Damian Thompson

The Times on Pope Francis and abortion: the worst piece of religious reporting ever?

The Times on Pope Francis and abortion: the worst piece of religious reporting ever?
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The headline on page 33 of today's Times reads: 'Repent and we will forgive abortions, Pope tells women'. It's a bad headline, because the Church already grants absolution to women who repent of their abortions. CNN did much better: 'Pope Francis says all priests can forgive women who've had abortions'. (In fact, the Church teaches that God does the forgiving, but 'priests can forgive women' is OK as shorthand.)

That said, headlines aren't written by reporters, so you'd expect the Times article to set the record straight. On the contrary: Tom Kington, the author, litters his piece with ignorant misrepresentations of Francis's ruling. When you consider what a sensitive subject this is, and that the Pope's announcement has implications for a community of more than a billion people, that's indefensible.

I'm going to fisk bits of his report. (Note to non-British readers: 'fisking' means interrupting a dodgy article with criticisms. It's named after Robert Fisk, a British war reporter whose more, ahem, imaginative articles cry out for line-by-line exegesis.)

Vatican: Tom Kington

The Pope has ordered priests to pardon any woman who seeks forgiveness for past abortions as part of plans for his Holy Year starting in December.

No. The Pope can't 'order' any priest to pardon any sin. As his statement makes clear, he is giving all priests the discretion to absolve the sin of abortion (of which more later). That's how Confession works: priests must make a judgment as to whether the sinner has truly repented. Normally this is taken for granted, but the priest is entitled to withhold absolution and is more likely to do so in the case of serious sins.

His order ... will spare women the normal punishment of excommunication if they have had a termination and marks another sign of his compassionate approach to sinners.

More misinformation. Anyone who has had or procured an abortion, unless they did so under duress, is automatically excommunicated – so long as they understood that abortion is a self-excommunicating offence. (Pretty important caveat there.) That hasn't changed. Likewise, any woman properly absolved of the sin of abortion is no longer excommunicated. The complicating factor is that a priest must have the authority to lift the excommunication as well as forgive the sin. Most priests in the West have this authority, delegated by their bishop. In some dioceses, lifting the excommunication is still 'reserved' to the bishop. During the Holy Year, all priests everywhere can exercise the discretion (see above) to lift the excommunication along with absolving the sin.

The papal ruling has no limits – it does not matter when she aborted – but she must seek forgiveness during the Holy Year to be absolved.

Nonsense. Absolution for abortion and lifting of any excommunication will be available to every repentant sinner after the Holy Year, just as they were before. But – unless Francis decides to extend make the new arrangement permanent, which is possible – in those dioceses where the bishop previously had to give specific permission for the lifting of the excommunication, the old rules will apply.

I'm not nitpicking here. Kington's statement that 'she must seek forgiveness during the Holy Year to be absolved' is misreporting, plain and simple, on a supremely delicate topic that 'the paper of record' doesn't know the first thing about.

Then Kington decides to put his own spin on the Pope's words:

However he drew short of saying that abortion was no longer a sin...

Drew short? Francis makes it perfectly clear that abortion is a grave sin. Indeed, the whole point of his relaxation of the 'reserved' rule (which generally doesn't apply) is to tell people that God's mercy is available to those who have committed the most serious sins imaginable.

Kington does quote a couple of people who know what they're talking about, but far too low down in the article to negate the effect of his false claims. And his confusion continues until the last paragraph:

To be readmitted to the church, it is customary for the woman to be asked to perform some penance, such as making a pilgrimage, along with seeking absolution.

Uh? Any Catholic can tell you that absolution for any sin is nearly always followed by penance. As for asking women forgiven the sin of abortion to go on pilgrimage, it's possible, but an experienced priest I consulted – who has granted absolution for abortion – said he'd 'never heard of such a thing – it would be inappropriate given how traumatised these women already are'.

So there you have it: a culpably ignorant article in The Times, which since the great Clifford Longley left over 20 years ago has acquired a reputation for misreporting Catholic news stories. But never as badly as this.