they often see dead or dying “angel babies” who were fated to premature death by hunger, disease or passive neglect in the face of everyday violence. As they understand it, not every fetus or embryo has the force, the will or the desire to survive. These curiosas, or wise women, understood that every little embryo had a soul, but was not yet a person, not yet a baby, and certainly not yet a citizen.

The midwife-abortionist, not the prostitute, is perhaps the oldest profession. According to tradition, Saint Brigid, a patron saint of Ireland, was an early Christian nun, abbess and founder of several monasteries of Christian nuns, including the famous monastery of Kildare. She is likely a mythological figure who shared her name and her mystical powers with a Celtic goddess, and she is situated somewhere between paganism, Druidism and Christianity. She is the patron saint of brewers (she could turn water into strong beer) and patron saint of midwives, babies, pregnant women and of children born to single mothers.

One of the miracles attributed to Saint Brigid was her magical intervention on behalf of a nun who failed to keep her vow of chastity and became pregnant “through youthful desire of pleasure and her womb swelled large with a child.” She called on Saint Brigid, who was also a midwife, and the holy woman blessed the nun’s belly “causing the child to disappear, without coming to birth, and without pain.” Brigid returned the woman to health and to penance. One could say that Saint Brigid is the patron saint of holy abortionists.

Because criatoras are ensouled but not yet human, the Catholic midwives with whom I lived and studied in northeast Brazil saw embryos and fetuses differently than most people. Sometimes criatoras were described as little birds whose trajectory might be a short passage on Earth on their way to a spirit world, somewhere in-between purgatory and limbo. Poor Brazilian mothers were sometimes turned away by priests who refused to baptize their dead or dying infants — those “angel babies” who were fated to premature death. The priests would say that “Jesus does not want any more angel babies,” to which these women would shake their heads and ask me: “If Jesus doesn’t want our angel babies, who else could want them?”

Padre "Fernando" was one such priest who told me he could no longer bear having to baptize angel babies. He asked me for help. He wanted me to tell “the poor within the poor” — the women who said their babies “wanted to die” — about birth control. “All of it,” he instructed me, meaning the pill, the devices, even the morning after pill. “But padre,” I said, “the morning after pill would be an abortion.” The padre replied: “You can tell them in detail every form of family planning and then at the end of the training, you can say that only the ineffective ‘billings method’ is approved by the pope.”

I wonder if Pope Francis is aware of priests such as Padre Fernando and the midwives in Brazil. If he is, it is possible his silence with respect to the Irish referendum is a silence of defeat. When Argentina’s Congress was preparing and analyzing a law to decriminalize abortion earlier this spring, for instance, Francis sent a letter to all Argentines imploring them to defend unborn life. He asked his compatriots to “make your contribution in the defense of life and justice,” and for the Argentine people to “improve the world with your work [and] to take care of the weakest.” At the end of the letter, the pope apologized to Argentines saying, “for those who may feel offended by some of my gestures, I ask your forgiveness. I can assure you that my intention is to do good and that at my age my interests have little to do with me personally.”

What the pope had feared and perhaps already predicted was that on June 14 the lower house of Congress narrowly approved the bill that would allow Argentine women to terminate pregnancies during the first 14 weeks of life. The new law would provide “free and safe” abortions to anyone that required them. Argentina is now poised to become the third nation in Latin America — after Cuba and Uruguay — to legalize abortion.

Pope Francis’s grappling with the problem of women, mothers and their reproductive struggles is surely a work in progress. He recently stated that caring for refugees was as “holy” as opposing abortion. But engaging with the Irish public in August will be an interesting test. Indeed, there are warnings of protests and demonstrations when the Holy Father arrives.

The World Meeting of Families, after all, is a conservative initiative from Pope John Paul II; its intent is to gather together bishops, clergy, nuns, theologians, scholars, “experts” and Catholic families from around the world to “strengthen the bonds between families and bear witness to the crucial importance of marriage and the family to society.” Yet there is still deep anger and resentment — especially in Ireland — toward the sins of the church regarding the clerical sex abuse scandal and the suffering of generations of pregnant women who were treated as social outcasts.

Most recently, in 2017, the bodily remains of 800 “illegitimate” babies were discovered in mass graves at the former Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home, a maternity home for unmarried mothers and their children that operated between 1925 and 1961, in County Galway. A government-led committee uncovered an underground structure divided into some 20 chambers containing “significant quantities of human remains,” and a forensic team determined that these thrown-away babies ranged in age from three months to three years, most of them in the 1950s.

Some mothers who had been housed at the Mother and Baby Home in Tuam have begun to show their faces, and they have the support of the Irish government and of Irish human rights organizations. How could these scandals have been hidden for so many years? How could Irish priests and nuns have created such cruel institutions in the name of Jesus and Mary?

Maybe the pope’s current silence is the silence of compassion and solidarity. In his encyclical Laudato Si on the environment and sustainable development, Francis writes that “we have to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.” Perhaps the final conversion of Pope Francis will lead him to care as much about suffering mothers — the cries of poor women who are forced by a moral imperative to reproduce again and again — as about suffering Sister Earth. Hopefully the pope will come to understand that while some abortions are done without reflection, and too casually, others are done with sadness and with love for the children a mother can already barely nurture, feed, clothe and shelter.

In his Apostolic Letter “Misericordia et Misera” (November 2016) Francis wrote that everyone needs consolation because no one is spared suffering, pain and misunderstanding, and that silence can be healing:

Sometimes too, silence can be helpful, especially when we cannot find words in response to the questions of those who suffer. A lack of words, however, can be made up for by the compassion of a person who stays at our side, who loves us and who holds out a hand. It is not true that silence is an act of surrender; on the contrary, it is a moment of strength and love. Silence too belongs to our language of consolation, because it becomes a concrete way of sharing in the suffering of a brother or sister.

Maybe, at the end of his silence, he will tell a repentant woman who had an abortion that God loves her just as she is. Maybe we will hear him say, “Who am I to judge these women?”

Crossposted from the Boston Review