On Feb. 25, 2009, a small girl arrived at the doorstep of a clinic in the Brazilian city of Pesqueira in great pain. Her abdomen was swollen and she complained of headaches, nausea and dizziness. When a doctor examined her, however, he quickly realized that she wasn’t sick. She was four months pregnant — with twins. The girl was nine years old, raped by her own stepfather. Doctors determined that the girl’s tiny body was too small to bear a child, let alone two, so they scheduled an operation. Although abortion is generally illegal in Brazil, it is allowed in cases of rape and to save a mother’s life. The girl checked into a local hospital, only for the hospital to suddenly announce it was postponing the procedure because of pressure from the Catholic Church.
“God’s law is above any human law,” Archbishop Jose Cardoso Sobrinho of Olinda and Recife announced. “So when a human law … is contrary to God’s law, this human law has no value.” When the nine-year-old received an abortion at another hospital, Cardoso decreed that the girl, her mother and her doctors were all excommunicated. “We consider this murder,” said a lawyer for the archdiocese. The abortion scandal soon went international. Rino Fisichella, an archbishop at the Vatican and president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, publicly criticized Cardoso and said the excommunications made the church seem “insensitive, incomprehensible and lacking in mercy.”
On June 8, Pope Benedict XVI finally weighed in. Instead of supporting Fisichella, however, Benedict “ordered that a statement be published reaffirming that the church’s teaching on abortion had not changed,” according to Conscience magazine. “Archbishop Fisichella was obliged to issue a clarification, which amounted to a retraction.” Six years later, however, the Holy See is now a much different place. On Tuesday, Archbishop Fisichella was back in the news, but this time firmly in line with his boss. During a news conference at the Vatican, Fisichella announced that Pope Francis would be empowering his priests to pardon women for having abortions. Moreover, the Vatican would be sending these “missionaries of mercy” all across the world as part of the Pope’s Jubilee, or Holy Year, of Mercy, which begins in December.
Francis has spoken sharply about abortion, calling it “a sin against God.” But his year of mercy is aimed at bringing back estranged Catholics by emphasizing outreach, even for those who have committed grave sins in the eyes of the church. Last year, Francis told Catholic bishops in South Africa that “abortion compounds the grief of many women who now carry with them deep physical and spiritual wounds.” He noted, however, that reconciliation “must be rediscovered as a fundamental dimension of the life of grace.” Fisichella, now the president of the council organizing Holy Year events, said the Pope’s decision was intended “as a concrete sign that a priest must be a man of mercy and close to all.”