The Ragout of Sex

The Holy Father’s recent announcement that he is directing (indeed, encouraging) priests to forgive the sin of abortion quickly became the subject of debate. Unprecedented, said some; nothing new, said others, although the most common response not trumpeted in the media was: Wow, the pope says abortion’s okay!

Or so I fear.

The truth is probably that many people – most not close observers of the Catholic faith (and that includes most Catholics) – took the pope’s pronouncement as another indication of his Christ-like passion for mercy. That’s fine up to a point.

But. . .I wonder if this matter won’t be melded into the larger cultural stew of permissiveness. Here’s what I mean:

In a recent email to a priest friend, I wrote: “I worry that this announcement by Francis may be taken by many to suggest that abortion, while a mortal sin, is like masturbation: no biggie after Confession, so why ever be restrained by guilt?”

Following through on this thought, I consulted WebMD, a generally reliable site – for medical fact not moral theology. Here’s the takeaway on masturbation:

Q: Is masturbation normal?
A: While it once was regarded as a perversion and a sign of a mental problem, masturbation now is regarded as a normal, healthy sexual activity that is pleasant, fulfilling, acceptable, and safe. It is a good way to experience sexual pleasure and can be done throughout life.

Masturbation is only considered a problem when it inhibits sexual activity with a partner, is done in public, or causes significant distress to the person. It may cause distress if it is done compulsively or interferes with daily life and activities.

From a medical point of view, it’s only that second paragraph that has the sting of therapeutic concern. Overall, though, “the medical community considers masturbation to be. . .natural and harmless. . .”


This is where we are. Ninety percent of everybody has masturbated, and closer to 100 percent suspect there’s not a thing in the world wrong with it. I am certainly not endorsing this view, but it’s where we are – part of the cultural context into which the pope’s comments must necessarily fall. And the question is: Will his comments be taken as permissive, in the great ragout of what passes for modern sexual ethics, especially among the young?

Among the most fascinating things about the pope’s pronouncement is the reaction it elicited among moral theologians and canon lawyers. This is because abortion is both a sin and a crime. A crime, you ask, in these United States? It’s a canonical crime, even though civil law permits it and America’s legal authorities endorse it. (“God bless Planned Parenthood,” our Chief Magistrate has said.) When a woman terminates her pregnancy she incurs the sin of abortion (as does a husband or friend who helps her to procure it) but not the crime. So says canon lawyer Edward Peters.

His “In the Light of the Law” is a blog to which I am positively addicted – how could I not be, when he can begin a post by paraphrasing Pascal, “I am sorry to have written a long post on this matter. I did not have time to write a short one.” In his September 1 take on forgiveness for abortion, he indicates that the mother and her abortionist are equally guilty of a mortal sin, but only the latter is also guilty of the crime of abortion (i.e. the act of killing): the mother permits the murder; the abortionist commits it. An interesting point.

Further, as we all know – or think we do – permitting or performing an abortion brings the sanction of excommunication. In every case, Peters notes, this is latae sententiae (automatic, without any formal pronouncement by ecclesiastical authority), which he underscores this way: “there are zero examples of women being formally excommunicated for their abortion . . .”

Another interesting point, made more so by the fact that Dr. Peters is convinced that the latae sententiae excommunication must not be assumed for the woman terminating her pregnancy. It’s a procedural matter, which he explains better than I could, so read his post.

Not quite as provocative as that point is Peters’ chiding [my interpretation] of Francis, whom he assumes is “among those who were trained under the 1917 Code [of Canon Law; revised in 1983], that priests with normal faculties for Confession still cannot absolve from the sin (let alone from the crime) of abortion.” Professor Peters believes priests are so empowered.

Clearly though, if the pope isn’t clear on the norms of canon law, most parish priests are unlikely to be. So one wonders if turning them loose to simply forgive so serious a sin (and, the question of excommunication notwithstanding, it must be forgiven to restore the sinner to full Communion) will only magnify confusion.

And if so serious a sin as the murder of a child may be dealt with in this manner, why, one might ask, are we hyperventilating about Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried? I remain opposed to the Kasperite position that will surely be debated at the synod in October, but the stew, my friends, the ragout! The mélange! Feed my sheep, the Lord told Peter, but surely not soupy gruel. The salt loses its savor.

Once again, your humble correspondent reveals his lack of sophistication in matters pertaining to canon law. Therefore, I ask canonists to weigh in.

Brad Miner is the Senior Editor of The Catholic Thing and a Senior Fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is now available in a third, revised edition from Regnery Gateway and is also available in an Audible audio edition (read by Bob Souer). Mr. Miner has served as a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA and also on the Selective Service System draft board in Westchester County, NY.