A few months ago, Pope Francis announced that the sin of abortion can now be forgiven by any Catholic priest, as opposed to requiring the approval of a higher-ranking bishop. Without softening the church’s position that abortion is a grave sin, the move was in keeping with the tone of practical mercy that has defined this papacy.
But Francis’s splashiest moments as pope have not always come through major policy papers or formal bureaucratic changes. This week, in his weekly address to Vatican pilgrims, he made an off-the-cuff comment about abortion that inadvertently revealed a less sympathetic side to his approach. “It’s terrible, it hurts the soul what I heard one time years ago in the diocese of Buenos Aires,” he said. “A woman, a good woman, very, very beautiful and who bragged about her beauty, commented as if it were natural: ‘Yeah, I had to have an abortion because my figure is so important.’”
If the announcement in November set a tone, this week’s comments were tone-deaf. There’s a danger in handwringing too furiously over every stray comment the pope makes on every controversial topic. Obviously Francis wasn’t claiming that significant numbers of women are getting abortions out of simple vanity. He was just repeating an urban legend, in the service of a talk about vanity more broadly, and the error of placing one’s trust in wealth, power, and beauty. He told another story about how fortunetellers sat at little tables in a park he used to walk by in Buenos Aires. For a fee, the “seers” told the same fortunes over and over: “There’s a woman in your life, [or] a man will come … everything will go well.” He called these types of reassurances “a security of—excuse the word—stupidity.”
Unfortunately, vanity and false hope are not the same kind of hot-button political and cultural issues that abortion is. Even Catholic news outlets ran with the abortion anecdote. The Catholic News Agency headlined their story on the address “Pope Francis: having an abortion to keep your figure is a big problem.”
If that wasn’t what the pope meant to say, he still shouldn’t be surprised that it’s what people heard. As the Huffington Post put it, the comments “illustrated just how detached he may be from the realities of women’s lives.” About half of all pregnancies in the United States are unplanned, and women’s responses to those pregnancies vary widely. About a million pregnancies here end in abortion each year. Catholic women make up almost a quarter of abortion patients in America, and the abortion rate among Catholics is about the same as the national average.
In 2013, New York magazine interviewed 26 women who had had abortions. The resulting package of stories should be mandatory reading for anyone on any side of the abortion debate who believes the decision is a simple one. Women told stories about being pressured into the procedure by boyfriends, and about being pressured out of it by surreptitiously anti-choice “crisis pregnancy clinics.” Some were unsentimental, and others remain wracked by guilt. Some were homeless, or dirt poor, or raped, or mentally ill, or already parenting children they could barely care for, or pregnant by abusive men. Others just didn’t feel ready to have kids. The pope’s probably apocryphal scare story did nothing to acknowledge these complicated realities.
As the United States is learning, a propensity for exaggerated anecdotes is much less charming on the world stage than it is in, say, a bar. So, sure, Francis was just being flip in repeating the old second-hand story. But in accusing some women of not taking abortion seriously, he wound up making the same mistake himself.