Pope Francis and the wounds of modern man

Published on 19 September in the Jesuit magazine La Civiltà Cattolica was an interview granted to the director of the magazine, Fr. Antonio Spadaro, SJ, by His Holiness Pope Francis, and some of the pope’s statements echoed far and wide in the mass media. These statements were often presented as a radical shift in the Church’s position on bioethical issues, but an attentive reading of the entire interview illustrates just how inexact such interpretations are.

When the Holy Father affirms, “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context.”, it might seem he is no longer giving bioethical issues the same importance given to them by his predecessors, or that he does not share their line of thought and hence people should be prepared for a change in Church doctrine. But the pope immediately goes on to say: “The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time. This is an important clarification: the Church’s thinking and judgments on the principles of bioethics are, or at least should be known. The Holy Father takes them for granted, and does not deem it necessary to constantly recall them, also because he assigns priority to the missionary-pastoral approach, particularly towards persons who are in difficult situations and have “wounds”. This is a principle he also underscored with referring to the perplexities generated by his words during his return flight from Rio de Janeiro: “if a homosexual person is of good will and is in search of God, I am no one to judge”, then adding, “by saying this, I said what the catechism says

What is meant by the words “when we speak about these issues (bioethical ones) we have to talk about them in a context” was made crystal clear by the Holy Father the day after the publication of the interview during the audience granted on 20 September to participants at a conference organized by the International Federation of Catholic Physicians’ Associations on the subject of the protection of maternity. In his speech to them the pope came down hard on the practice of abortion, associating it with a utilitarian vision of life responsible for the ‘culture of discards’: “A widespread mentality of usefulness, the ‘culture of discards’, enslaves the hearts and minds of so many people and has a very high cost: it calls for the elimination of human beings, especially if they are physically or socially weaker. Our response to this mentality is a resolute and unhesitant ‘yes’ to life”.   In this regard the pope cited the Declaration on Procured Abortion issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith on 18 November 1974: “The first right of the human person is his life. He has other goods and some are more precious, but this one is fundamental –  the condition of all the others”. (n°11). The citing of this documents demonstrates the continuity of the Church’s doctrine on abortion, and the fact that the Holy Father, even if he does not speak out to defend bioethical principles every time they come under attack somewhere in the world, clearly puts his thoughts into words when the context is suitable. 

It is also surprising that journalists do not take into due consideration the distinction between sin and sinner: the sin must be condemned, the sinful behavior of a person must be censured, but necessary is an effort to establish contact with that person, recalling that there are no hopeless cases and that there is always the possibility to acknowledge one’s faults and correct oneself. This applies all the more so for those who consider man made in the image and likeness of God, something which no wound can cancel. In addition, even if man may forget God, God does not forget man: “God accompanies persons in their life, and we must accompany them on the basis of their condition”.  If a person has fallen down, he needs someone who may help him to get back on his feet. The task at hand is rather to help these persons by attending to their wounds, seeking to understand the reasons for their behavior. This approach is clearly set forth in a passage of the interview critical of the two risks confessors may run:   The confessor, for example, is always in danger of being either too much of a rigorist or too lax. Neither is merciful, because neither of them really takes responsibility for the person. The rigorist washes his hands so that he leaves it to the commandment. The loose minister washes his hands by simply saying, ‘this is not a sin or something like that. In pastoral ministry we must accompany people, and we must heal their wounds.”

Denying the sin also means ignoring or disregarding the wounds it has opened, and the person thereby does not receive the necessary ‘treatment’. The treating of wounds represents a priority for the Church, and Pope Francis says he clearly sees “that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle

Our society is in a situation of grave crisis and quite fitting is the comparison with a field hospital attending to wounded persons. This judgment contrasts with the current view that celebrates the changes brought about by modernity and alleged “civil rights” as a sort of emancipation, a sign of the progress of civilization.   

Wounds and sufferings are not tackled on the basis of ideological or sociological criteria, but with a personal approach. This also applies for abortion, when, for example, the pope gives the example of a woman with an abortion in her past: “That abortion in her past weighs heavily on her conscience and she sincerely regrets it”.

The Holy Father recalled that in addition to the sacrament of reconciliation, these wounded persons may also need pastoral accompaniment, and, as a psychiatrist, I would add psychotherapeutic support as well, and perhaps even psychiatric assistance. In fact, abortion can also cause very deep wounds, with problems of both morals and conscience, as well as psychological difficulties and psychic disturbances in the true sense of the word.

The concrete reference to the “weight of abortion” evokes one aspect of the abortion issue. Underscored in discussions about abortion over the last few decades have been the possible negative consequences for psychic equilibrium and mental health. Pro life groups refer to this cluster of complications as Post Abortion Syndrome, PAS. This is an incisive and very meaningful  verbal formula, but it is rather imprecise from the viewpoint of scientific terminology.  Syndrome means a clinical situation characterized by a series of precise symptoms.  The psychic complications of abortion, however, are very different with respect to both the moment of onset (right after the abortion, a few weeks, months or years later) and the symptoms (depressive, neurotic, psychosomatic, sexual). Supporters of voluntary abortion minimize the impact of such complications and contest the selfsame thesis about the very existence of the PAS, speculating about the fact that this ‘diagnosis’ is not to be found in statistical and epidemiological studies; in fact, the different complications are classified in various diagnoses without any reference to the possible post-abortion origin.  These supporters also refuse to admit any linkage between the psychic disturbances of women who have aborted and the abortion itself, and therefore forms of therapy that thematise it, while at the same time arguing the advantages of abortion, which would restore psychic equilibrium upset by an undesired pregnancy. The wounds of abortion, however, constitute a pastoral challenge.

In his speech to Catholic physicians the Holy Father referred to the paradoxical situation of modern medicine and the risk that physicians “may lose their own identity as servants of life”, and this due to the fact that “cultural disorientation has also made inroads into what seemed an unassailable ambit: your ambit, medicine!”. This disorientation concerns our culture at large and correcting it must be a priority for the Catholic world, also in order to mount defence against false interpretations of the messages of Pope Francis.

Ermanno Pavesi

Secretarty General

International Federation of Catholic Physicians Associations

(The citations from the Interview were taken from America, The National Catholic Review)