On Tuesday, the Vatican released a letter from Pope Francis outlining his approach to the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, a year-long Catholic celebration emphasizing a message of forgiveness, even for what the church considers the most serious of sins.
Among them: abortion. According to church canon, having an abortion is grounds for automatic excommunication. The punishment is severe, and reserved for only a handful of other acts.
Francis's letter, while unwavering on the church's strict ban on abortion, extends all priests the "discretion" to forgive women who have had abortions, something previously reserved for bishops:
The tragedy of abortion is experienced by some with a superficial awareness, as if not realizing the extreme harm that such an act entails. Many others, on the other hand, although experiencing this moment as a defeat, believe that they have no other option. I think in particular of all the women who have resorted to abortion. I am well aware of the pressure that has led them to this decision. I know that it is an existential and moral ordeal. […]
For this reason too, I have decided, notwithstanding anything to the contrary, to concede to all priests for the Jubilee Year the discretion to absolve of the sin of abortion those who have procured it and who, with contrite heart, seek forgiveness for it.
The letter is clear about the church's condemnation of abortion—which, in direct terms, means that the Catholic hospitals that serve 1 in 6 patients in the U.S. don't offer comprehensive reproductive health care—but also calls for empathy and, notably, recognizes women as moral actors in their decision to terminate a pregnancy. But the language is also stigmatizing and places burdens of sin and contrition on women and women alone.
The letter, like most things when it comes to Pope Francis, women, and reproductive health, is a mixed bag. Interpreting its meaning may just depend on whom you're asking.
"Pope Francis has a much more pastoral, rather than political, approach to abortion," Job O'Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, told Fusion. "Unlike his processors, Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict, I think Francis is genuinely trying to bridge the gulf behind what the hierarchy says and what ordinary Catholics do."
And that gulf, particularly when it comes to reproductive health, is considerable. According to data from the Guttmacher Institute, 99% of Catholic women have used a method of birth control banned by the church at some point in their lives. And Catholic women have abortions at more or less the same rate as women of other faiths and women without a religious affiliation: 28% of women obtaining abortions identify as Catholic.
Considering how little the church's position on reproductive health seems to influence Catholics' choices, the message of the letter may be geared more toward the church hierarchy, O'Brien suggested.
"Catholic women around the world have already worked out that they can make moral and ethical decision about reproductive health," he said. "Catholics know that they can, in good conscience, disagree with the dictates of the bishops and still be good Catholics.
"But the bishops, especially here in the United States, have waged a war over the bodies and lives of women," he continued. "What Francis is showing may be more for his brother bishops than the Catholics in the pews. As a symbol, [the letter] evokes images of sitting down with women and listening to them."
Despite its self-stated commitment to the "dignity of every human being in a way that transforms the culture," the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops opposed the Affordable Care Act—which expanded health coverage to more than 16 million people—because of its contraception requirement. Pope Francis has not waded into the debate over the new healthcare law, but has called access to healthcare "vital" in a recent apostolic exhortation called the Evangelii Gaudium.
The contradictions of the church, particularly between its hierarchy and the average Catholic, is part of why Francis can be such a confounding figure for progressives, including progressive Catholics. He has called the excesses of Capitalism the "dung of the devil," made the injustices of poverty and mass incarceration a central message of papacy, and taken on climate change as a moral issue.
But his positions on reproductive health—while distinctively more empathetic in tone and approach—are still dangerous for women. Because church doctrine on abortion and contraception isn't just about personal conviction, it has very real implications for people's access to care, whether it's the services and health counseling that isn't at Catholic hospitals or the role American bishops play in fighting against employer-based coverage for birth control.
O'Brien calls the pope's positions on reproductive health a major blindspot, one that puts him out of touch with millions of Catholic women whose decisions about their own bodies are a product of—not an obstacle to—their faith. And this is also how I've always understood my family's Catholicism, and what my mother and aunts have told me over the years.
“Every woman has a right to make a decision about her body, and the right to safe medical care. There is no church, no man, no president to stand in the way of that," my aunt, Judith Ceja, told me the last time we talked at length about her views on reproductive health, both as a Catholic and a nurse.
“You have to live your faith, you have to be kind, you have to be compassionate, you have to be respectful,” she explained. “Being pro-choice is a compassionate position. I believe in it because I am Catholic.”
The pope's letter may be inching the church hierarchy ever closer to recognizing what millions of Catholics already know to be true, but may not change much in the lives of real women. After all, many Catholics who have had abortions may not be looking for absolution in the first place.
"Let's be clear," O'Brien laughed, "I don't think Catholic women will be queuing up to ask for forgiveness next year."