In September, Pope Francis made headlines when he announced that all priests worldwide will be allowed to hear confessions and forgive women who have had abortions. Cheryl Calire, diocesan director of Pro-Life Activities, discussed this matter and said this will not have a significant effect on Diocese of Buffalo policy, but is an important step toward making the Church more welcoming.
On Sept. 1, Pope Francis referred to the choice women face when considering the possibility of having an abortion as an "agonizing and painful decision," but reiterated the Church's stance against abortion will not change. Nevertheless, this sparked debate on canon law and what the Church has to say about women who have had at least one abortion.
"We're still defining and redefining that today," Calire said. "Depending on the news article that you read, there are a lot of different takes on it, and we've actually been fielding many phone calls and emails just for clarification purposes so people can understand. It is a complicated issue. There is canon law written in regard to the abortion issue. However, there are a few ways for that law to be interpreted, and therefore it has been interpreted differently by different dioceses."
Calire said parishioners have asked her if the pope's statement means they were not supposed to have been forgiven if they went to a priest in the diocese and already received absolution for a prior abortion. Canon law states that the ordinary, or a diocesan bishop, does have the authority to grant faculties to their parish priests if they so desire. This has been the practice in Buffalo since Bishop Edward D. Head was bishop from 1973-1995 so Pope Francis' new statement does not change any Church practices here.
"For our area, that is not something that would gravely change," Calire said. "However, there are different areas of the country where they were following more of the reasoning that people would have to actually go to their bishop, or they would have to write to the Holy See. It's kind of created some awareness from an educational standpoint, to let people know that there's a little more to the Church teaching then it being just cut-and-dry, and there are different circumstances and actually specific rules written."
Since there are many dioceses in the United States, some have interpreted canon law in different ways. With even more dioceses throughout the world, this has resulted in even more confusion. In Calire's opinion, however, Pope Francis' statement means that with the Year of Mercy coming up, "There is mercy for everyone, including such grave sins as the abortion issue," she said.
In a broad sense, Calire said, what the Church and the pope are trying to say is that every person is welcome in the Church, regardless of what he or she has done in the past.
Calire said this has special meaning in a society where many former Catholics feel they are not welcome in their local parishes and have turned away from the Church. Pope Francis is trying to encourage people who feel this way to come back.
"I think if you read further into what he is saying, it is to bring people back to Christ," Calire said. "It's not something the Church looks upon as OK. It's more that we're trying to offer that mercy and forgiveness."
Calire tied Pope Francis' message in with Project Rachel, the Church's outreach to women who have had abortions. Deacon Michael Dulak, who works with Project Rachel, said there will be a Day of Hope and Healing, a spiritual retreat, on Nov. 14 at Christ the King Seminary in East Aurora. These retreats are confidential and reservations can be made via the Pro-Life Office at 716-847-2205.
"This has always been a mission of the Church to proclaim the mercy of Jesus," Deacon Dulak said. "St. Paul tells us in Scriptures, we are masters of that mercy, and we've received it so we offer it to everyone, no matter what the sin. It's not to say that some sins are not grave - some sins are very serious. But no matter how serious, the mercy of Jesus can wash that away."
Calire said after Pope Francis' comments, other calls she has received have raised questions the Office of Pro-Life Activities had not previously thought about and opened more issues.
Calire received a call from a woman who confessed to a priest about this issue before moving to this area. She asked for clarification on whether this confession was valid. The woman said she wouldn't know how to locate the priest from whom she received absolution.
"It does raise other questions," Calire said. "I advised her she should definitely speak to another priest for her own peace of mind, but at the end of the day, in her good conscience, she went to confession and felt that absolution was given."
When asked about the impact Pope Francis' statement has on the average Catholic, Calire said the faith is so rich, and there is so much in its teaching, that regardless of level of faith there are always new things for people to learn. Many people do learn something new every day, she added, and it is not just women who go to confession with this issue, but men, some of whom Calire has met through her work.
"Something to keep in mind is that a conservative estimate is that three out of every 10 women will have had an abortion by the time they're through with their childbearing years," Deacon Dulak said. "Not only that, but for every woman who had an abortion, there's a father. People who have been involved in abortions - that will always be. They can't change that, but that decision doesn't have to define who they are."