When Catherine Adair heard Pope Francis’ announcement Tuesday that all priests can now formally absolve women who have had abortions, she said that tears of gratitude ran down her face. It has been more than a quarter-century since Adair, then an unwed 20-year-old, had an abortion because she felt she had no choice.
“The pope is saying the church knows that you are in pain and suffering, and we don’t know the reasons you may have made this choice,” said Adair, now a 46-year-old mother of five who lives in Ashburnham. “The church is letting you know God loves you and you’re worthy.”
The joy she felt on Tuesday was in stark contrast to the shock she felt years ago when she learned that Catholic women like herself, who had abortions, were excommunicated for violating church doctrine. After she married, Adair returned to Mass but wouldn’t take communion or go to confession because she felt unworthy.
“It felt harsh to me at the time,” she said. “I understood it, but it hurt.”
Catholic women expressed surprise Tuesday that priests can’t already grant forgiveness during confession to a woman who has had an abortion. “I just assumed for whatever sin you committed, you went to confession, and the priest would advise you of the penance, and you performed it,” said Donna Doucette, a lifelong Catholic who attends the Paulist Center in Boston.
In fact, Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, archbishop of the Archdiocese of Boston, released a statement Tuesday night that said bishops in the United States have long been able to empower priests to grant absolution.
“Under the provisions of canon law, absolution of certain sins, including abortion, was reserved to the diocesan bishop,” O’Malley said. “For many years in the United States, including the Archdiocese of Boston, diocesan bishops have granted their priests the faculty to absolve the sin of abortion.”
Still, many Catholics are reacting with relief to the pope’s call for priests to absolve women who have had abortions — if the women are contrite and seek forgiveness. The pope’s remarks were in reference to any absolutions sought during the upcoming Holy Year of Mercy, which begins Dec. 8 and lasts until November 2016, according to the Vatican.
The pope’s announcement comes as he prepares to visit the United States in late September, and is seen as an effort to attract women back to the Catholic Church.
Doucette believes the pope’s letter on abortion is further proof that women in the church continue to be treated differently from men. “It seems to me that the church has created a hierarchy of sins and that anything a woman would do is more serious than what a man would do, including abortion and divorce,” said Doucette, who stressed that she was not speaking for Voice of the Faithful, a group of progressive Catholics that she leads.
“I don’t believe in abortion, but I am sure that I have cousins, that I have nieces, who have faced dilemmas and who have made other choices,” she said. “And they’re good people. They shouldn’t be carrying that burden.”
Mary Akoury, a retiree and parishioner at St. Albert the Great in Weymouth, does not support abortion rights but agrees with Doucette that the Catholic Church treats its men and women differently.
“I keep going back to how the church handled the priest sex abuse issue,” said Akoury. “I perceive a double standard for the men who do not follow the moral and ethical values of the church versus the women who don’t. I know women who have made the abortion decision, and it’s not an easy one, and there are some who don’t feel they have sinned.”
Planned Parenthood released a statement Tuesday stating that although the pope’s letter is “a step in the right direction,” abortion is a part of women’s health care “and not something that women should be shamed or judged for, or should need to seek forgiveness about.’’
“The truth is that three in 10 women in the US have an abortion by the age of 45,” said Eric Ferrero, spokesman for Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Women’s reactions, he said, range from relief to sadness, but the vast majority do not regret their decision.
According to a new study that tracked hundreds of women who had abortions, more than 95 percent felt it was the right decision, Ferrero said. The study, by Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health, found that the feelings of relief outweighed any negative emotion, even years later.
Catholics for Choice, which formed in 1973 to support a woman’s right to choose, praised the pope’s “far more pastoral, not political, approach to abortion.” In a statement Tuesday, the group’s president, Jon O’Brien, said that Catholic women have abortions “at the same rate as those of other faiths and no faith.”
While praising the pope’s symbolic outreach, O’Brien said that the limitations of his statement — having a particular year of forgiveness — “suggests that he still has a blind spot when it comes to women and what they want.”
But O’Brien believes the pope may be sending his bishops a message as much as lay Catholics. “This is a warning shot fired across the bow to the bishops who have waged culture war over the bodies and lives of women,” O’Brien said. “This is a pope who is not stuck in the pelvic zone, and perhaps his message on how he thinks about abortion is more for his brother bishops than Catholics in the pew.”
At Providence College, four sophomore women who started class Tuesday were discussing the pope’s message. “We don’t see abortion as a mortal sin,” said one 19-year-old who didn’t want her name used because the school is Catholic. “We think it should be a woman’s right to choose. And we think it’s important that priests are able to forgive such women.”