Pope Francis Is Right and Wrong on Abortion and Mercy

Russell D. Moore
Russell D. Moore

In recent weeks Pope Francis made headlines by announcing that Catholic women who have had abortions, and are repentant, may receive forgiveness during this “Year of Mercy” by going directly to any priest for confession, without the direct authorization of the bishop. As an evangelical, this news focused in on the areas where I most agree and where I most disagree with the bishop of Rome. More importantly, the way this news was received ought to tell us as evangelical Protestants something about our responsibility for gospel witness.

Let me start with where I think the Pope is right. He is right that the abortion of an unborn child is a grave sin, one that needs forgiveness. In this, we have not only the witness of Scripture about the humanity of the unborn and the prohibition on murder, we also have what the Apostle Paul calls “the law written on the heart” (Rom. 2:15). He is also right that the church’s mission must be one of mercy. As is always the case when one speaks of mercy and grace, some wrongly interpret this as the Pope’s “shifting” on abortion, but this only goes to demonstrate how alien the concept of forgiveness of sin has become in the world around us. Pope Francis is rightly admired as a man of deep compassion for those in broken situations.

That said, the Pope’s pronouncement reminds those of us who are convictional Protestants of what we are, in fact, “protesting” against after these 500 years. In Roman Catholic theology, the church is the dispensary of the grace of God through its sacraments and rites. This is at the heart of Martin Luther’s theses against the medieval church for the selling of indulgences, which were also from the pronouncement of the Pope and also for the forgiveness of sin. The very conversation brings up just about every fracture between Roman Catholics and evangelical Protestants—from the papacy to the doctrine of the church to, most fundamentally, the question that prompted Mr. Luther’s protest in the first place: “What shall I do with my guilt?”

In an evangelical doctrine of the church, apostolic authority adheres not in a succession of bishops but in the ongoing witness of the apostolic writings—the Bible. The Apostle Paul’s authority, for instance, did not come from the other apostles but from his encounter with Christ Jesus and from the content of his gospel (Gal. 1:11-2:10). Forgiveness comes not from a system of rites and clergy but from a personal encounter, by faith, with the content of the gospel of the blood and righteousness of Jesus Christ. The sinner who looks to Christ, as offered in his atonement for sin, is forgiven, full stop (Jn. 3:14-17). The entire point of Paul’s letters to the Romans and to the Galatians is that the sacrifice of Christ is received by the sinner through faith. The entire point of the epistle to the Hebrews is that Christ Jesus now serves as high priest, standing and interceding before God with his own blood, for any sinner who comes to him by faith. The church bears witness to this gospel and recognizes those who are defined by it through baptism and the discipline of the church, but the church stands under the gospel, not as the dispensary of it. The Spirit blows where he wills.

Here’s why this is important. The Pope recognizes that there are many whose consciences are weighted down by the sin of abortion. This is true, I would add, not only of women who have had abortions but also of men who have participated in these as well. Often these consciences are further weighted down by the secrecy of the act, secrecy that breeds shame. Because these women and men feel alone in their guilt, they sometimes feel as though their sin is unforgivable, as though they really aren’t included in the “whosoever will” of the gospel call.

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Russell Moore serves as the eighth president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, the moral and public policy agency of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.

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