It might be hard to believe now, given the recent outcry over Pope Francis’s comments about abortion and forgiveness, but the Catholic Church used to stay out of women’s reproductive systems. Up until the late 1860s, the Church only considered late-term abortions to be a mortal sin; early-term abortions were considered to be basically the same thing as contraception, which was (and still is) a minor sin.
That’s not too surprising when you consider that abortion was legal, at least until the time of “quickening” (approximately the fourth month of pregnancy) pretty much everywhere in the country until the 1870s. Of course, that wasn’t the only difference between abortion now and abortion then; until the beginning of the 20th century, abortion care was primarily provided by midwives, or by women who had learned from their relatives and friends which drugs or herbal methods could terminate a pregnancy.
But even for the next century, right up to the time of Roe v. Wade, many Catholic and Protestant clergy chose compassion and mercy over strict doctrine. In 1967, a group of ministers and rabbis formed the Clergy Consultation Services on Abortion; as the name implied, this organization provided women with referrals to safe providers and helped keep the prices affordable. And, perhaps equally important, the simple fact that rabbis, ministers, pastors, and other religious leaders were even willing to help women find safe abortion care was groundbreaking. By the time Roe was decided, more than 1,400 members of various religions were helping women in their communities find reputable and affordable abortion services.
The Clergy Consultation Services no longer exists in its original form; it’s now known as the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. And it’s in good company; both Faith Aloud and Catholics For Choice are two other organizations that see no conflict in leading lives of faith while advocating for social justice and reproductive rights.
None of these organizations are any match for the words of a pope, of course. So it’s a small wonder that Pope Francis’s reminder to his priests that abortion is actually not an unforgivable sin has resulted in such widespread press coverage ahead of both his first United States visit and the start of the church’s “Holy Year of Mercy.” Never mind that the fanatically anti-abortion Pope John Paul II said the same thing 15 years ago, and then the Church went back to saying that abortion was basically a sin. Because this is coming from a pope who also cares about the environment, does not automatically judge homosexuality, and supports simplifying the annulment process, his statement is being viewed by many as significant shift in how the Church talks about abortion.
But is that really the case? After all, he’s still referring to abortion as something that needs to be forgiven by a priest. Neither Pope Francis nor the Church has suddenly become pro-choice. The Catholic Church’s Year of Mercy is far more about encouraging parishioners to confess their sins than about opening a conversation of what is really a sin —for starters, even in “ordinary” years, local priests are empowered to hear confessions from women and girls who have abortions, just like they are empowered to hear confessions from people who commit actual crimes.
So it’s easy to see the pope’s gesture as simply that—a gesture that carries little meaning or weight in the secular world. It’s easy to talk about how all people, including priests, should be more forgiving and accepting, but leaving in place the religious teachings that cause so many women to think they need forgiveness and acceptance in the first place belies his words. And there’s also the matter that, as admirable as the pope’s focus on lower-income families and economic injustice is, the Catholic Church still roundly insists on calling contraceptive use a sin, which would help alleviate the need for abortion in so many cases.
Still, while his words may be more simplistic than many would like, it would also be too simple to dismiss them entirely. The fact that Pope Francis even paired the words “abortion” and “forgiveness” will likely mean a lot to many Catholic women who have had abortions, as well as women of different faiths who can’t imagine their own religions being that accepting. Part of the reason that abortion has become such a divisive subject in our society is because of the reluctance of people not just to talk honestly about it, but also listen without judgment. Making it clear to women seeking this kind of forgiveness that they can do so—at least between December 2015 and December 2016—is an important step in removing the stigma around abortion.
The Catholic Church has always staked a claim in our most private decisions, and probably always will. Where the Church can be persuaded, though, is in whether it should enlist the government to enforce the Church’s views on all the non-believers (to say nothing of the skeptics in its own pews). Pope Francis’s statement this month is far from an acknowledgement that culture and religious wars should not be waged over women’s bodies. But it is a straightforward admission—to women, and to all priests and bishops—that perhaps that war has gone on for far too long.
Sarah Erdreich is the author of Generation Roe: Inside the Future of the Pro-Choice Movement. She lives with her family in Washington, D.C.